South Brooklyn Badlands and a Bar with No Name

I’m standing at a bar, pushing my luck. I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m wearing out my welcome. Currently in New York City, I’m allowed to order a drink at the bar, but not drink it there. Mask on, distance observed, I’m supposed to order and pay, then take my drink and get the hell out. But I want to sit here. I want to lean back in a rickety stool, eavesdrop on neighbours’ conversations, maybe pass an eye over some sport I don’t care about on the TV in the corner, spin a beer mat between my fingers, and order another one. That’s what neighbourhood bars were invented for.

  I arrived in Sunset Park uncharacteristically early, to give myself time to poke around. It’s a fair hike from my part of town— a good 30 minutes on the N train over the Manhattan bridge, down through swanky Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, past the cemetery, and into South Brooklyn— so I’ve only made it out here a handful of times. For a very hot minute I even had a steady, if soul-crushing, gig at a Chinese restaurant, playing jazz standards in the face of requests for something “popular.” But every time I visit I’m delighted— this neighbourhood is a trip. Like most of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, demographics have shifted gradually but surely over the years: Irish, Polish, Italians, Norwegians moving in and out. Midway through the 20th Century, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans moved in; and in the 80s Sunset Park became home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown.

 Last time I was here, maybe a year ago, 8th Avenue was heaving with shoppers and workers, a chaotic, noisy, shouting, jostling tangle of humanity. It felt like Saturday morning in Hong Kong, but also unmistakably New York— this is what streets all around this city used to feel like before they were taken over by beautiful people taking photos of themselves. Wide open storefronts with vendors out front bellowing the day’s specials, shoppers running a skeptical eye over the precarious piles of fruit and veg, the jaw dropping array of flapping, wriggling seafood; clothing, electronics, restaurants, food carts; all relentlessly bustling. And hardly anyone who looked like me. It seemed like every corner was home to a vegetable or fish market; spiky stinky durian in string bags dangling from the awnings, frogs and crabs leaping to freedom from plastic buckets. 

 Somehow I was expecting the same this time as I surfaced from the subway. Had I forgotten about the virus? Despite the news, I somehow get so used to the bleak reality directly around me, I think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Surely if I make the trek to another country, another city, even another borough it’ll all be different. And of course in Chinatown, the opposite is devastatingly true. I remember before we had any idea of the spread of the virus, it was still a Chinese problem; I heard reports that people were boycotting Chinese restaurants around the world, using the pandemic to excuse their racism. So of course, now Sunset Park is a wind blown, dusty, tumbleweed ghost town. Store fronts are shuttered, many never to return; twisted strands of tinsel hang forlorn from power lines, maybe left over from January New Year festivities. Walking past the overflowing trash cans and piles of empty boxes, some of the smells still linger– it would take decades for the smell of the fish markets to blow away; and from the small, neat homes, a waft of incense and Chinese medicinal herbs remind me of the time an old girlfriend convinced me to travel every week to Flushing (ironically for a stomach complaint) to poke out my tongue and receive a bag of twigs and desiccated spiders.

 I cross 60th street and stop. In front of me is the glorious S——- Tavern, the end point of this sentimental journey, and I want to take it in for a moment. It’s not a beautiful facade, but unpretentious if nothing else. A squat little building; a cranky tired face of exposed red brick, neon shamrocks in its eyes, its name stamped on its forehead like a drunken prank. American, Irish, and Norwegian flags hang listlessly over the closed green door; and the ubiquitous sign: “no mask, no entry.”

 I push in. Waiting at the bar is my attorney, chatting to a bartender whose mask portrays a grotesque broken-toothed leer, the rest of him not pretty enough for this to be convincingly ironic. A beer and a whiskey appear in front of me— the only reasonable order in a bar like this— and I breathe it all in: the old beer smell that even four months out of business can’t erase, the dusty Irish knick knacks, Chinese guys playing darts, Irish at the bar (Tuesday morning is for the Norwegians); muted classic rock from the ancient jukebox, elbow grooves in the dinged up old wooden bar. There’s wood everywhere, but not the artfully distressed beams and lavish polished oak you see at the Irish behemoths in the city; just old lumber, worn smooth by years of human occupation. The S——- Tavern is a joyously friendly mutt where a shared love of booze and darts leads to a harmony the world outside the green door struggles with. My attorney chats with another local about their favourite local places, now gone, like the Chino-Latino restaurant unluckily named Corona– shuttered within the first week. They saw the writing on the wall. Our masked bartender, after casually revealing that his day job is addiction counselling, brings me another round.

I complain often and lustily about the dearth of good bars in NYC, but as usual my outlook is blinkered  and I forget to look beyond Manhattan and my own little yuppified hood. Out in the real world, they still exist, and South Brooklyn has some standouts. We’ll do a tour one day soon.

 We settle our tab and tell our man we might be back later- who knows how this night will play out. We pour out onto 8th avenue and head south- we’ve got an appointment at a Yemeni restaurant a mile or so away. But at 61st street we’re almost physically yanked around the corner by the smell coming from a battered old food cart. It’s Chinese barbecue. Smoke pours from the chimney, from the service window, from cracks in the corners of the roof; it’s sweet and thick, and immediately transports us back to tours of duty playing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong. We join the line of intent, hungry locals, and eventually score a bag of good stuff to fuel the next leg of the adventure. Charred squid, whole mackerel on a stick, chicken wings— smoky, intense and delicious. They’re all sent down to meet the beer sloshing around downstairs, and we roll off into the night.


 

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Quarantine Dreams pt 2

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m standing in front of my open fridge, staring mindlessly at the same sad selection of wilting food I stared at yesterday and the day before. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually edging my way through the crowds at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Geylang, Singapore. It’s a squat, two level concrete pile, open to the elements on all sides; it feels a little like a converted parking garage. Round metal tables are bolted to the floor, surrounded by similarly affixed stools, all of them occupied. I’m never going to find a seat. 

