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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The Lockdown Diary: A View from the Stoop

I’m outside, I’m unmasked, I’m ungloved, and I’m loving it. Go ahead, @ me all you like. I’m breathing my particles into the sweet spring air, and there’s nothing you squares can do to stop me! Ok let me explain. I live in a cramped ground-floor studio apartment in picturesque Jersey City, New Jersey. Walled in on all sides by hideous apartment blocks, my flat gets no natural light, which suits my vampiric lifestyle perfectly. But I’m starting to think this perpetual shadow dwelling might not be great for my health. I just Googled the symptoms of rickets. So I’ve drawn an imaginary line out front of my building, I’m keeping my distance, and I’m spending the afternoon on the stoop.

It’s a classic Northeast spring day, the street feels alive and almost relaxed; quarantine couples stroll arm in arm, the weeks of imprisonment-bickering momentarily forgotten, the sudden warmth melting worry lines from foreheads. An old fellow straddling a giant shiny pushbike, Puerto Rican flags flying off the back, cruises by; salsa blasting from a handlebar-mounted speaker. I’ve got everything I need- book, sunnies, ridiculous hat; and arrayed about me, an absurdly lavish picnic. There’s a pate de foie gras and arugula sandwich, a coffee mug of pickles (toe-curling full-sours from the pickle man at the farmers market), a leg and thigh from last night’s roast chicken (a Thomas Keller recipe absolutely worth the three-day process), a dozen mushy cloves of roasted garlic from the same, to be sucked from their skins between courses; a wax paper parcel barely containing a giant collapsing slab of gooey French stink-cheese, and some kind of salad which will just go back in the fridge. And of course a bottle of Portuguese red in a paper bag (for convention’s sake), and a big plastic cup (I ran out of straws.)

The city came by last week and uprooted the old trees from out front. They seemed pretty healthy to me, and we were old mates, so I’m sad to see them go, but the quivering saplings just planted in their place seem to be settling in well, despite every dog on the block joyfully unloading on them while their owners stare at their phones. They each have a blue tag attached to a lower branch with their latin names; I’m sure we’ll be friends, although Syringa Reticulata is a tad standoffish. I’ve renamed him Rudyard Sapling for no good reason.

 My annoying neighbour comes out and looks pointedly at my lunch- ooh, what do we have here? He’s not a bad guy, but he’s really chatty, and I’m enjoying my book. I know he’s a vegetarian because he tells me every time he sees me, so I lie. “Stewed pig’s foot, tripe sandwich, camel hump carpaccio, glass of beef jus– cheers!” Appalled, he backs away and scuttles off. I feel mildly guilty, but am thinking more about how good that camel hump sounds. How moist would it be!?

The air in these parts is always pretty clear- the Atlantic’s not far and the sea breeze seems to sweep much of the pollution away- but these days, with so few cars on the road, you can really smell the ocean in the air. Actually, that might be pickle brine. Spring is short around here- in a few weeks it’ll be revoltingly humid and gritty- you really have to grab it while you can. My mate Zet passes by, we break the rules and fist bump, talk jazz and food for a minute. Zet is a fellow saxophonist and an enthusiastic cook, and crucially, lives across from our local, very popular, butcher. If I text him before I head over, he’ll poke his head out the window and see how long the line is. I must remember to introduce myself to the folks who live opposite the wine shop.

I score a “what’s up buddy?” from the imposingly proportioned supermarket bouncer as a delivery truck grunts and belches to a halt outside the store two doors down. He’s there to let folks in one at a time– supermarkets are the new nightclubs. Suddenly it’s all action. The store’s been open every day throughout the lockdown and some of the guys haven’t taken a day off. They’re all out front now, masked up, calling directions, encouragement, insults to each other in Spanish as they stack pallets on the sidewalk. I hope they understand that while it looks like I’m lazing in the sun, licking foie gras off my fingers and washing it down with cheap plonk, while half-reading Somerset Maugham, I’m actually doing research for a very important blog post, and my work is just as strenuous as theirs. Solidarity, my brothers! Cheers! This wine’s tasting better and better.

Don’t look now but the new girl from upstairs has just rounded the corner. She’s going to love this. I don’t know if it’s the saxophone practice, the hysterical 3am laughter (that’s Simpsons time), the smoke alarm I set off whenever I stirfry, or the flaming bags of dog poo I leave outside her door every night, but she doesn’t like me one bit; and nothing seems to infuriate her like seeing me soaking up some rays on the stoop. Yep she’s spotted me and her carefree sashay has morphed into a self-righteous clomp; her hair swings in violent umbrage; the eyes above her daisy-print face-mask a pair of angry raisins. With my trademark timing, as she’s mounting the bottom step, I’m inserting a large sweaty oozing pile of cheese into my mouth. I foolishly attempt a smile and a neighbourly greeting, which comes out more as a thick gurgle. Her response as she sweeps by is muffled by the daisies, but I think she mentioned the foie. 

