Steve Braunias sets out to walk the length of Lincoln Rd in search of the way things are after lockdown.
Wednesday's temperature held steady for most of the day at 12C, but it felt a lot colder than that up on Lincoln Rd in the fertile plateaus of Henderson. I was on foot. Some sort of icy little Antarctic blast insinuated itself in the air. To the west, the Waitākere Ranges were drained of colour, and presented a solid block of darkness.
Lincoln Rd is my happy place – it's where I spent a year eating at every single one of the 55 food joints lined along that 3km stretch of road, and documented the experience in the Herald and later in a book as a sociological inquiry into nothing less than the Auckland way of life served with fried chicken – but it was not a happy day. The man who returned to Lincoln Rd wandered into a zone of tension and uncertainty.
I interviewed business owners and random passersby. I wanted to see how people were feeling about the way things are going since our release from lockdown. Lincoln Rd, with its diversity of races and cultures, its range of brightly illuminated food joints appealing to low and middle income earners, its ceaseless four-lane traffic peeling to and from SH16, exists as a neatly packaged representation of Auckland; and Auckland, according to my surveys and perambulations on Wednesday, is feeling distinctly wary about the way things are going since our release from lockdown.
Common subjects were wage subsidies and mortgage relief: both are about to come to an end. When they did, people said, we would know where we really are, and what the situation really was. "Wait and see," they said, and sucked in their breath. It was a day full of that kind of suspense.
The day started well. I set out from my ranch on the Te Atatu peninsula beneath a pale blue sky. Citrus trees were in full orange and yellow bloom around the neighbourhood. The harbour was at low tide and mudflats formed sensual curves in the pale blue water. Beautiful, tropical Auckland, suspended in winter stillness; and outside the medical centre, a sign for Covid testing. Everywhere, always in 2020, the threat of plague.
I walked along the cycle track beside SH16. Lycra'd fools hunched over their bikes. Black skinks crept in and out of tussock grass. Redfinches had found something to eat beside an oxidation pond. Auckland was on the move, with the highway full of Mainfreight, Linfox, and Abdul's trucking services, and vans offering insulation, cables, and aircon.
The Lincoln Rd exit is marked by the famous twin towers of West Auckland – two radio transmitter masts, rising out of horse paddocks. The slow and pastoral Henderson Creek curved around the corner to the north, but I headed south, towards food joints and the good people of Auckland, and made my first stop at car rental company Hireace.
Bazil Pillay, 40, sat behind his desk. "It's picking up slowly," he said. "Getting back into the flow." Actually, he was rushed off his feet as soon as lockdown finished – demand was high for trailers, from householders needing to take six weeks' worth of accumulated junk to the refuse centre. Strange to think that one of the first things that liberated Aucklanders set about doing was driving to the dump.
But then things went quiet. He figured business was about half of what it had been before Covid. Of course the market for overseas tourists had completely vanished. Was he worried? "Yeah," he said. "Yeah." But he said it brightly, and looked at it as a challenge; he's been focussing on schools and local businesses, and getting a good response. Just then an Indian guy came in and asked for a 19-seater van. "Big family," he explained.
The very first food joint I examined in my former role as the man who ate Lincoln Rd was Texas Chicken. It had just opened, and it's now a fixture on the Lincoln Rd prairie. Anton Vujcich, 41, had just demolished a box of the spicy bird. He's in construction, and has got work on – he's a project manager at the nearby and newly opened megastore Nood, in charge of a crew of nine – but knows plenty of other guys looking for work. "A lot of projects have been cancelled or put on hold," he said. "People I know are hurting. Some have gone back on the tools, swinging the hammer again. Some are just sitting at home."
The stripmall further down the street was a long, low tomb. A death notice appeared on the doors of three food joints that had gone out of business: FOR LEASE. A tall and appropriately rather cadaverous looking fellow was fiddling around with the locks of MomoTea: the liquidator. He was getting stock ready for auction. MomoTea also went bust in Newmarket; the stock there has already been auctioned off, including buckets and mops ($30), and 22 plastic soy bottles, some missing their caps ($25). The liquidator couldn't stop to talk, but when I asked whether the ruinous affects of the lockdown meant good business for his line of work, he smiled, and said: "It's warming up!"