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 Hawker Centres are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore. The streets of this tiny island used to be crowded with food vendors until authorities started cracking down in the 60s, eventually corralling them all inside easily controlled and inspected buildings. So now it’s row upon row of individual stalls selling a brain melting array of delicious things, each vendor usually specialising in one thing; and despite the apparent chaos, like everything in Singapore, the joint is spotless and organised. 

 I’m starving, but I’m not ordering anything until I’ve made a complete lap of the place. The din is overwhelming– hawkers shouting their specials, customers calling to friends to hold a table or bring more spoons– a cheerful, musical hubbub bouncing around the brutal concrete walls. Traffic pouring along the Old Airport Road makes itself known, the steady rumble of workday traffic providing a static bass line to the cacophony. The humidity is extraordinary; giant industrial fans do their best, but it makes little difference. It’s a baking wet heat but no one really notices– it’s like this every day.

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 I wander the aisles, trying not to run into people, tables, carts loaded with dirty dishes. I feel conspicuous– the tall white guy stands out around here– but nobody seems to care. As long as I don’t get in the way, I’m as welcome as anyone. The food here is mostly Chinese and Malay: Satay, Laksa, barbecued chicken, noodles, curry puffs, the famous Hainan Chicken Rice, Sambal Stingray, frog porridge, fish curry… My strategy here is to find the longest queue and get on it. I try not to come here with a meal in mind, I want to try what’s good, what’s got the locals lining up. Honestly though, I’m hoping it’s the sticky, fatty, char-siew from those princes of barbecued pork at Roast Paradise… 

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  Appearances can be deceiving. It looks like I’m sitting on the couch, watching travel documentaries, nursing my 18th cup of tea for the day– but I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a plastic stool in an open air bar in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Technically I’m inside, but there’s no front wall, so I’m effectively on the street. At 5 o’clock every evening, all around the city, the shutters go up on corner bars and folks start piling in. It’s called Bia Hoi- either the type of bar or the daily routine, I’ve never been sure which, but either way, it translates to a sort of Happy Hour. The joint is already loud and raucous, working men (it’s mostly men) getting loose and boisterous.

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 All the surfaces are shiny white tile, the floor already stained with spilled beer and fish sauce, cigarette butts, clumps of cilantro. I gaze out at the heaving street just metres away, the roiling waves of roaring motorbikes and brave cyclists flanked by rows of stained crumbling colonial houses. Banyan trees lean precariously over the melee, the hanging vines waiting for the right moment to grab a distracted rider. The thunder of gunning engines choking on cheap gasoline is pushed to every corner of my bar by a single overworked ceiling fan. Cooking smells are everywhere in the Old Quarter, and here the unmistakable waft from a deep fryer melds with the beer, petrol fumes, end-of-work-day humanity. The place is getting busy, office workers are getting rowdier, waitresses are sliding between tables, dropping off beers and small plates of drinking food. And over in the corner, quietly watching, a young bloke sits alone beside a keg of beer, his thumb over the attached length of garden hose, ready for the next order.

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 Here’s how it works. Find an empty stool and sit on it. Within seconds a small glass of beer will appear on the plastic table in front of you. Drink it. It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, maybe because it was brewed this morning, but it’s ice cold and refreshing. Put down your empty glass and it will be replaced with a full one. Drink this too. Repeat. They’ll bring you beer until you tell them to stop. I’ve had three or four, and I’m getting peckish. I see the old guys at the next table eating something, but there are no menus, so I get the waitress’ attention and make the img_7997-1universal mime for eating, then point to what they’ve got. She disappears, and minutes later I’ve got fish cakes! Intensely flavoured, deep fried discs of deliciousness, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham- salty, limey, sweet, spicy dipping sauce. I polish them off, down another beer and stop. The chili, the lime, the oily crunchy fish, the icy beer, the blistering heat, the roaring traffic, the happy drunken voices shouting in a language I can’t begin to decipher; they all wage some epic battle in my brain, while I sit there, blissed out, on top of the world.

 

Lately these fantasies have been hijacking my scattered mind more and more. With no chance to realise them in the near future, I’ve taken refuge in the kitchen, trying desperately and  inexpertly to recreate the flavours and aromas I remember from the tours I made in a previous life. I’ve cooked up a mean Pho from scratch, causing raised eyebrows from the assistants at the butcher’s with my orders of pig’s feet and cow knees; simmering them for hours to make a broth so gelatinous I had to fight it to get my wooden spoon back. I fill my entire apartment with thick smoke as I stirfy prawns that have been marinating in fish sauce, lime juice and sugar- the holy trinity of South East Asian flavours. Fiery green curries, a disastrous laksa, grilled pork belly and meatballs for Bun Cha, washing it all down with Thai beer– I’m giving it my best shot. But so much of any experience comes down to context. Even if I could somehow recreate exactly that plate of grilled prawns my brother and I shared on our first night in Bangkok years ago, it wouldn’t taste anything the same. The utilitarian metal-topped table, the box of tissues in its cheap pink plastic holder, the crinkled plastic-covered menu, the droning fans, the smell from the fish tanks, the gasping humidity, the rumble and shriek of drunken humanity, the jaw dropping, brain melting weirdness of it all – all these things went into making those prawns taste the way they did, at that moment, on those rickety stools, in that crowded restaurant. My efforts at recreation are doomed to be pale washed-out facsimiles. But after a few more of these Thai beers, they might be close enough.


