Ketchup, jumbo prawns and a scoop at Donald Trump’s golf club

Burgers on the grill at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach

It had already been a pretty rum week for Donald Trump. Imagine leaving Washington under a cloud, with your VP attending your successor’s inauguration rather than your leaving do.

And now there was a Brit standing at his lunch table in the sanctuary of the Grill Room of his golf club.

“How did you get here,” he asked.

“I’m in the pool. I came down on Air Force One. At the back,” I offered unhelpfully.

It was unhelpful given the current line of questioning, which was intended to ascertain exactly how a journalist had got inside his club. Unhelpful but true.

On Wednesday I flew down to Florida with President Trump as part of the travelling press pool. We motorcaded with him from the airport to his Mar-a-Lago club, dropping him off at 11:31 with about 15 minutes of his presidency remaining.

And then I hung around. My pool colleagues – White House wire reporters, a TV crew, a radio reporter and photographers — didn’t. Most were on the next flight back to Washington.

So when Thursday came around I had the sidewalk opposite the Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach to myself. I wanted to know what the most powerful man in the world did on the day after became a private citizen again.

For such an unpredictable character, he was satisfyingly predictable.

At about 10:46 his motorcade appeared along the palm-lined road and pulled into the golf club. He spent his first day of freedom playing golf at his club. Much as he had done during holidays and weekends throughout his presidency.

The next day I was back. But this time it didn’t look like he was showing. The clock ticked almost up to midday — too late for the president’s usual morning round — as I stood in a shady spot chatting with a Trump fan who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

It didn’t matter that he hadn’t appeared. I had other plans. A friend of a friend had invited me to lunch at the club. It was all part of my effort to get behind the bougainvillea-dappled hedges and inside Palm Beach’s moneyed world. Who are these people? What do they think of Trump? And can I get a quote to go in my story?

So at midday my friend picked me up from my spot in a parking lot across from the club and drove me up a drive I had only ever looked down from afar. He handed the keys of his Lincoln to a valet as we wondered whether the blond with her head in the boot of her Range Rover was Ivanka.

Our host was already there, tucking into a bowl of crab bisque on the shady outdoor terrace. Carl Domino is an investment manager and former state lawmaker. And a generous guide to Trump world.

He had been club chairman when it opened in 1999, presenting prizes alongside the owner. (The honours board in the hallway records that one Donald J. Trump was men’s champion that year.)

He told the story of how a few years later he played a round with Trump. Domino was running for Congress and his campaign team was also working for Sen. Paul Rand. Trump was thinking about running for governor of New York. Introductions were made. And 18 holes were duly played.

“He’s a great golfer. Great golfer,” said Domino. “That day he hit even. We were playing off the white tees, but that was for me.”

From our spot on the terrace we could look across the gentle folds of the Trump course. I ate my soup listening to the gentle rushing of a waterfall. The courses ups and downs had all been carved and constructed from flat ground. And the grass was so well-watered that it put me in mind of astroturf. Fake views in the modern parlance, perhaps, if you want to be snide. But still there is something about a waterfall that is good for the soul and something about rolling hills that is restful.

“Have a burger,” said Domino. “They look great.”

And they were. A grill was running on the edge of the golf course. My burger was blackened on the outside and pink in the middle. I took a fat pickle on the side, ketchup, mustard and onions in the bun. Let the burger be the star.

OK. I also added some big fat prawns from the buffet. (The non-self serve buffet, tended by waiters in gloves behind a plastic screen.) It felt like a surf and turf kind of day.

We rounded things off with cookies after discussing Georgia’s run-off elections, Tesla stocks and what Trump might do next. The conclusion: Who knows?

It was only as we left and approached the windows leading to the Grill Room that I saw the white polo shirt and familiar red cap. “Is that…?”

It was. I should have been alerted by the sniffer dog that made its rounds just as I was adding ketchup to my burger.

Two days out of office, Trump was right there in his regular spot, back to the window so that his two guests had the benefit of the view. His skin looked paler than the last time I saw him mouthing “thank you” to us journalists who had travelled down on Air Force One. Perhaps, with no (scheduled) media appearances, he had simply forgone his usual skin powder.

He didn’t much like being interrupted during lunch. I asked if he would talk to me about his plans but he gently declined with a few words about not wanting to do anything just yet.

An aide stepped in to get me on my way. “Do you need me to step back?” I asked, stepping back, well aware that a three-man secret service detail was eyeing me with a measure of intent.

But Trump called me back closer. Make sure I give my details to his chap, he said.  

And with that we were done. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The first words from Trump after his term ended.

