Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!

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Farm animals, a sex romp, and some un-Australian behaviour: Brisbane & Melbourne

I used to be Australian. Like, I was pretty good at it. I played cricket, I ate vegemite every morning, I made fun of Americans- I was an Aussie bloke. And above all, I knew how to act in a pub. I was more comfortable in a pub than in my own home. And the fact that my home is surprisingly uncomfortable doesn’t reduce the importance of that. But things have changed. Now I go into an Aussie pub and just stand there, mouth agape, like a child who’s accidentally wandered into a sex shop. The beers are all different, and suddenly American-style is a selling point. And they come in confusing sizes called pots and pints and schooners. And a schooner in one state is called a pot in another. And a pint can be fairly large or freaking enormous, depending on which end of the bar you order it from. And none of them is the size of beer I want. So you know what? Sometimes I put on an American accent. Because it’s less embarrassing to be an American than to be an Australian who doesn’t know how to order a beer.

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I tried this ploy in Brisbane, but my performance was interrupted by the explosive guffaws of Penny, one of my oldest friends, who I’d forgotten was standing right next to me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with that, and fair enough, I guess. I slunk away and let her do the ordering.

Beers in, we did a short sight-seeing drive through the streets of this famously sunny and friendly town, Penny helpfully pointing out various important landmarks, none of which penetrated the exhausted, befuddled, jet lagged fog that has inhabited my brain for the last few weeks. She dropped me at my hotel, where I checked in to the biggest room I’ve ever seen. The front-desk staff were extraordinarily friendly, and had cheerfully given me an upgrade without my asking. Maybe that’s just how people in Brisbane are, and I’ve been a cynical New Yorker for too long, but I found that deeply suspicious. If I find out I was drugged and made to perform in some kind of low-rent hotel room sex romp, I won’t be surprised. Neither should you when the video surfaces online. I mean if. Remember: drugged.

The gig was at a club that’s part of the Jazz Music Institute, and is essentially a bar with classrooms attached to it. The green room had a whiteboard in it. The institute had provided me with a couple of senior students for the gig, and even though I admit to being mildly concerned at their wide eyes and relentless bloody optimism, my fears were allayed by the end of the first tune. They dealt with whatever I threw at them, and put on a fine show. We topped the night off at a jam session at the other jazz club in town, which is brand new and feels a bit like an airport food court, but was populated with talented young musicians and drunk patrons, and what more can you ask for in a night out.

Early next morning it was off to Melbourne. Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has a long-standing, and largely imaginary, rivalry with my home town, Sydney. Melbourne is known for its healthy arts scene, and they’ve always had an active and widely-supported jazz community. That’s all well and good, but my cousin is a top notch chef, and runs one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, and between you and me, that’s why I was there. A gang of family took over a corner of the restaurant and wolfed down a succession of minutely planned, expertly executed, perfectly plated delights, while being charmed by the knowledgeable and professional, yet friendly staff. There was a guy who just did cheese. CHEESE! I had the pigeon followed by the pig- a bucolic scenario if ever I’ve eaten one. The restaurant is called Cutler & Co., in Fitzroy. Eat there!!

Sunday night, and the ostensible reason for my visit- a gig at the relatively new JazzLab. Opened by the owner of famed Melbourne jazz club, Bennett’s Lane, it’s a very handsomely appointed club with a great feel. Andrew Dickeson flew down from Sydney to play drums with me, along with ace trumpeter Mat Jodrell (whom I know from his frequent NY visits), and new friend Ben Robertson on bass. A very healthy crowd, dotted with some very welcome faces from my distant past, and various wonderful, and dutifully enthusiastic, family members, made for a smooth first landing in Melbourne. Next morning, off to Bangkok, where shit is probably going to be…different…

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Rainforests, raw octopus, and vampirism: New Zealand

It’s important to stay grounded. Humble. You can’t let the high-flying jet-setting lifestyle change you. If you’re ever in Auckland and need the wind taken out of your sails, I recommend the Albion Hotel. It was reasonably priced, and as I had my first night in New Zealand to myself, well located for some food and a look around. It was also minuscule, dusty, grimy and poky. A flop house like this will definitely stop you getting too big for your boots. However you’ll still be too big for your bed and shower. Redemption was downstairs in the form of a pub with an open fire and cricket on the telly, so it wasn’t all bad.