 

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Riding the Path of Righteousness (Making a Quick Stop at Convenience)

I drop the wrench with a clang, wipe the sweat from my brow and take a long pull from my can of beer. American beer. I glance over and wink at my girl, who’s polishing her nails and smoking a cigarette, while chewing extravagantly on a wad of gum. Producing an impressive pink bubble, she looks appreciatively at my grease stained muscles as I casually crush the beer can against my forehead. A gang of guys from the neighbourhood crowd around and admire my handiwork, awed by my almost instinctive mechanical expertise. Wiping the crankshaft oil from my hands onto my dungarees, I snap my fingers, and the sea of admirers parts to reveal: the cute new basket on my pushbike. Sit on it, Potsie! (Don’t actually sit on it– it’s a snap-on.)

  Ah how I used to jet around the globe, zipping between continents without a second thought. I’ve taken a train through the Swiss Alps, a hair-raising tuk-tuk ride through the streets of Bangkok, an overnight ferry from Spain to mystical Morocco. Now I ride my bike to the local park. It’s not the same, but for the foreseeable future, my touring is pedal powered.

 I’m lucky to live only a mile from New Jersey’s splendid Liberty State Park– hectares of wide open space, protected marshland, wildlife habitat, all nuzzling up to New York Harbour. Most days when the weather cooperates I take a ride, telling myself it’s good exercise, but really I have to keep the pace down so I don’t spill my martini. When I first started coming here, reaching the park meant picking my way around the syringes and dead bodies, and when I made it inside, I more or less had the place to myself. Now I’m ushered in via a charming little footbridge, and once inside it’s manicured lawns and hundreds of painfully fit people in lycra having a horrible time. Within the cyclists, I find myself about in the middle of the pack– somewhere between the couples in jeans spluttering as they trundle along on their rented Citibikes; and the hardcore racing bikers with tight faces and Vaseline’d nipples (I’m sure they have other attributes, but to me that defines them). 

 I coast easily along the smoothly paved pathway, a rolling meadow on my right, Audrey Zapp Drive on the left (Audrey Zapp was New Jersey’s only superhero. Her super power was kicking people in the ribs when they were already on the ground.) Sunlight dapples through the locust trees, and flocks of fat geese pick through the grass, making my mouth water. Surely they wouldn’t miss one… I drive the delicious thought from my mind and take a right at the old train yards. These are brilliant. Left virtually untouched, they go back to the late 1800s and connected cargo and passengers from across the country to Manhattan-bound ferries; and when the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened up, the huddled masses would disembark and be herded onto trains to be dispersed throughout their weird new home. Not much is made of the significance of these ancient ruins, but I think they’re fascinating; and best of all, there’s a den of red foxes in there. The girl and I saw one trot in front of us the other day– she was so surprised she dropped her switchblade.

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From here I swing around onto the absurdly named Liberty Walkway for the most energetic portion of the outing. They love an abstract noun in these parts– you can gaze across the river at Freedom Tower from your spot in the Perseverance Parking Lot. Anyway, stupid name, lovely walkway. It curves elegantly along the water’s edge, wide and welcoming, wooden benches and stately lampposts on both sides, and a railing the perfect height for leaning. I try to build up some steam here, the riding is flat and easy, and it feels good to get the sludge in my veins moving. Seagulls wheel overhead, confident in their place in the sky; but every now and then a mighty red-tailed hawk ascends to float majestically on the spring zephyr and the gulls scramble desperately to exit stage left. The theatre becomes his, and it’s impossible not to stop and stare.

 I push past the saltmarsh– protected habitat for migrating birds which I admire but couldn’t identify if you paid me. On the harbour side, fishermen nurse their rods while they chat and drink, and presumably hope they forgot to bait their hooks. The waters of New York harbour are infinitely cleaner than they used to be, but there are a lot of belching tankers out there– I’m not sure I’d be eating what I caught. I coast past the Ellis Island bridge, and hit the final stretch; swamps give way to parkland, and dead ahead, the always pause-worthy Statue of Liberty. You know the one. You can view her through one of the many coin-operated Telescopes of Equality.

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Florid from exertion, I dribble to a halt at the southernmost tip of the park, the questionably named Black Tom Island. Now incorporated into the park, the island was the site of a massive explosion during WW1 committed by a pair of German spies. It’s a cracking story, but aside from a small faded plaque near the picnic area, it seems largely forgotten. I like to pause here and absorb for a few minutes. Also, by this point I’ve remembered that exercising is stupid and standing still is fantastic. From this vantage point, I can take in the Big Lady, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the stately Verrazzano bridge, beyond which is the deep and mysterious Atlantic Ocean. The gulls caw, the odd pleasure boat chugs by, the fresh salty air invades my stunned lungs; if I’ve got the place to myself, and I don’t look back at the evil city, I can believe it’s still an island, as disconnected from reality as me.

 I could happily spend all day out here, but I tear myself away. Things to do. I take the scenic route home, past the old rail yard waiting rooms (the bathroom floor is still intact, as if to commemorate the immigrant families and their pee), and the surprisingly tasteful 9/11 monument; at this point you can look directly over to Manhattan– it feels like you could swim over, or at least float back after a big night. And at last, the marina. The going is slow along here– the path is a chaotic mess of gaping ditches and treacherous hillocks– but it’s worth it to gaze at the boats and dream. In my imagination, I’m a salty old sea dog on the deck of one of the weather-beaten fishing boats, resting between rum-running sorties to Havana; or maybe engaging in high stakes drug deals on one of the ostentatiously hulking cabin cruisers. 

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I try to hold onto these fantasies as I wheel across the footbridge back into blinding reality, but they unwind from my mind like a silk scarf in the breeze, floating back towards the park and disintegrating, leaving me with only a yearning for rum and drugs. But on the bright side, I know a guy, and I’ve got just the basket to carry them. 

