Escape from New York

The sun hangs high over lower Manhattan and blinds; you should put on sunscreen but the thought doesn’t stay in your head long enough to produce action. Gusts of wind snatch floppy hats, pull at clothes and hair; a shocking blast of sea spray to the face chastens. A seagull effortlessly keeps pace, flapping languorously – we’re no longer weird, he sees this every day. Wave back at a group of conspicuously tanned middle-aged yachters lolling on their deck. “Remember when we used to take public transport, Brian?” 

I grew up in easy reach of the Pacific Ocean. Though never the outdoor type, I liked knowing I was never more than an hour’s drive away. In fact I always prefer being close to land’s edge– I start to get anxious when I get too far from the coast– I’ve been told that’s not unusual for Australians. And the Pacific was the only ocean I knew. But after nearly 20 years in the northern hemisphere, my allegiance has shifted. In my mind, the Pacific is clear and sunny and friendly, made for happy beautiful people. The North Atlantic is dark and deep, mysterious and brooding, and infinitely more interesting. A couple of times every summer I grudgingly agree to spend a day at the beach– it’s not that I particularly dislike it there, it’s just that grudgingly is how I do things. It’s kind of my “brand.” Until few years ago, a trip to Rockaway beach meant 45 minutes on the A train, which possibly sounds romantic to non-New Yorkers, but it is decidedly not. But in 2017 the Rockaway ferry was launched, and it changed everything. For the price of a subway ride, the ferry takes you from Wall Street, south around the bottom of Brooklyn, under the stately Verrazzano bridge, and back up the other side, past Coney Island with its ancient creaking fairground rides, and into lovely Jamaica Bay. If you’re lucky, or pushy, you might grab a seat on the top deck, but I usually settle for leaning over the back railing and watching the city disappear.

Entry to Rockaway is rough. The free shuttle to the beach is too horrific to consider: small, clapped-out vans with no suspension, torn broken seats, airless and stinking; on their last tour of duty before the knackery. I opt for the walk across the peninsula– it’s only ten minutes, but it’s an adventure though an almost cinematically rundown industrial horrorscape. Under crumbling rail bridges, past abandoned lots, burnt out cars; the gangs of beach-bound teenage girls in flip flops huddle tightly together, tote bags clutched nervously. But mixed with the stink of exhaust and urine, the ocean air holds a promise; and the rumble of the Atlantic infiltrates the sounds of traffic and wailing winos. 

Finally up the ramp to the boardwalk, and the sea breeze immediately blows the city off you. The pimps and hustlers make a final desperate grab for your pockets as they’re blown back into the shadows. Now it’s safe to stop and look around– the beach and the boardwalk stretch forever. The water is inviting, but food and drink are the priority– the promise of eating good food with my feet in the sand is really what gets me out here. This summer only half the stalls are open– I dearly miss my ceviche place– that was dynamite. But a new favourite is the Caracas Arepa bar, dishing out Venezuelan flat patties made from corn flour, split and filled with delicious things: sweet fried plantains, fresh cheese, homemade hot sauce. Take a couple down to the wide wooden steps leading down to the beach, plant your feet in the sand, cold beer at your side, and inhale. If you tire of the ocean vista, swivel around and watch the parade of weirdos sliding along the boardwalk, reminding you that while you’re in another world, you’re inescapably still in New York City.

Everyone goes to Rockaway. It’s free, easily accessible, very egalitarian. Be careful posting on Instagram that you’re there– you’re bound to get a message from someone you don’t want to see who’s just down the beach. Pegging a spot in the sand can be a challenge– I recommend parking your towel where there are lots of women, singly or in pairs– they’ll generally be reading or chatting quietly, and your day will be peaceful. Try not to get stuck near a gang of young single dudes– they’ve had a meeting and decided that the mating rituals of the animal kingdom carry the best chance of success with the ladies– they’ll be barking and preening and putting on overt displays of strength and athleticism and competitive stupidity. It’s these fellows who also seem fond of blasting Hot97 to cover up the annoying sounds of gently lapping waves and laughing children. Shouts of “Cerveza! Pina Colada! Nutcrackers!” announce the arrival of the drinks guy dragging his cooler of booze through the sand. He’s got beers and premixed cocktails, the nutcracker being a homemade NYC specialty of liquor and juice- sugary and powerful. It’s all presumably illegal, but the cops turn a blind eye. 