Google informed me that most of the nearby dining options were housed in the city’s gargantuan casino, which I rejected on principle. Following the advice of bartenders on every block, I eventually discovered a tiny Japanese noodle joint jam-packed with 5 Japanese people. I had a bowl of raw octopus in wasabi, which was chewy, sinus-scorchingly hot, and absolutely delicious; followed by a killer ramen. All that and a few beers and even the weird creaking noises and suspicious smells of the Albion couldn’t keep me awake

Next morning my mate Roger picked me up and took me to his lair, buried at the end of an impenetrable maze of corridors, deep below Auckland University. Rog is an old mate from my Sydney days, a brilliant saxophonist, and now runs the jazz program at the uni. And appears to be doing a bang up job. The kids I met in the halls and in the few hours teaching I did were unfailingly enthusiastic and eager, with a genuine musical curiosity. I killed several of them and am saving their blood to ingest when I need a little pick-me-up.

That night we had a cracking gig to a packed house at the Thirsty Dog- a fine beery pub- our show serving as the opener of the Auckland jazz festival. The local cats did a swinging job, and Rog got up on the last couple of tunes to kick my arse and take the show home. Then it was back to the idyllic rainforest retreat in which Rog and his family live, and where, I assume, they spend their time hunting with spears and building generators out of rocks and fish guts. Standing on their rickety balcony, overlooking the mangroves, I felt, literally and figuratively, about as far as I’d ever been from New York.

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Next morning I took a short flight to Wellington, where I was met by my hosts Mark and Veronica, and driven through lovely small-town streets and picturesque waterfronts. Mark’s a terrific drummer and I know the two of them from their extended stays in New York. After a nap at their also spectacularly vista’d home, we headed to the gig. While the show had attracted few bookings, the venue provided me with plenty of reservations. I think we could charitably call it a “loft”- an emptied out office space in a dilapidated concrete block with no toilets or running water. A map helpfully tacked to the bar directed the needy customer to the bathrooms in the gym down the block. The bar was tended by Mark and Veronica, and consisted of a fridge, several 6-packs, and a few bottles of wine; and an ingenious, MacGuyver-esque glass-washing system comprising two buckets and a hose. The crowd was indeed light, but warm and engaged; Mark and bassist Mike threw themselves headlong into the performance, and I think we gave them a great show. The Wellington Jazz Co-op is Mark and Veronica’s baby, and while the location may not be glamorous, they’re really putting in the hard yards to bring jazz to the people of Wellington, without the commercial constraints a conventional club can put on the artists. I hope it goes from strength to strength. Gig done, we all trooped around the corner to a big cheerful pub with live music and friendly folk and inhaled an appropriately greasy post-show snack.

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And a number of drinks, which I regretted as I waited for my 4:15AM Uber to the airport. It was a ridiculously short time to see a country, but I did get a feel for the joint, and next time I’ll try to add a few more stops to the visit. I had a lovely time, and I’m proud to say I was mature and refrained from imitating the accent, except while swearing at the Albion’s ludicrously low shower head which was seriously giving me the shuts. Next up: Brisbane…

Stimulants, Attack Birds, and a Lovely Pie: Sydney

By my calculations, there are upwards of a metric bunch of restaurants called Bar Italia around the world. But my absolute favourite, and without doubt the only one ever I’ve been to, is Bar Italia. That place is great. It’s in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, which despite being named after an explorer from Prussia (one of those pre-Internet countries) who got lost and was never seen again, is now home to Sydney’s Italian population. And my brother Tim. Tim doesn’t keep coffee around the house due to repeated violent run ins with the French press, so when in Sydney, my day starts at Bar Italia. It was a regular part of my life when I lived here, and then, as now, one coffee there is strong enough to keep me awake well into the afternoon.