 


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick

Discovering Wild Food– Lights Out, Blinds Drawn

This post first appeared on the short-lived “A Hare After Midnight

 

I’m not a weirdo. Honest I’m not. But we all have those moments of weakness, don’t we? It’s late, you’re tired and hungry, sitting in the dark, scouring the internet for some kind of solace, when you see an ad. Normally you’d give a derisive snort and scroll right by, but tonight you’re vulnerable, and you think, “why not?” And before you know it, you’ve clicked on an ad for Freshly Plucked Young Quails In Your Area. And you’re back on the D’Artagnan website.

I never understood the appeal of window shopping- gazing at stuff you can’t afford and wouldn’t know what to do with- until I discovered this wondrous website with its seductive pictures of trussed pigeons and tumid French garlic sausages. I’ve spent hours drooling over photos of pheasants, descriptions of duck fat, pictures of partridges; intrigued but intimidated, and too nervous to make the first move. After tolerating this victual voyeurism for weeks, my patient and long-suffering better-half exploded, “just order the phucking pheasants!”

img_7165 They arrived on my stoop in a styrofoam box: two small red parcels of gamey goodness, practically begging me not to screw them up. I’d done a bit of Googling to get some ideas for preparation- I wanted to keep it simple so I could really taste the thing- and decided to base my attempt on this recipe from Hank Shaw’s excellent blog: https://honest-food.net/roast-pheasant-recipe/. 

First step was brining: soaking the birds in salty water, ostensibly to flavour and tenderise the meat. I’ve heard of this- usually in reference to the Thanksgiving turkey- and I’ve always dismissed it as time-wasting chef-wankery. Because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Brining is in fact amazing and you should do it whenever you can. Leave some time for this- boiling the water and spices is quick, but bringing it back to room temperature takes a while- and you’ll need some kind of bucketimg_7166 big enough to float your birds. (I’ll discuss the pathetic paucity of pots and pans in my kitchen in a future post, but it’s sufficient to say that if a recipe calls for specific implement or utensil, I’m almost certain not to have it. But this time, miraculously, the perfect plastic pail was languishing anonymously in the back corner of a cabinet. It’s small victories like this that get me out of bed in the afternoon.) Then it’s essentially treating your pheasants to a sort of sensory deprivation therapy, clearing their minds of stress and worry before they’re bundled into a blazing oven and eaten. While this is happening, amuse yourself and others by watching the rosy little birds bobbing around and singing the theme song to Pinky and the Brine. Hilarious.

img_7167 My second new experience was trussing. This I’ve never considered before because it looks impossibly fiddly, and honestly I’m still not convinced of its impact on the final product. But it’s kind of fun, and makes you feel like a pro. I recommend putting on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and giving in to your disciplinarian urges: that pheasant has been very naughty, and deserves to be tied up. Slip on some leather chaps if it helps.

Here are a couple of helpful instructional videos:

https://youtu.be/x3bieEEYEAk

https://youtu.be/VxlcSzMOG9o

 At this point, it was 1 AM,  preparation was complete, and it was time to pour a cocktail and pump up some music. In our kitchen the choice was martinis and Count Basie. You might prefer a Manhattan and Mahler. But if you’re stuck (and you dig the jazz), I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist for you- it’s down the bottom. The drink is up to you.

 From here on in, if you’ve roasted a chicken before, this is plain sailing. I liked Hank’s use of high and low temperatures, but I don’t think I cooked it as long as he suggested. Like it’s an elderly neighbour, just check on it from time to time and jab it with a thermometer. But remember it’s not a chicken- cook it fully and it’ll be dry- you want your birds medium rare and blushing coquettishly.

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 Mere days before they ended up on our plates, these guys had been flapping happily over the Scottish moors, gorging themselves on berries and, I don’t know…heather? Whatever, this high-flying lifestyle must have a real impact because these pheasants were freaking delicious. This was my first foray into the world of wild food, and it’s going to be tough going back to those flabby miserable cage-raised, drug-pumped, soy-fed supermarket birds. Anyway, I hear a key in the door- gotta go clear my browser history…

 Have you pheasanted? Going to try it? Leave any thoughts or questions down there in the comments! More soon…

Music for Roasting Pheasants:
https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/nickhemptonband/playlist/4qB4neUDpjjqF9inYyXzzV

Countless Ways to Pummel Your Soul (You Won’t Believe #382!)

The “content providers” are having their moment. It’s their day in the sun. We’re all stuck inside, getting fat and depressed, drinking every night as though the last presidential election results just came in, because they’re coming in every day. Our bodies are complaining, joints voicing their displeasure as we creakily retrieve that slice of pizza from the floor; our minds are getting soft and mushy, dull but for the occasional spark of anger or indignation, lit by a poorly worded tweet or another manipulative news item. “Get In Shape At Home!” “15 Exercises You Can Do Without Leaving The Couch!” “Build Muscle While You Bake!” Articles promising to show you how to cook with what you have, cook cheap, keep your kids occupied so you don’t cook them; maybe some addressing your mental health: solutions for anxiety, insomnia, realism. The lifestyle editors know your guilt and fear, and in these difficult times, they’re here to help. They know what’s best for you, body and mind. But what about your poor battered, forsaken little soul?

 As a young man I scoffed at the concept of a soul. I was a cold hearted nihilist on a mission of self destruction. It was tremendous fun. On reflection, however, it occurs to me that my soul might have taken a look at my life choices and buggered off to the Bahamas for a few years. Judging by recent dreams, I have a suspicion it inhabited the body of a handsome young bartender who got all the girls thanks to the sweet yet heartbreaking poetry he could spout on request. That was MY action! But now, in 2020, having returned to the folds of my crumbling carcass I bet it’s looking around and questioning its own decisions.