Loaded up on sugar and booze, it’s time for a dip. I will never understand Americans at the beach– maybe 10 percent go in the water– but it just means more water for me. Your aquatic experience depends on the mood of the Atlantic– she may be serene and relaxed, tolerantly allowing you to float on the gentlest of undulations; or she may be in a foul mood, sucking you under and spitting you out for having the impudence to leave the boardwalk. Either way, as a city dweller, a dunk in some salt water is one of the most revitalising experiences still available; it’s an immediate connection with the unknowable forces of the universe. I find it reassuring to put myself at the mercy of something that immense and powerful and mysterious, and the salt makes my hair look cool.

Dry off in the sun, stroll back to the food stalls for some fried clams and just one more beer. When it’s time to call it a day, try to time the return ferry for sunset (in high summer, you can’t beat the 7:15). It’s a very different experience to the ride out– everyone’s exhausted and sunburned, and the beer buzz is wearing off– in the old days the grubby subway ride back to the city would just make you want to cry. But on the back deck of the ferry, sun going down over the bay, head filled with salt air, splashing wake, and engine rumble, it’s about the gentlest reentry into reality you could hope for. 


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Snoozin’ on the Street of Dreams

The other evening, while idly scrolling my news feed, I happened upon a headline which didn’t directly relate to the ongoing collapse of the world around me. I clicked eagerly, and was soon learning about the subject of Rojo-ne, a fun trend where Japanese men get smashed and fall asleep in the middle of the road. This outrageously dangerous practice seems to take place exclusively on the island of Okinawa, where the weather is lovely and the rice wine is strong. Believing, as I do, that having one sherry too many and taking a siesta in the out-of-doors is one of life’s great pleasures, I felt an immediate affinity.

In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t quite live the sober, disciplined, almost monastic, lifestyle I do today. My first share house after leaving home was a filthy little cottage beside the railroad tracks in inner Sydney where I lived with two other aspiring jazz musicians. As young anarchists we all quite rightly refused to do any maintenance of the house or yard, and as a result the place was slowly being reclaimed by nature. Evenings were spent guzzling whatever bathtub booze we could afford, watching late-night informercials, and fighting over the one chair that wasn’t occupied by the tv; until at some point I’d hoist myself up, stagger through the kitchen into the yard, and collapse into the waist-high grass like a crumbling ice shelf. Before turning in, my house mates would look out at me motionless among the weeds, shake their heads and chuckle tolerantly before locking me out, with the assumption I was still alive.

 Eight months in that fermenting flat was all we could stand, so a couple of us signed up for a stint on the MV Kareliya- my first of several awful cruise ship experiences. This was surely the most low-rent tub on the oceans, and we were certainly the worst band the cruise industry had ever seen. Unrehearsed, late, scruffy, insubordinate, we did our best to get kicked off. I even got so sidetracked on a port day I missed an entire two-week cruise (they say the band never sounded better.) But as bad as ship life got, there was always the crew bar. Deep in the guts of the boat, far away from the prying eyes of paying customers, the crew bar offered cheap and free-pouring drinks and an air of desperate bloodthirsty abandon- for a band of young lunatic musicians, it was like a beautiful dream. And at 6am, the early rising passengers taking their morning constitutional around the deck could often be seen stepping gingerly over the prone and snoring form of the band’s saxophonist. The sea air, the gently lapping water- what better place to snooze when you’ve had a skinful? 

But as skewed as my perspective got, I always chose my campsites carefully. At sea I didn’t drop off wrapped around the anchor; back home I didn’t fall asleep dangling from the rotary clothesline; and I never once took a nap in the middle of the road. Of literally all the places… My brothers in rojo-ne should heed the words of karate master, sage, and native Okinawan, Mr Miyagi, from the movie Karate Kid: “Walk on road, hm? Walk right side: safe. Walk left side: safe. Walk middle: sooner or later get squished just like grape.” Sadly my days of al fresco siestas are behind me now, but for those of you who still rojo-ne, I salute you; but remember that sleeping in the middle of the road impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems. Please nap responsibly. 


