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.

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.  

Throw Your Dentures in the Air and Pass the Meds– it’s the Roaring 20s!!

 It’s the first blog post of a new decade- I can only imagine you’re as excited about this momentous event as I am! If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear the world is crumbling in a fiery heap around us, so I think the only remedy is to let our remaining hair down and party! After all, it’s the roaring 20s!

 I rang in the New Year in a swanky hotel in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by attractive young folk, and free-flowing champagne. The lights were low, the weather was warm, a night of repercussion-free debauchery seemed in order. Of course, being part of the band, or hired-help-with-benefits, I was “in” the party, but not “of” the party. But I was in my best suit, I’d put away a few sneaky white wines while the boss wasn’t looking, and I was ready to boogie! We watched a live telecast from Times Square on a giant screen, and charged our glasses as we counted down along with the maniacal plastic-faced celebrities. The big moment came, the strangely half-hearted cheers went up, and we launched into Auld Lang Syne… to the apparent mystification of all present. Instead of getting the party started, these good looking, financially secure, socially mobile young people just stood there awkwardly, checked their phones, rolled their eyes, then put their coats on and drifted off. If a three-piece jazz combo with no drums playing obscure boogaloos from the 1960s doesn’t keep these people on the dance floor, what will??

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At 12:30AM, we released the remaining patrons from the grip of our groove, packed up, and shoved off. I strolled down 7th Avenue towards the village, the night still young, and my eyes still focussing; my mind abuzz with anticipation of a night of delightfully terrible decisions. And all the way, the same event repeated itself: haughty, detached youngsters (the girls in glamorous gowns, the boys in jeans and sneakers) dribbling out of bars and clubs, silently and resignedly inserting themselves into Ubers. Maybe they were all going to wild parties where they snort stimulants off each other’s exquisitely toned body parts, before stuffing themselves obscenely with foie gras and Krug to build up the energy for the ensuing week-long orgy. But honestly, these kids had the air of going home. Now fair enough- New Year’s Eve is amateur night– maybe they do their partying the other 364 nights of the year. But I don’t think so. 

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 In the actual Roaring 20s, young people partied to celebrate newfound freedoms, while protesting against the puritanical prejudices of their prudish parents. World War 1 was done and dusted; for the first time the kids had their own culture, slang, music, and fashion and they were celebrating a bright future. With our collective shithouse going up in flames, today’s youth realize they’ll be lucky to have a future at all, and they’re responding with early nights and sound investments, leaving the grind of reckless revelry to those of us who know how to do it properly. Older and wiser, it’s my generation that needs to light the way: we have years of experience behaving disgracefully, but we don’t yet need help getting up the stairs. This decade, I vote for more tuxedos and cocktails, late nights, off-centre party hats, and general abandon. Who’s with me?!

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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. 

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.