 It seems we’ve adapted to our current predicament surprisingly well. We’re inside all the time, we’re keeping our distance; the everyday things we could never imagine living without, we’re living without. But one consequence that isn’t getting much airtime is that my soul hurts and so does yours. It’s almost like this virus was designed to stop humans connecting with each other in every way. We can’t see each other, we can’t touch each other, we can’t even get close enough to hear each other. Stifled by our masks of sorrow, even something as seemingly insignificant but enormously reassuring as seeing another person smile, has been taken away. (And far worse than smelling someone else’s fetid breath, we’re now constantly confronted with our own.) Who knows when we’ll have a shared experience again. The little things: rumours and gossip we heard at the bar, complete with visual footnotes– a raised eyebrow, a sardonic twist of the lips, gesticulations, inflections; a story that concluded with genuine laughter– laughter you could actually feel in your body, which can’t be replicated by a tear-streaming emoji. A drunken confession to a stranger at 3am; an argument about the state of the world or a minor difference of opinion– voices raised, barstools scraping, the physical feeling of fist on bar; then the resolution, a laugh and a round of drinks as we recognised our shared human ridiculousness.

  Even my heretofore steadfast misanthropy is wavering, causing me to latch on to the smallest human interaction. The other day I spent a very pleasurable 10 minutes on the stoop, trying to explain live streaming to my 80 year old neighbour Eddie. He’s a sharp old bloke who digs jazz, and had heard that this is how musicians are doing gigs nowadays. He puffed thoughtfully on his cigar as I did my level best to untangle some technological wizardry I don’t really understand myself, and at the end his expression was a dubious “thanks for trying.” But we ended on a joke, and my spirits were lifted. And I won’t get into the feelings I have for the strapping young hero who now delivers my wine, but he’s lucky I’m adhering to the distancing rules.

Many people seem to assume that digital interaction is the next best thing, and I have to admit to seeking occasional solace in the shadier corners of the internet, where French fowl providers pimp their wares– young wild birds with firm breasts and freshly plucked thighs (I like ‘em tied up– I have trussed issues). The screen is the easiest distraction, but it might not be the most helpful: I rarely feel better after watching a movie, just two hours older; and the little parts of my brain where bitterness and resentment are supposed to be quietly suffocating suddenly light up with outraged enthusiasm whenever I open up Twitter. As for zoom, I’m happy for you if you like it, but it’s all my anxiety triggers in one handy app. I feel like I’m at a dinner party, but when I discreetly try to ask my neighbour where the WC is located, the whole table goes silent and listens.  

So what to do? We’ve all seen videos of Italians singing to each other from their balconies, but let’s face it, Italians are just better at that kind of thing. Sitting on the stoop and blowing kisses to passing strangers rarely gets the warm reception you might hope for. So if I can’t have humans, I’ll take humanity. Connecting with mankind via the things that have sustained us through the millennia. Today I plan to cook beans in cast iron for breakfast, bake some dark bread, listen to Bach and Louis, loudly recite Byron, maybe make some fire water out of whatever it is that’s already fermenting in the back of the fridge. And tonight I’ll dress myself in a loin cloth (make one out of a bandana- instructions on the web), reach out the window, grab a squirrel, and cook it on an open fire on the kitchen floor. Feel free to join me, wherever you are. And if you want to compete the ritual by sacrificing one of the kids’ teddybears to the gods, that’s your call.


 

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Rear Window 2: Courtyard Capers

I’m looking at a bird. A red one- I don’t know birds- a Red Cardinal? Red Baron? Scarlet Pimpernel? At some point every day I find myself gazing out my bathroom window at what could charitably be called my courtyard: a patchwork of broken pavers obscured by discarded building materials, surrounded by 6-foot cinderblock walls, and one sagging chain-link fence. It’s not a particularly inspiring vista. My courtyard doesn’t dare dream, like other courtyards, of lavish garden parties, or even weekend barbecues. It wouldn’t know what to do with a fire pit or recessed lighting, and it has no time for a sundial. It has embraced the word ”neglected,” and wears it with appropriately downtrodden acceptance. I, however, have detailed fantasies about turning it into a garden- I imagine flower beds and herbs in pots. Maybe even a modest veggie patch. When my fancy is particularly flighty, I even see a few chickens strutting and scratching out there. But because my neighbour’s courtyard is an abandoned forest, the place is a daylight discotheque for the birds. I stand at the window and stare at them; they sit on the fence and stare back. Naturally I make silly faces at them which, to my eyes, are never reciprocated, but maybe avian gurning is too subtle for me to register. Immensely pleasurable as these encounters are, from the outset I know that the bird will get bored before I do. Hardly surprising really: it has the whole world to explore; I have 300 square feet. Of the two of us, I truly am the caged one. This blog is my plaintive song.

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 I rarely venture out there. Access involves a long drop out a window and navigating a trash-strewn passageway. The garbage is tossed from an as yet unidentified upstairs window in the next door block of apartments, and while it’s repellent to me, it’s a positive magnet for visiting wildlife. Returning home from a gig in the early morning, sitting by the window with a nightcap, I might be graced with the company of an opossum, or maybe a family of raccoons; once I had a visit from a small, but very menacing skunk. They snuffle around happily out there, unconcerned by the flashlight I rudely obtrude upon them, and go about their midnight creeping.  

 A winter afternoon is the best time for mooning out my bathroom window. That doesn’t sound right. A winter afternoon is the best time for staring out my bathroom window. Glowering skies loom low over bare trees, their grasping claws ushering the wind into eddies of dead leaves and plastic bags. Later an icy moon climbs over the rooftops, deepening shadows into ominous figures in corners. It’s brilliantly bleak and dramatic.  If I’ve thrown caution to the wind and turned on the heat, and there’s something cooking on the stove, chez Hempton is almost pleasant.