 

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New York City: Signs of Life in the Smoking Ruins

The host eyed us with disdain. “You’re with the band…?” Having been on both sides of this equation, I know the drill. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians, are the bane of the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain knew: “I need more jazz musicians in my restaurant? They’re fucking deadbeats!” Thinking quickly, we stammered, “but we’re going to spend money, honest!” The bar is called Fiddlesticks, which annoys me for some reason. Imagine taking a date there, falling in love, and having to tell your grandkids that you realised she was your destiny, all your heart desired, as you held hands under the table at Fiddlesticks. Honestly. Anyway, perched on tiny stools over the Greenwich Avenue subway grate, C and I obediently ordered our state-mandated snack, allowing us to drink to our hearts’ content. Every seven minutes we’d lean sideways to avoid the plume of stale corpse-breath erupting from beneath our feet as the A train rumbled by. A restaurant down the block fired up the barbecue, sending wafts of sweet, meaty smoke along the street, as masked pedestrians shuffled by, eyeing us suspiciously. And crammed into a doorway, the band swung like nothing had changed, Jerry Weldon’s towering tenor sound bouncing from one side of the Avenue to the other, only a few residents hip enough to keep their windows open. The atmosphere was claustrophobic but jubilant–  we can drink and listen to music– it’s better than it was.

At an old favourite, 1803 in TriBeCa, we sat in the ruins of our city and ate grilled oysters, while a band of our friends and heroes played their hearts out, their music echoing through the deserted neighbourhood; intently ignoring the iceberg out the porthole and the water lapping around their shins. —The word “parklet” is an unwelcome addition to the lexicon: outside hundreds of foundering restaurants across the city, one lane of roadway is abducted, swallowed by the sidewalk, overlaid with wooden decking and outfitted with tables and chairs, sometimes clear plastic dividers so our neighbours don’t infect us. We laugh and drink and bask in the cheerful hubbub and try not to look over at the abandoned apartment buildings all around— Musician friends, some we rarely saw in normal life, dropped by to bump elbows. Mask on, mask off. On a warm August evening this was possibly the only live music in New York City, and those of us still here don’t want to pass up an opportunity. In the end we took our masks off and blew. There’s no alternative. Nobody knows what the fuck to do. The rules go too far and not far enough. But at the end of each tune, the small crowd erupted, glasses raised, shouts of encouragement. Uncertainty reigns, but music and wine helps. 

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The High Line snakes along 22 blocks of Manhattan’s west side. A disused elevated railway line, it was revived and reopened as a public park about ten years ago and was, until recently, a major attraction for infuriatingly slow-walking tourists. On Saturday night, beneath the park, in the walled-in courtyard of the Guardian Angel church, it was muggy and airless. Bus-stop-style benches seemed to sink into the rubber matted floor. The band and I poured sweat as we attempted to reach a masked and clearly sober audience of wide eyed young people who seemed unsure how they got there; peering down from the rooftop, more bemused faces, but these folks had sensibly paid more to be further away from us. At band level, hands started reaching into shopping bags containing wine, beer, champagne, even the occasional cocktail shaker– this was entirely appropriate: if there’s one thing I know about church, it’s always BYOB– and by set two things were loosening up. Jerry Weldon arrived to help us out on tenor as pizza deliveries started showing up, and by 10pm the squares were stomping their feet and making out extravagantly with people they’d just met. There was no bar, no pictures of jazz legends on the wall, no surly doorman; but for a few hours, the place was a jazz club.

