The man who ate Lincoln Rd is climbing a mountain of chicken and chips and sugar and cream and salt, lots of salt, and carrying the hopes and fears of all who follow my progress. Earlier this year I made it my mission to eat at every single one of the 55 food joints along Lincoln Rd's 3km stretch in West Auckland. I want to accomplish it before Christmas, and this week I notched up food joint number 20. Getting there. Getting fatter, certainly.
People from all walks of life come up to me in the street and in supermarkets, banks, airports, and say: "It's the man who ate Lincoln Rd!" People used to approach me and say something nice about my books or columns or stories; now they only recognise me for my appetite. I write about eating on Lincoln Rd every week in a series that the Herald posts online on Friday mornings. I write about the food, the quest, the challenge. Readers who stop me in the street want to know what it's like - and whether I'll make it to the finishing line. So does my doctor.
"The man," he sighed when I saw him recently, "who ate Lincoln Rd." I popped in to get a prescription for something minor - atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that has the potential to kill or seriously incapacitate.
I like my quack. He's in my corner. But he worries too much, and I laughed in his face when he took my blood pressure and I aced it. "Lincoln Rd," I said, "chills me out." Zen and the art of eating a lot of fast food.
Because isn't that what life's all about - tempting death, and cheating it? Well, no, I grant you that it's about other things, too. But we all know that it's bad for us when we eat at McDonald's and Burger King and Texas Chicken and the rest of those castles built on fat.
Nutritionists and other professional nags think they're telling us something we don't know when they moan about cholesterol and such. We're not stupid. We're aware of the risks. We face the fear and fill our face with fast food anyway.
It tastes good, and it has meaning. I started out on the journey because I have lofty, pretentious ideas about documenting Auckland life, its existential state and psychic energies, and it's long struck me that Lincoln Rd seemed emblematic of something about the way we live now. Headline, the Herald, May 5: "NZ's worst traffic nightmare." The story was about the busiest stretches of road in New Zealand. Traffic count data collected by Auckland Transport put Great North Rd (between Lynwood Rd and Aotea Rd, Glen Eden) in first place, and Lincoln Rd in second place. I was quite disappointed it was only runner-up - give it time, though, and I'm sure Lincoln Rd will take first prize.
In any case the data reveals more than simply the fact that to experience Lincoln Rd is be stuck in traffic. Anyone who crawls along that stretch of road will notice the amazing number of strip malls and fast food options. It's a striking and also kind of really depressing sight.
Lincoln Rd looks like some nowheresville in America, the outskirts of a bland, brutal city in the troglodytic midwest, say, with its chainstores and its enthusiasm to serve fries with that. It's what we've become. It's the way we live and eat. Aucklanders! O put-upon people of the isthmus, put down by everyone else in New Zealand - give us a break. We're stuck in traffic, and we're hungry.
"One of the most soul-destroying roads," moaned some cyclist on the unbearable Auckland Transport blog, "in all of Auckland." He had a point. It's pretty ugly, but not entirely so; there are some gum trees, an apple tree growing wild in an empty section, and at night the motel is decked out in crazy flashing neons. The stripmalls, too, are bright and attractive. They say: come on in and spend. They say: we got stuff you want. They say: take a seat, the man who ate Lincoln Rd, your plate of salt is nearly ready.
Twenty food joints later, and I'm in good shape, fighting fit, up to the task of eating at another 35 food joints before Christmas. But it's not easy. Now and then I've had to force myself back onto that high, flat ridge out west, and experience yet again the sight and smell of many chicken slaughterhouses.
So much failure has gone into them. Lincoln Rd is a zone of the minimum wage and the zero hour contract, of shattered dreams and grim compromise - you can see it in the faces of some of the teenagers that their fear is they ain't never going to amount to nothing, and the faces of some of the mums and dads and the lonely and the elderly and the sick and the maim reveal the knowledge that Lincoln Rd marks the end of the line.
Mostly I operate as a lone wolf and there have been times - spilling grease and sauce on my shirt, waiting for a bus in the cold and rain - when I feel that maybe I've wasted my life and that surely I ought to be doing something better with it than writing about eating chicken wings, chicken drumsticks, chicken tenderloin, chicken nuggets, and Burger King's amazing contribution to the genre, chicken fries. Such feelings have intensified in winter. A man of 56 should be at home, not sitting by himself in the cold hell of Carl's Jr after dark, gnawing on a $14.50 Jim Beam Bourbon Burger.
Still, it's preferable to dining with Bob Harvey. A few weeks ago in the Herald I wrote about how Lincoln Rd used to be all orchards and vineyards before the developers moved in, and wondered who was responsible for destroying that garden of Eden: "Was it you, former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey? Are you reading this? Come with me to Texas Chicken or Carl's Jr. Let's talk about what you helped to destroy over some fried chicken. Put your face closer to it. Closer. Go on. Take a good, close look ..."
I wasn't serious about inviting him - I just liked the implied threat of pushing his face into a plate of food - but he replied with a letter to the paper saying he was up for it. I didn't make any contact. He later sent me an email saying he was up for it. I didn't reply. He got in touch with me a few years ago saying he liked my writing and wanted to meet, "and find out everything about you!" I arranged a morning tea. We sat down, and he proceeded to tell me his life story.
Anyway, my frame of mind on Lincoln Rd is mostly happy, positive, all good. I've eaten really well. I've met shop owners such as Saten Sharma, the charismatic manager of The Coffee Club, and Narain and Grace Sami, the fun, hard-working couple who make deliciously spicy Fijian-Indian treats at the Lincoln Green Garden Takeaway.
I also really liked Grant Wilson of Mr Burger. He's the new kid on the block, opening up his burger joint in January. After I gave it a good review a few weeks ago, he said a group of guys drove out from Mt Eden to eat there on a Friday night; they couldn't find it, but succeeded when they came back the following night, and chowed down happily. Nice story, and I hope they come back. It's not easy trying to compete with the big franchises on Lincoln Rd and Mr Burger could do with the repeat business, with any business.
One place has already closed down this year - Langtons on Lincoln, the bar and wedding party venue. I made it just before it closed, and wrote that it was about to host its last weeding: "Apparently the happy couple first met at Langtons. I raised my glass to the bride and groom, whoever they are, and drank to their health, to a love that found its way on Lincoln Rd."
A reader got in touch. "I have just read your article about Langtons," he emailed. "It was actually me and my new wife Kylea that had the last wedding at Langtons. Thank you for raising your glass to toast us in your column. Best regards, Paul & Kylea Addy."
You're welcome, Mr and Mrs Addy! The man who ate Lincoln Rd never knows what he'll find on his quest - mostly a lot of chicken, sometimes a love story.
STEVE'S EARLIER ADVENTURES ON LINCOLN ROAD:
• Episode 1: Entering heart attack alley
• Episode 2: Moto sushi
• Episode 3: Sierra
• Episode 4: Sal's Pizza
• Episode 5: Langtons On Lincoln
• Episode 6: Nando's Chicken
• Episode 7: The man who ate Lincoln Rd's doughnut dilemma
• Episode 8: The man who ate Lincoln Rd rates Eves Pantry
• Episode 9: The man who ate Lincoln Rd rates Burger King
• Episode 10: Bad times at Burger Fuel
• Episode 11: Mr Burger
• Episode 12: Saaj
• Episode 13: The little guys on Lincoln
• Episode 14: The Coffee Club
• Episode 15: Subway
• Episode 16: Carl's Jr.
• Episode 17: Mitre 10's café
• Episode 18: La Porchetta
•All views expressed are the author's.