 In recent days, I’ve realized what my courtyard really looks like: a prison exercise yard. And considering our current confinement, it may fulfill its destiny. I only hope the Aryan Brotherhood will adhere to the social distancing rules. The only other inmate is my 80 year old neighbour Eddie. Eddie’s wife won’t let him smoke cigars in the house, so he likes to sit out there in a folding chair, contentedly drawing on baseball-bat-sized stogies. If this imprisonment continues much further, I see this story ending with either me or Eddie going the other with a shiv.

 One day I’ll tidy it up. I’ll clear the trash from the passageway, haul the giant PVC pipes away, scrub down the pavers, construct some beds for flowers and veggies. I’ll plant climbing vines to hide the brutal walls. Maybe a trellis. A weber grill and some outdoor furniture. I’ll ask the Aryans to rig up some cheerful lights, and maybe the Mexican Mafia will help me put in a birdbath so my red buddy will visit again. Then I’ll invite them and the Black Guerrillas to a barbecue. Put an end to all this silly stabbing.

Be Yourself (quick, while no one’s watching!)

Be yourself. That’s what they always say, isn’t it. With seemingly endless alone time, and no imagined judgement from onlookers, I’m being myself to an alarming degree. All those annoying habits that I would curb while in polite company are getting free rein. I refuse to cook pasta without making my “Bucatini and the MGs” joke. I used to throw peanuts in the air and catch them in my mouth- now I eat everything this way. While listening to the BBC’s shipping forecast every evening (which I strongly recommend), I wait for the Mull of Kintyre to get mentioned so I can burst lustily into the song. Day and night I’m swanning about the apartment, clad in dressing gown and drinking hat, martini in hand, reciting things in funny voices. So far my best is Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” as Roger Moore.

 There was a sense of adventure when this lockdown thing started. I was enthusiastic about new opportunities (my apologies to my pessimist friends out there- I can only imagine how annoying that was), dreaming up exciting new ways to deliver music to people online; but as it drags on, my eagerness, along with my concern for social norms, is waning. Now, I simultaneously can’t believe it’s happening, and can’t believe it will ever end. I know people like watching videos of musicians playing, but without us all being in the same room together, it’s about as much fun as the recording studio but without all the free drugs and contortionists. While I support and encourage musicians asking for digital donations, a PayPal tip is a pretty bloodless exchange. The meeting of eyes and smile of mutual appreciation is what makes that transaction pleasurable. 

 I mistakenly stumble onto articles by insufferably earnest people telling me how they’re using all this free time to learn new skills, or getting around to those household tasks they always put off. After this is all over, I vote for these writers to be kept in permanent quarantine in a hoarder’s apartment with an overly caffeinated Marie Kondo. So I tried baking bread. Don’t judge me! Although I will say that someone as careless and absent minded as me should probably stay away from an activity requiring precision and patience. I may be going hungry, but I’m amassing an arsenal of dense loaf-shaped house bricks which I intend to use as missiles when the zombies arrive.

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 The other day I felt obliged to clean something and selected the kitchen cabinet that I’ve used to store junk ever since I moved in 16 years ago. I rolled up my sleeves and burrowed in, digging past my vape pen, my collection of fidget spinners, a pair of shutter shades, (I paused here to brush off some moldy cronut crumbs), a pair of crocs, a folded “Occupy Wall Street” placard; deeper, past an old Blackberry, my Von Dutch hat, some roller blades; deeper still, past a HyperColour Tshirt, a long deceased tamagotchi; when suddenly, with a triumphant “YOLO!” I burst out into a cool forest by a murmuring brook. A gentle breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle, butterflies flitted by, friendly woodland creatures stopped and lifted their hats as they hopped past (they were wearing hats). Letting the Sony Walkman fall from my hand, I followed the sound of angelic voices down to the river bank, where a group of smiling nymphs sat on a log, singing and braiding each other’s hair. At my approach, they stood, letting their wispy underthings slide to the ground, and walked towards me, arms outstretched, mischief in their beckoning eyes. “Stay back six feet!” I shouted, “the rules are there for a reason!” and leapt back into my kitchen. Honestly, irresponsible nymphs are making it worse for all of us.

 I take a walk around my local park every day. Now that it’s closed, all the local yuppies who used to overtake the place, hovering over their fashionably dressed brats while allowing their dogs 10 feet of leash to take a sneaky crap on the bandshell steps, are now clogging up the sidewalks where childless grouches like me take our constitutionals. And doesn’t it seem somehow cruel to walk your dog around a park it can no longer enter? So many disappointed mutts staring uncomprehendingly through the park fence; while staring back at them, the local squirrel population, equally confused, as if to say –was it something we said?? –Is this all ours now?? It won’t be long before the squirrels start planning something. You watch.

  Anyway, I should let you go- I’m sure you have scarves to knit. I’ve got more projectiles to bake, and I wonder what Christopher Walken would sound like reciting the Gettysburg Address? It might go a little something like this… 

Hysteria, Pandemonium, and a Cast-Iron Solution

I was doing so well. A news-free world. I was oblivious to all but what was happening right in front of me. The childish bellowing of politicians, talking heads, and celebrities which make us all dumber and angrier had been silenced. Instead of opening my news apps first thing in the afternoon, I was scrolling Instagram looking at wholesome videos of bearded men cooking steaks beside a river… And then the Coronavirus came along. 

 Like people from all walks, musicians are being greatly affected by this thing. I have a tour of Italy booked for April which, as if Schroedinger was my travel agent, is simultaneously happening and not happening. It hasn’t been canceled, but taking place mostly in Italy, it surely has. But in monitoring the hysteria almost hourly, I’ve been sucked in to it.