One of the few food joints still operating in that gloomy stripmall is Flame Pizza. I spoke with the manager, Ravi Singh, 33, who was hanging in there, doing the best he could, hoping things would work out. Business had gone down 15-20 per cent. The price of supplies had gone up for "everything". I said, "What do you mean, everything?" He said, "Salt, beef patties, tomatoes – everything." He was running specials, like two burgers for $10. He was working as hard as ever. "What to do, man," he said. "What to do." Those words haunted me the rest of the day. They were like the chorus of a song, a slow blues for the way things are in the time of life after lockdown.
The thing is that I expected the mood on Lincoln Rd to be upbeat, confident, positive. It was like that the last time I walked its length, and conducted a survey: a week before lockdown. Back then, the virus existed more as a fear than a reality. But people on Lincoln Rd simply went about their business. They said: The virus is no big deal. They went so far as to acknowledge: It's a bit of a nuisance. They almost unanimously declared: Life will carry on as normal.
But one person who I spoke to that day in March had seen what was going to happen. I popped into yum cha restaurant Mr Lobster, where owner Nora Chou, 40, predicted Auckland would go into lockdown. She knew things were serious, that it was necessary to take every precaution.
Nora was at front of house on Wednesday. Like all her staff, she was wearing a face mask. It was lunchtime, and the place was busy: 16 tables, more than 100 people, live crayfish seeing out their last hours in a tank against the wall. The restaurant opened in September. Nora could only go on projections but she estimated that business was down 25 per cent. Where to from here? "I'm not anxious," she said, "but I can't say I'm confident."
I sat down with two of her customers, Johnny Leung, 37, and his partner Roxie Fu, 35. Before lockdown, they'd been running Lion Travel, which offered New Zealand package tours to groups from Taiwan. The revenue was $20 million. It's now closer to zero. They don't have kids, or a mortgage; they've taken in a room-mate to help pay their weekly rent of $520 on a house in Manurewa.
The couple were trying to attract Chinese-speakers in Auckland to take trips to the Bay of Islands, Rotorua, Queenstown. "But everybody's looking to work that market," said Johnny. He was working harder than ever. "But sometimes you are busy for nothing."
He thought he'd seen the worst of things during the GFC. Back then, he owned vineyards and wineries; the financial crisis forced him to sell, and it took him nine years to sell 18,000 bottles of wine. "But that was nothing compared to this," he said. Roxie said she was looking for work as a courier.
Here and there a few customers at Burger Wisconsin, Mexicali Fresh, The Coffee Club ("Buttermilk Burgers! You know you want one"), Carl's Jnr, WestCity Bakery, Shen's Takeaways ... They always play good music at KFC so I headed in there to get out of the cold, and listened to "Watermelon Sugar" by Harry Styles, and then "Stuck With You" by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Both swoony songs are dedicated to touching, to intimacy, to togetherness; both songs operate as a response to social distancing. Great pop always reminds us that love is the answer to everything.
Sitting on the pavement outside Hollywood Bakery was a homeless guy who gave his name as Tu and said he was 25. "I didn't even know we'd gone into lockdown," he said. "I just woke up and thought, 'Where is everyone?' I don't have a TV and I don't really talk to people."
He got a ride "up north" and stayed with friends during lockdown. Back in Auckland, he's back to his former routine – begging, and sleeping beneath a canopy of the Lincoln Fresh fruit shop. And then he said, "Actually bro I've just finished a very emotional thing. I just broke up with my partner. About 10 minutes ago. I'm hurting and I don't know how to deal with it."
Harry Styles's sugary watermelons and all the promise of great pop meant nothing. Tu started to cry. It was time to leave him alone. I gave him a lousy $1 coin, and moved on, the air as sharp as ice.
Dave Sherry, 63, was about to drive off on his Ducati hog parked outside King's Roast when I stopped him for a chat. He took off his helmet, and said, "We're all going to get the virus anyway. That's an absolute fact." He had a statistic ready at hand: "98.8 per cent of people already have varying degrees of it."
Quarantining people arriving in New Zealand needed to have started back in January, he said. The door was left open, and the virus just walked on in, and infiltrated the population, he said. There was nothing much you could do about it now, he said. And then he said: "Sweden's on the right track."