At this point, I feel my work here is done. Time is marching on, and that nap’s not going to take itself. I collect my things and retreat, a trifle unsteadily (too much sun I suppose), back into the enveloping gloom of my hovel. A shot of virgin’s blood then back in the coffin. Night night.


 

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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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Quarantine Dreams

I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating cold spaghetti out of a Tupperware container, flecks of red sauce decorating the front of my dressing gown. But I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a low plastic stool in an alley off Yaowarat road in Bangkok’s Chinatown, eating a huge bowl of spicy aromatic noodle soup. A trickle of filthy drain water runs by my table, and there’s a watchful cat in every shadow. The combination of the hot soup and the near 100% humidity has the sweat pouring off my head and running in rivers down my back. It’s a cacophony, the clatter of plastic bowls being stacked as the chef shouts to his sister washing dishes in a tub in the gutter. In fact everyone is shouting, but it’s laughter-filled and joyful, and although I don’t understand a word, I feel as though I understand everything. From the main road, the roar of ancient motorbike engines gunning and the incessant honking of tuk-tuks, and the general rumbling of a massive, heaving, overcrowded city. This soup is the only dish this family makes, and they serve it up all day every day, ladling stock that’s been bubbling and concentrating since this morning when it was made with the leftovers from yesterday. This stock is the secret to their success, the quietest member of the family, its recipe a cherished secret. The bowl in front of me sends up waves of rich complex smells, chilli, fish sauce, lime, cilantro are the only ones I can pick out. They mingle with the ambient smells of exhaust and sickly sweet durian and something leafy I can never put my finger on. I kind of wish I could ask, but I also like the mystery. The beer is so cold it’s making everything hotter by comparison. It’s Singha, or Chang- whichever one they have- they’re pretty much the same, and perfect for this weather and food. I can buy it in New York, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good there. Until I motion for another one, I’ll be completely ignored, which is just how I like it. I could watch this family as they work, with their ease and affectionate humour, all night.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m sitting at my desk, papers strewn chaotically on all sides, staring blankly at another news website, while perched on a rickety old desk chair with dodgy hydraulics that slides queasily up and down without warning. But you’d be wrong. I’m really sitting on a narrow polished wooden bench, making my way across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. It’s an old tub built in the 50s, apparently held together with paint and lacquer, and I’ve managed to nab a window spot although not without a fight– those old Hong Kong ladies are stronger than they look. We’re motoring from Central district over to Tsim Sha Tsui which is a part of town I’d just as soon avoid. It’s the part of town favoured by people who go to Hong Kong for the shopping (to me, these are the true foreigners- I genuinely can’t wrap my head around visiting an exotic and wondrous city to spend money on stuff.) No this is all about the ferry ride- 25 cents for 10 slow peaceful minutes; a half mile of breathing space between the frenetic clamour on both banks. I often think that New Yorkers would go insane without Central Park, and the same might be true for Hongkongers without their harbour. The water here is a mysterious deep emerald green, and the swell is always just enough to keep the dumplings in my belly bobbing pleasantly. Looking back, the grand Victoria Peak looms possessively over Hong Kong Island; a warm salty breeze sweeps the dust from my mind. I can’t quite believe this place exists, and that I’m in the middle of it.

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I realise this has all the hallmarks of me washing my hands for the twentieth time today, gazing glumly into the mirror as I lather up and dutifully follow procedure. But appearances can be deceptive. You see I’m really floating on my back in a hotel pool high above Jakarta- Indonesia’s packed and rapidly sinking capital. The sky is threateningly overcast, like it is every day, almost guaranteeing a biblical downpour in late afternoon; the pool only slightly wetter than the air above it, thick and still and heavy with humidity. The heat is jaw dropping. I’m so far up, only the occasional car horn pierces the dense atmosphere; the only other sounds a few birds chattering in the surrounding gardens, and the gentle lapping of the milk-warm water. There’s very little in my mind aside from the salty, spicy Nasi Goreng I had for lunch, and the fried duck I’m planning to have for dinner. I drift over to the side where a towel and a cold beer are waiting patiently. I’d better get out and get dressed- I’ve got a gig tonight!

Wait. Now I know I’m dreaming…

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Thanks, more soon! Nick

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…