 I’ve noticed the marauding bug comes up in every conversation, and I make no effort to change the subject, delighting in telling people of my precarious situation (nobody cares). I greet acquaintances with an elaborate curtsy instead of a handshake; I’m mentally designing a face-mask with a mouthpiece hole cut into it; agonizing over whether to order hazmat suits in pinstripe or windowpane; I’m stockpiling black truffles and Barolo in case supply lines are cut… In short, I’ve given in to the madness. 

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As of yesterday, all bars in NYC have been ordered to shut down, which means my other job of herding cats in and out of Smalls Jazz Club is on extended hiatus. A very sad turn of events, but considering basement bars in our fair city are generally humid, poorly-ventilated incubators, it’s hardly surprising- it’s a swirling mass of world-traveling, close-talking, drinking, smoking, coughing, rarely-washed humanity down there. A petri dish. It’s brilliant.

I wonder, as a horn player, if I could be considered a “super-spreader.” When we get fired up (and sorry if this is a tad graphic), it’s not just notes we’re spraying around up there. Those front few rows should be provided with some type of weatherproof poncho- it’s not a pretty business. But maybe infection of this kind depends on the fertility of the music being played- listen to a musician play with enough heart and soul, and don’t be surprised if you get a bit of lung in there. In times of pandemic pandemonium, it might be safer to seek out a more hygienic musician: a more aseptic, anemic style of player. I can suggest several…

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The band cops it too

 Gnawing uneasiness caused by hysteria and fear-mongering drove me to the kitchen. Harrowing times like these demand the steadfast solidity of cast iron and beans and ham hocks. If I had access to an open fire and a beard I would have utilized those too. Hempton’s pot of beans gets its enveloping earthy warmth from a variety of Mexican chilies- some hot, some not- found huddling up the back of my increasingly bland and expensive supermarket. They’re keeping their heads down, working hard to feed us despite the creeping gentrification. Guajillo, Ancho, Pasillo: go find them. Drink-wise, one silver lining to the Coronavirus cumulonimbus is that it has apparently stemmed our desire for Corona beer- amazing that it took a simple misunderstanding for people to stop buying that awful yellow muck. Anyway, forget beer- smoky, porky bean stew deserves red wine and so do you. And Gene Ammons on the Hi-Fi. More soon…

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Hempton’s Pot o’ Beans

Soften chunks of carrot, onion, whole garlic cloves in olive oil in a cast iron crock pot. Add a whole smoked ham hock (a big chunk of salt pork or bacon would do), soaked dried beans (probably any kind will do- I buy a mix), chicken stock (water in a pinch), fresh thyme, bay leaves, a mix of dried chillies, and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are the way you like them, and the pork is falling off the bone. Add a couple of handfuls of kale for the last 5 minutes or so. Season and fish out the chillies, bay leaves, and thyme stalks if you can find them. Take the hock out, strip the meat off and slide the meat back in. Serve with bread or cornbread and a muscular vino.  

Stadium Rock, Topless Women, and Some Potty Talk: 3 Days in Jakarta

It’s about 30 minutes before showtime at An Unnamed Jazz Club in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m sitting in the green room, but I can hear the pleasant buzz of a jazz club rolling into action. Customers chatter as they’re led to their tables, waiters deliver drinks, bartenders mix cocktails and ignore thirsty musicians, the PA plays something that’s probably jazz but isn’t quite loud enough to hear. Then a mechanical whirring sound coming from the stage prompts me to poke my head out for a closer look. A giant screen is being lowered behind the stage. I can’t really envision a situation in which this is a good thing. 

 In my younger days in Australia, a big screen behind the stage meant there was a football game on and we were expected to stand and play in front of it, obstructing the patrons’ view, and cementing their already deeply held hatred of jazz and jazz musicians. But this was a fancy joint- surely we could expect something appropriate… maybe video of a classic live jazz performance to get folks in the mood? Perhaps images of jazz greats accompanied by something swinging and understated? How about a stadium rock show featuring wailing guitars, pounding drums, and a posturing frontman, with audio pumped up to 11? It’s going to be that last one, isn’t it. The club was suddenly transformed into Wembley Stadium as Freddie Mercury prowled the stage and promised to rock us. Now I dig Queen, but there’s a time and place- we’re trying to create an atmosphere here… I took my displeasure to the manager who explained that the owner’s son was on his way to the club. He’d called from the car to say he expected to arrive to Queen. He wanted “Hammer to Fall” on his entrance. Sometimes things look the same around the world, but the differences are lurking just below the surface. I threw my hands in the air and grumbled my way back to the greenroom. In the end the show went fine, the hyped-up Jakarta audience showing their appreciation for serious jazz by bouncing a beachball around the club and hoisting topless women on their shoulders.

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“Who’s ready for some JAZZ!!?”

 15 floors up from this debacle was the Hempton Suite. I’d negotiated a hotel room in this 5-star pile as part of my hilarious remuneration package; it was my first 5-star experience and I was making the most of it. Holding imaginary business meetings in my “office;” allowing the pool attendant to dry me with an actual living chamois; reclining theatrically, Pimms in hand, on my daybed; phoning my imaginary agent from the bathtub; and finally getting to know the intricacies of the Toto Washlet electronic commode. Let me tell you- once you’ve Toto’d, it’s hard to go back. A perfectly warmed seat, startlingly accurate water jets streaming from all directions, and a puff of warm air all leave you floating on a cloud of dazed satisfaction.  I can’t be sure, but as I left the room, I could’ve sworn it whispered “good boy.” Anyway, I’m starting a crowdfunding campaign so I can afford a Toto Washlet of my own. I think it’s a worthy cause, and no more a vanity project than most other crowdfunded endeavours.