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Sunday, and I dragged my feet along a path I know well. Every week for months I’d planned to visit Smalls, and of course nothing ever came up to stop me, but still I hesitated. They now put on a live-streamed concert every evening but the idea of descending that legendary staircase after so many months of lockdown felt like volunteering to spend a night in a haunted house. I know so many of its secrets. I’ll delve more into this someday, but the promise of some swinging music from my buddy, and fellow club manager, Carlos Abadie, finally got me down there. And in a way it was as eerie as I expected. The club will reopen the first day it’s allowed, but for now dust hangs in the air; the chairs are stacked, the walls are bare, the bar shelves and fridges are empty, and of course there’s almost nobody there. I wiped off a bar stool and slouched up the back of the club, feeling guilty but I don’t know why. The cats breathed air into the vacuum, vibrations making the air shimmer, dust billowing; a glint of possibility. Strangely the music hasn’t changed, hasn’t become suddenly sad and uncertain, it’s just become incongruous with its surroundings. New York City still has a faint pulse but you have to know where to look. 


 

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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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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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A Sandwich in the Storm

There’s a reason Manhattan’s Upper East Side doesn’t get much of a mention in the guide books. It’s a pretty bleak part of town. No matter the weather, up there the sky is grey and washed out; the wind whips around corners of blindingly white buildings, and pedestrians wear a mask of grim determination as they scuttle to get anywhere else. Some days it’s just gloomy; on others, it’s downright bruising. And then there’s now.

  I walked with C, west on 70th street, crossing silent, deserted avenues, making our way uncertainly, staring around in bleary disbelief. The lockdown was in full effect, the only signs of life a few exhausted hospital workers out for a desperate cigarette or a hurried bite from one of the few remaining bagel-and-coffee carts. Mealtimes, like sleep patterns, seem to have fallen by the wayside since the quarantining began. We eat and sleep whenever we feel like it, losing track of time and date. After a few blocks we realized we were both starving. This was not good. Under the new laws, restaurants could serve takeout food, but most weren’t, choosing instead to take the hit and shutter completely. The empty overpriced coffee chains offering their sad selection of apologetic pastries were somehow even less enticing than usual.

We pushed on, torturing ourselves by stopping to read the menus still plastered outside the neighbourhood’s fancier joints, when our eyes were caught by the glowing neon sign of a corner diner. We’d walked by this place countless times, always on our way somewhere, confident that it, like everything else, would always be there. We looked through the front window into a Hopper painting: a classic American diner, empty except for the proprietor standing behind the counter, towel slung over drooping shoulder, staring glumly back at us. His welcoming smile as we came in couldn’t hide the tired worry in his eyes. He motioned to the row of shiny plastic-topped stools bolted down in front of the formica counter. We took a load off and surveyed the situation: the polished surfaces of bright primary colours, the display case offering an ambitious selection of pies of various percentages; ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers; the antique milkshake machine, the stacks of chunky, off-white crockery; doughnuts on the counter, famous faces on the wall… the whole tableau enveloped in the same familiar uneasy quiet, punctured by the occasional blast of Merengue from the kitchen.

 Our host solemnly presented the appropriately mammoth menu, a greatest-hits of American diner specialties: all-day breakfast, Belgian waffles, club sandwiches, chili, chicken soup… When you slide into a booth at an American corner restaurant, you’re not looking for individuality or innovation. You don’t even want excellence. You come here when you need something flavorful and comforting. Soothing and steadying. We immediately and wordlessly settled on a hot pastrami sandwich on rye. It was the only reasonable choice under the circumstances. And a pair of beers while we waited. We chatted with our man about the current situation (who talks about anything else these days?); he told us with good humoured resignation about the scarcity of customers, and his efforts to keep the joint running. In uncertain times, places like this– neighbourhood stalwarts– supply much more than food. They provide constancy and stability, an emotional anchor in the terrifying turbulence. But the trouble is double when the one thing people need in a crisis– human interaction– is the one thing we can’t have. He clearly felt a duty to sustain his neighbours, and was doing his darnedest, but the writing was on the wall.

 Within minutes, a paper bag slid onto the counter. We chugged the rest of our beers, shared some last optimistic pleasantries, buttoned up our coats and shoved back out into the dreary street; strolled to the corner, leaned against a pole and had a picnic. 