I said, "Sweden! What about Brazil? Do you think Brazil is on the right track?"
"Yes, if you look at the graphs, then Brazil's doing pretty good," he said.
I muttered something about a lot of people dying of the virus in Sweden and Brazil, and he said, "Well, consider this. Lockdown has killed our economy, and turned it into fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Fear is the last thing you need." But he wasn't worried. His Ducati was in beautiful condition, and he was about to go for a run on the open road just for the fun of it.
Here and there a few customers at Pizza Hut, St Pierre, The Cheesecake Company, Taste of Orient, Columbus Coffee (there's a job going for a part-time front of house) ... Back in 2016, my year as the man who ate Lincoln Rd, I had a family birthday dinner at La Porchetta. The fond and poignant memory followed me into the door on Wednesday.
"You're that guy," said Jo Namoa, at front of house. "The one who ate the street?"
"Yep," I said. She went to find the owners while I studied the specials – seafood chowder served with bread, $12.50; Lion Red, $5 – and listened to Tom Petty sing about Mulholland Drive and Ventura Boulevard on his anthem "Freefalling". The song evoked an LA of freeways, movement, the joys of escape; but LA in 2020 is more accurately evoked in the essays of Anna Rankin, an expatriate New Zealander, who writes of a lockdowned city losing the plot, and just hanging in there.
Sean Keys, 55, and his wife Debbie, 57, owners of La Porchetta, sat down and were full of good cheer. "Covid's been nothing," Debbie laughed. She meant in comparison to their family dramas: their daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was seven months' pregnant, and then her mum was diagnosed with it, too. "We cried every day for three months." Their daughter was induced to give birth: it all worked out, and they're both doing fine. But Debbie's mum died. When they were forced into lockdown, they wheeled their bed into the living room and camped out. "It was the best experience," she said. For the first time in a long time, they didn't have death on their minds.
And now? "If it wasn't for the wage subsidy, we wouldn't be here today," said Sean. "We'd be bankrupt ... The fact that we got it in four days – that's an incredible thing for a government to do. It blows my mind. It meant that we didn't have to freak out." Debbie said, "Aren't we bloody lucky at the moment? To have Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister during Covid – she got us through this."
Yes, I said, but asked again: what about now? Sean said business was steady. La Porchetta was at about 90 per cent of what it had been. "But when the wage subsidy stops ...", he said, and threw up his hands.
Some people didn't want to talk about how things were going after lockdown. I got short shrift at Euro Deli; the owner was as mute as the Spanish hams in the front cabinet. I got short shrift at Croatian Airlines; the sales and marketing manager stood in the front door, and her gaze was as faraway as the colour poster on the wall of the corridor for Dubrovnik.
Here and there a few customers at Nando's, Burger King, Hut BBQ Noodles, Empress of India, the newly opened Yue's Dumpling Kitchen (it has an electric water fountain by the front door, but they haven't plugged it in yet; the well was dry, which might be a good metaphor for the way things are in New Zealand) ... I got talking to David Corkill, 60, a bus driver (his route includes the 14T and 14W, the two buses which trundle the length of Lincoln Rd) outside the last block of food joints. His main concern was a second wave of the virus. He was worried about border controls. "We just don't know if it's going to slip through, do we," he said.
It was getting onto late afternoon by then, and freezing. But I headed back the way I'd been walking to get a new filter for my fish tank at the Animates pet store. There was a commotion in the carpark. I recognised Tu, the homeless man. A woman ran towards him, screaming, with a black dog running beside her, barking. Tu held onto the woman's wrists. The dog kept barking. The woman kept screaming. She got one hand free, and threw an uppercut, her arm rising in the air, the small hand clenched into a small fist, wanting to drive it, as Norman Mailer described Muhammad Ali's famous punch that fell George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle fight, "into the middle of his mind". It hit him in the face. She kept screaming. The dog kept barking.
What to do, man, what to do. Woof woof woof. Freefalling. We're all going to get the virus anyway. "I'm not anxious, but I can't say I'm confident." Wait and see. Woof woof woof. I thought: I've got to get the hell out of here. Lincoln Rd, just hanging in; Lincoln Rd, that neatly packaged representation of Auckland life, on the edge.