FANCY TOILETS

The secret to enjoying a fancy hotel in Jakarta is conveniently forgetting the appalling poverty right outside your window. I took a stroll to a nearby market, thinking I’d get the feel of the place, maybe take some photos, and eat something tasty. I soon realized t’s not like other places. When you hit the streets in China, the locals might glance at you curiously. In Thailand they smile at you. In Vietnam, they ignore you. In Jakarta, as soon as I left the hotel’s manicured grounds, I was on narrow dirt roads, hopping daintily over piles of trash and dead rats, thoughts of street food tripping over each other to get out of my brain. The markets were the expected industrious hubbub, but the people would stop what they were doing to stare vacantly at me as I passed. I took a few photos then stuffed my phone in my pocket when I realized that not a single person had a phone in their hand. How they maintain any sort of Social Media presence is beyond me.  

The problem was, I was pathetically under-prepared for a visit to Jakarta. It was only three nights so I hadn’t bothered researching where to go or how to get there. On my night off I managed to get a cab to take me to a nearby restaurant specializing in fried duck, which seems to be somewhat of a local delicacy. As I strolled in, the staff froze and gave me the stare, before huddling up for a heated discussion, seemingly deciding whether to serve me or not. I guess I passed inspection, and was presented with an indecipherable menu. My helpless jabbing was soon rewarded with a hunk of fried duck, white rice, a pile of fresh herbs, and a pot of fiery, salty, eyeball-melting sambal, all served on a banana leaf. I turned to point out that they’d forgotten to give me utensils, when I noticed my neighbours in up to their wrists. I jumped in with eager fingers and made a right mess of it- it’s harder than it looks. Now I love to have a stab at the local customs but I’m sorry- you’re aware of the invention of the spoon and you’re going to persist in eating rice with your fingers? I think you’re just being obstinate at this point. Anyway, it was delicious, and next time I’ll do my research and have more food stories for you.

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For now, until that kickstarter campaign comes through, I’ve constructed my own Toto Washlet out of a length of old garden hose and a portable fan heater, so I’m off to try it out! More soon…

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Coarse Language, Adult Themes, and some Boning

There’s something very satisfying abut Italian swearing. It’s all so percussive and hissing; all those “k” and “ts” sounds. Fluency in obscenities is a skill I respect greatly, and the Italians have it down to an art: the drawn-out vowel sounds, the spitting consonants, combined with flaming eyes and wildly disproportionate gesticulations. It was a display like this, admittedly with a fairly strong Australian accent, that burst from the front seat of our car, lodged in traffic somewhere between Milan and Bologna. 

 My mate Adam is generally a calm, even-tempered sort of chap. We’ve known each other for 20-something years, from back in our Sydney days. He settled in Italy about ten years ago and seems to be well and truly ensconced. Not only a world class drummer, he’s exactly the guy you need on the ground when you’re a hungry, thirsty traveler. Need a late-morning beer? Adam knows an Irish bloke who runs a liquor store- grab something from their bafflingly large beer selection and neck it on the street outside! No lunch plans? He knows just the spot for that weird local delicacy you’ve been dying to try (this trip it was Pajata and Coratella- google it if you must); a cheeky glass of wine before the gig? Absolutely! A night off in Milan? There’s an Osso Buco joint he’s been meaning to try. We might get lost, ripped off, stranded beside a freeway, but it’ll aways be a good hang. But this was a test.

 The Italian Job so far had been a whirlwind. I’d flown into Milan, napped in the world’s smallest Air BnB, played a gig where I was essentially accompanying a table of snacks, napped again, caught the three-hour train to Rome where I played two nights at Gregory’s with the great Joe Magnarelli, caught the train back to Milan, played a couple of gigs, napped again, went to France for a few days, back to Milan for a quick nap, and now we were headed to a gig in Bologna. The fruity language was because the ride that was supposed to take us from Bologna, right after the gig, to a jazz festival some two hours away, had suddenly vanished, and Adam wasn’t happy. It would be 2am, there’d be no public transport, and nobody driving that way. Frantic phone calls were made to festival directors, local musicians, relatives, massage parlours (unrelated), bike rentals, mob drivers, and all for nought. 

 We arrived at Cantina Bentivoglio, a cavernous restaurant/jazz club in Bologna, where the pre-show meal of mountains of carpaccio and the famous pasta al ragu acted as somewhat of a salve to our gnawing trepidation of the night ahead. We had a ball playing a set of swingers to a large and appreciative audience, from a stage that had previously been graced by jazz legends like Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, and Mal Waldron; and at the end of the show, Adam had received a message: a solution had been found. 

 Our ever-patient organist, Niccolo, was to drive us 40 minutes out of his way, and deposit us on a freeway off-ramp, where we were to wait for a man with a trombone (a trombonist, in other words), whom we would trust to drive us to the next gig. Adam and I waited shivering by the roadside, traffic whizzing by, gazing morosely at the terrifying Facebook profile photo of our Apollo- the wild hair, the insane eyes, the trombone- and questioned our life choices. Was this the end of the line? Were we about to be boned? I don’t know how a trombonist would choose to kill his victim, but you can be sure it would be messy, torturous, and boring. 

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One last selfie. Nicko, Niccolo, Adam

 A brown, 90s-model station wagon of indistinct brand screeched to a halt beside us, and Marco* sprang out. Whether his lack of communication was due to his not speaking English, or because the homicidal voices in his head were making it hard to concentrate, we’ll never know, but not a word was spoken. We loaded our gear, vowed to call our mothers more often if we survived, and strapped in for the ride. With a squeal of rubber we were off- speed limits were blithely ignored, other motorists run off the road, corners were taken on two wheels (the front ones!), and a curious whining noise we all assumed came from the clapped out engine, turned out to emanate from me. 

 I’d like to tell you how the night ended, but some kind of stress response has caused me to block the memory entirely. It seems somehow I survived, although I’ve developed a debilitating stutter. But if anybody knows of Adam’s whereabouts, you should probably contact the authorities. And ask him for the address of that Osso Buco place.

*his real name

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