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Legal stimulants taken care of, I had a bit of time to kill between gigs, so one day took a stroll through my old stomping ground, the Inner West. When I was a kid it was unfashionable and grotty, but it’s now one of Sydney’s most outrageously expensive areas, where locals look down their noses at blow-ins like me. I paused outside the various hovels I once called home, peered in the windows and rifled through the mailboxes. My only goal that day was to eat a meat pie (it’s as close to a national dish as we get), and drink a beer, which I achieved but not before being yelled at for taking photos of a pub (one in which I used to live, I should say), and being attacked by a large bird for, I assume, taking photos of its tree. Here’s a picture of the pie. A highlight.

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Then began three intense days of grueling toil which any mortal man would call “easy”. On Thursday, a rehearsal in which I displayed my lack of recent big band experience by not remembering any of the old jokes (“watch for my cue” “the near cue?” “no, the far cue”); followed by an hour blatantly lying about the quality of my own work on the radio; then a great night playing jazz at Foundry 616 (which, as I’m required by joke law to say, is far superior to the previous 615 Foundries). I reunited with old mates Andrew Dickeson and Ashley Turner and we swung our way through two sets of favourites in front of an appreciative crowd, some of whom I wasn’t even related to!

On Friday Andrew, Ashley, and I, along with ace guitarist Carl Dewhurst stumbled into Electric Avenue studios to put down an album the old school analogue way: direct to tape. This produces a beautiful warm sound, but unlike digital recording, means there’s no editing, and therefore no mistakes. I made lots of mistakes. We were there for ten hours, but I think we got a pretty good record. I followed this by letting my folks buy the Peking Duck I’d been denied in Peking, and it was bloody delicious.

Sunday was Manly Jazz Festival day. I rode the ferry across Sydney harbour (which I maintain is one of the loveliest experiences available anywhere), and played a quartet set with Sydney trumpet legend Warwick Alder, to a lively crowd that for the whole hour remained actively engaged and intensely focused on their fish and chips. Then a couple of big band sets in which I fumbled my way through the second alto book and tried not to be noticed; interspersed with stretches on the beach, and much longer stretches at the front bar of the Steyne hotel.

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Monday was my last day in town, and a day off, so Tim and I went back to Manly to soak up the last of the atmosphere. It’s a small but charming and well organized festival in a beautiful location, and its egalitarian approach welcomes all comers, not just beret’d jazz nerds. The night finished with a rowdy and good natured jam session where I did my darnedest on a few tunes with saxophonists Andrew Speight and Eric Alexander. I bid the cats farewell over a couple of quiet beers, and headed home to pack for New Zealand. About which I’ll tell you in a few days…

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A bumpy Landing (or Man Has Challenging Taxi Ride; Eventually Finds Hotel)

It was humid and smoggy and I was collapsing beside a 6 lane freeway when it occurred to me I might be in over my head. The smart thing to do in a (very) strange country is to jump in a cab outside the airport and ride to the hotel in style, but that’s too easy for this genius. The Beijing airport express train dropped me at Dongzhimen, an area somewhere near the city centre, and presumably a good spot to start a much shorter cab ride. It was 5:30PM when I hit the street, and if you think rush hour is intense in your town, etc., etc. I jostled my way through throngs of commuters with my horn and suitcase leaving bruises in my wake. I played a game of real-life Frogger to get through the bike lane, and finding myself on some kind of median strip, I thrust out my arm. Ten minutes later a seriously battle-scarred cab honked at me from a middle lane. I dragged my gear through the traffic, dumped it in the trunk, and threw myself into the back seat. Like a good boy scout I had the name of the hotel and the address, in Chinese, on my phone. I showed it to the surly, sweating driver, who stared at it for some time and then proceeded to shout at me in Mandarin. We set off through the traffic, honking, and missing bike riders and pedestrians by millimetres, while my driver stared at my phone and fumed. Clearly the man had no idea where we were going. Eventually he too seemed resigned to that fact, and after ten minutes of hair-raising death-defiance, lurched the car over and motioned me out. I was now nowhere near the train station or my hotel, with not much cash and no wifi. Miraculously I hailed another cab fairly quickly, and showed this guy my phone. That’s about as far as we got- he furrowed his brow and stared for a few minutes before handing the thing back and speeding off. It seemed I was screwed.