 I’d be lying if I said it was the best pastrami sandwich I’d ever had. New York City has countless Jewish delis that wouldn’t use this thing to wipe the tables down. But at that moment, on that corner, with the world shifting beneath our feet, it was everything we wanted. The reassuring rye; the fatty, salty, smoky meat and warming mustard; the bracing vinegar and satisfying crunch of a shared pickle. In the strangest time, when New York looks and feels completely unlike New York, we had a genuine New York moment. It couldn’t have been more New York if I’d mugged her and she’d had me whacked. And then a rat had run off with our sandwich.

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5PM. Different neighbourhood, same day.

This post was suggested by C.

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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A Page from the Jetlag Diary: Bangkok

Bangkok. I haven’t slept properly in ten days and thing are getting weird. So many hours lying awake in the dark, hoping against hope that unconsciousness will overtake me; always just slightly too hot or too cold. I feel myself drifting towards the blackness, but I never get beyond limbo.  Every day I eventually give up and stumble out of the hotel and try to make something of the day, but today even the gentlest of exertions seems beyond me. At noon I drift out into violence, the merciless South East Asian sunshine piercing my corneas like a hot needle. The chaos of central Bangkok leaves me disoriented and bewildered- roaring motos, gasoline fumes, sputtering tuk-tuks, their drivers’ garbled voices as they race by. The familiar but overwhelming smells: wok smoke from the food carts, sickly sweet durian, fish sauce? Dog shit? Normally fairly adventurous, all I can think of now is comfort, reassurance, familiarity; the pleasant thrill of communicating through the language barrier to procure a plate of green curry almost unimaginable now. I weave, dazed, down the street, perception skewed, the road rippling, sudden shimmering troughs appearing underfoot; every car horn, engine rev, child’s scream grates my nerve endings. I’m going to eat a hamburger, I just know it. It goes against all my principles of international travel; I’m going to despise myself, and worse, I know it’s way more likely to make me sick than anything from a rusty food cart down the end of a cat infested back alley. I perch on a stool in the horrendous western-style bar- the type specializing in “international cuisine”: pasta, Thai classics, fish & chips. I slog through the greasy overcooked overpriced burger, trying to keep my eyes averted from the horribly brutal Muay Thai accosting me from multiple big-screens. It’s precisely the bad decision I knew it would be, but deep down, I’m ashamed to admit, it’s meeting a deep need. I trudge the two blocks back to the hotel, where I look down and realise I’m clutching the sodden, crumpled napkin from the bar, like some kind of security blanket. I can’t see an end to this.

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 I’ve experienced an unwelcome feeling of lethargy or indecisiveness this trip. Beijing and Bangkok are two resoundingly exotic locations I’ve visited several times before, and while still undeniably strange and mysterious, still largely unfathomable, I’ve now done a lot of the things I wanted to do here- eaten the must-try foods, seen a few of the standout sites- and I find myself feeling constrained by a kind of apathy, maybe because the gob-smacking awe is gone. I’m far from comfortable, but it’s starting to feel a little familiar. 

 With no plan in mind, I took a packed commuter boat across the Chao Phraya, the muddy, polluted river that snakes through Bangkok. It dropped me at Wang Lang market- a maze of alleyways crammed with stalls selling a bewildering assortment of goods mostly aimed at the locals. I waded in, but before long the tight spaces and constant bodily contact drove me to a deserted riverside bar where I nursed a Singha beer and contemplated my surroundings. Brazenly predictable Thai pop music floated blandly from nearby speakers and mixed with the sounds of the river: shouts of passing riverboat drivers as they leaned almost into the water to pull off hairpin turns; the rumble and fart of their smoke-spewing and apparently homemade engines; their wake splashing against the stone wall below me. I watched the river carrying the detritus of an overcrowded, rapidly sinking capital: plastic bottles, discarded children’s toys, a single flip flop. Some kind of small heron-like bird watched me as it floated by on a clump of weeds. I tried to climb inside this little universe but I still felt like I was watching the action through a screen. I was in it but not of it.