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I had a vague idea of the direction of the hotel, thanks to an offline Google map, so I started walking. I figured it would take a couple of hours. After half a mile dragging horn and bags along bumpy, cracked pavements, I reached a big, international-looking hotel– one in which I sorely wished I was staying. I tried to explain my plight to several well-meaning but uncomprehending concierge types, before finding my saviour- a young, friendly, manager with basic English. I stood at her desk, sweating and gasping, while she kindly wrote out more detailed directions to my hotel; and when she presented me with that golden post-it, black with impenetrable script, I knew my troubles were over. With newfound confidence, I bounded back out to the street, found another cab, proudly proffered the driver my scrap of paper, and lay back, secure in the knowledge that my chariot would spirit me away to my luxurious accommodations. We didn’t seem to be moving. I opened my eyes to find the same look of utter befuddlement I’d been witnessing for hours. What the fuck, people. I wasn’t getting out of this cab. If he wanted to swear at me in Mandarin, I had a few choice New Jersey words I could send back. We drove off, driver shaking his head and cursing the entire Western Hemisphere. At this point the only thing left was to turn on my phone’s extremely expensive “roaming” service and call the hotel. They’d sort this out. No answer. What kind of hotel doesn’t answer the fucking phone! Answering the fucking phone is a central part of the hotel business! Then the driver had his phone out, and after stabbing at the screen, handed the thing over to me. I assumed he’d succeeded where I’d failed and reached the hotel, but this was just some friend of his who spoke some English. Next I had to read out to him my interpretation of Chinese place names- for your amusement, they were Huguosi, Xinjiekou, Qiangongyong, and Zhaodengyu- which, even though my pronunciation sounded like a stroke survivor with a mouth full of paper clips, seemed to help more than the actual, specific, detailed information in actual Chinese. We made a few pitstops to ask directions, and I know we passed the same street-corner domino game at least three times, but eventually we screeched to a halt on a corner and I handed over the pittance showing on the meter. Seriously it was like five bucks.

It took me another 20 minutes dragging my crap through back alleys, but eventually I found the Sofu hotel.  Airport to hotel: four hours. I scoured the streets, found the only restaurant open, inhaled some mystery meat on sticks and several litres of Chinese beer, then crashed.

If you go to Beijing and stay at the Sofu Hotel, just remember it’s on Huguosi between Deshengmen and Xinjiekou, near Qiangongyong. Got it?

Food & Whine: NYC-Hong Kong

I’m sitting on a plane between Hong Kong and Beijing, belly full of flaccid noodles and a white wine my peerless palate informs me is the July vintage. The tour’s just begun and I’m complaining already. There are so many insults flung at the modern air traveler, I don’t know why I always focus on the awful, awful food, but that’s really what hurts the most. The upside of this is that when you arrive at your destination, you’re READY. My last two days of meals have all been resignedly endured in airports, planes or hotels, and I’m ready for the real thing. Ducks are one of my favourite animals, whether waddling by the lake, or glistening on the plate, and Beijing is known for them, so stay tuned for roast duck tales.

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The flight from New York to Hong Kong was predictably tough. I get about 12 hours in, with 4 to go, and I tell myself I’m never doing it again. I have lofty goals of productivity, and start by editing videos and writing charts, but before long, survival becomes the only goal. The only way I can imagine it being worse is if I still smoked- the withdrawals made every hour double. I was helped by the knowledge that at the end of this leg was the Airport Novotel. It’s an undistinguished, modern, bland pile, but it’s quiet and comfortable, and the bar serves a fine martini. Two of those on top of jet lag and 24 hours awake, and I’m out like a light.

So I’m on my way to mainland China, tired and bleary, but energised by anticipation. Most of my regularly-patronised websites are blocked by what’s known as the Great Firewall- I have a sneaky little app that’s supposed to be able to dig a tunnel to the other side, but we’ll see if it works. A few days away from Facebook might turn out to be a blessing. And will the Beijingers turn out for an obscure Australian saxophonist? Tell you all about it in the next one.

An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.