 

In the end I found an answer to my listlessness where I should have known to look all along: at the bottom of a bowl of extraordinary Tom Yum soup from the excellent Mit Ko Yuan. Chewy lemongrass stalks, roughly torn-up lime leaves, ferocious chillies, clumps of cilantro, and whole giant prawn heads just begging to have the restorative goo sucked out of them. Weird, this travel thing- it’s different every time. But with a stomach full of local good stuff, tongue on fire and veins pumping with chilli-induced endorphins, I don’t worry about it quite as much.

(Thanks for reading! If you want the next one sent straight to your inbox, enter your email address top right of this page… Cheers, Nick)

Ducking and Weaving: A Night On the Town, Beijing

 I’ve eaten some pretty interesting stuff in Beijing, often involving the insides and outsides; the heads, shoulders, knees, and toes of a wide range of God’s creatures. But here, on my fourth trip to the capital, I was determined to try some transcendental Peking duck. I’d attempted it before: a few years ago a well-meaning Beijing musician, hearing me talk about it, made a big fuss of presenting me with some sweaty shopping bags full of greasy takeout duck, which I dutifully cooed over while surreptitiously depositing in my shirt pocket. This time I was taking no chances. Hours of mouth-watering internet research led me to Siji Minfu Roast Duck Shop, an hour’s walk from my hotel, past some of Beijing’s most famous attractions, which I must go and look at sometime. I presented myself to the young woman at the hostess station who thrust a ticket in my hand and snapped “two hours!” I was prepared for this. I trundled off and explored the surrounding Wangfujing shopping district, browsed in the English language bookstore (where I bought a translation of a Chinese novel which claims to recount “the exuberant misadventures of the hapless hero Fang Hung-chien.” I’ll let you know…); got desperately lost in a massive, blindingly-lit, but eerily quiet shopping mall; and heard a choir at St Joseph’s Wangfujing Church impart the Catholic Hymnal with all the soothing, warm vocal timbre of Chinese Opera. By this point I’d lost track of time, so went back to the restaurant where the woman gave me a look that clearly said, “I told you two hours so you’d go away and not come back!” I waited another half hour while a robot voice shrieked (presumably) ticket numbers in Mandarin, until I was given a nod, and led into the dining room.

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Hanging out at Siji Minfu

A whole roasted duck was brought to my table and presented for my approval- I figured it was like tasting a wine before it’s poured, so I played it cool, grabbed the thing and held it up to the light. I then took a small bite, swirled it around in my mouth, spat it on the floor, and gave the waiter an indifferent nod. His look of astonishment was undoubtedly due to my unexpected expertise. Someone got a little respect that night.

 In the end, it was ok. Crispy skin, tender meat, refined and correct- they clearly know what they’re doing. This probably marks me as a barbarian, but I’ll take fatty, salty, loud, uncouth Hong Kong-style duck any day. And because this was a classy, high-end joint, they couldn’t be seen to serve the local water-beer… my meal was paired with a flirty, slightly rambunctious Budweiser. 

 Dinner was over in no time, so with most of the evening still ahead of me, I decided to knock something else off my list. Every culture has their fire-water, and I consider it my duty as a conscientious traveler to try it wherever I go. The Chinese go for a drink called Baijiu: a clear spirit usually made from rice or sorghum, with an astronomical alcohol content. It’s the world’s most popular spirit, outselling whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined, but you’d be hard pressed to find it outside of China. The Chinese don’t really go for bars- they do their drinking at restaurants or at home, Baijiu being a central part of any banquet- but I found one decidedly hipster joint specializing in the stuff, so my duck and I waddled over. According to the Jakarta Post, “kinder critics say it evokes truffles or burning plastic, while less generous descriptions have included “industrial cleaning solvent” and “liquid razor blades.”” I don’t remember having this kind of negative reaction, but having tried six different kinds, I don’t remember much at all. 

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Baijiu tasting at http://www.capitalspiritsbj.com (photo: https://www.travelandleisure.com)

In the end, a successful outing; if nothing else, I felt I had a bellyful of China that night. And if you ever want to tell me your deepest, most shameful secrets, load me up with half a dozen shots of Baiju, and I guarantee I’ll forget everything. Also, thanks to whoever it was whose doorstep I slept on.