I headed down the corridor – decorated with magazine front covers featuring Trump and signed NFL helmets – to the gift shop, where a frazzled club manager quickly caught up with me among the souvenir divot repair tools and the driver headcovers sprouting a shock of blond hair. He asked me how I had got in.

Minutes later I was back at my car in the parking lot across the road. The Trump fan had gone. But she left me a note tucked into my car door.  It said simply: “He came at 1:20pm.”

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Which normal do you want?

If the last American election was about anger – anger at the disappearing American dream and the lies of a generation of politicians – this one is surely about fear. Fear of a pandemic that has claimed 100,000 lives; fear that America’s powder-keg cities have been set alight; and fear that life is never going to be the same again.

Candidate Trump surfed the anger wave all the way to the White House. Professor Roderick Hart’s excellent book, Trump and Us: What He Says and Why People Listen, lays out exactly how it did it. I’ll leave you to decide whether Trump is a politician without equal or he just got lucky. Either way, Hart spells out how his use of language exactly mirrored a growing tide of fury across the country (plotted by the rising temperature of letters sent to newspapers.)

But, Hart told me, this fear and weariness and Trump struggles with fear. Expressing fear, using fear words, talking about fear are not things we expect from this president. His belligerent style has no room for weakness or anything that could be interpreted as weakness.

We saw that throughout the coronavirus crisis. America was ready for anything, Trump told me back in March as we toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on our way to Mar-a-Lago and the Bolsonaro Covid weekend. Trump would not be wearing a mask, he announced a few weeks later, as he unveiled CDC guidance recommending the wearing of masks.

“I just don’t want to be doing — somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful resolute desk, the great resolute desk, i think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself,” is how he put it.

But of course there are no presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens visiting the Oval Office. Well there have been one or two – and I’ll leave it to you to decide which was which – but there have been far from the normal number of visitors.

And that’s what this boils down to: The search for normal.

Both sides in this election offer versions of normal, with different appeals, to different types of voter. For Trump it has been the push since before Easter to reopen the country, to declare victory over the coronavirus, race towards a vaccine, and talk up every advance in therapeutics. He sees a logistics and manufacturing challenge to be overcome. He’s a builder trying to build normal or a commander in chief trying to police his way back to normal on the streets. Anyone who sees things differently is a Never Trumper, intent on sabotaging his beautiful economy.

On the other side, Joe Biden spent much of his summer at home – like the rest of us. He wears a mask in public now he is out and about, and his campaign events are scaled back, socially distanced. This is the “new normal” that we hear so much about. Get used to it.

It is less attractive than Trump’s normal, a more limited, restricted version of the future. But it has appeal nonetheless. It comes without the constant swirl of controversy, upset, anger that accompanies the current president, a man who sees chaos not so much as the absence of order but as an organizing principle and personal/political philosophy.

Some of my friends and colleagues think Biden offers none of the reassurance that voters seek. They point to his age and frailty, his unerring ability to misspeak. But I think they underestimate the public’s ability to differentiate between muddling billions and millions, and suggesting that bleach could be injected into Covid-19 patients.

Anger has given way to weariness. And with wildfires ripping across California, the economy on a knife-edge and the novel coronavirus ramping up for the winter months, there is a lot to be said for a creature of Washington who has been around the block and had his tyres kicked a few times.

I write this the day after President Trump was flown to hospital for treatment. No-one has any real idea about the severity of his COVID-19 symptoms. Nor any idea how quickly he can recover. Would a more cautious president have escaped infection? Maybe. Maybe not.

Will it impact the election? Certainly. The president’s campaign is as good as suspended, its most powerful asset is in bed. The conversation is firmly focused on Trump’s handling of COVID-19, negating all his efforts to switch it to the economy or law and order or China or anything else.

The few weeks has been an extraordinary time to be a journalist in Washington. Is it only a six days since the New York Times dropped its bombshell story on the president’s tax returns? Seven days since I stood in the Rose Garden (which we now learn was swirling with coronavirus) for the unveiling of Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee? And 15 days since we sat watching Trump speaking in Bemidji, Minnesota, as word filtered through that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Was there a debate? Something about Proud Boys?

For journalists, abnormal times are interesting times. While others are learning how to play the guitar or nursing sourdough starters, my pandemic year has been frantic. The past month has been a blur; late nights and early mornings all fused together. The next month will be gone before I know it.

That means savouring moments along the way. And finding new ways to unwind and reflect, given that the journalists’ standard escape – the boozy bar nights with colleagues dissecting the day just gone and swapping war stories – is not available.

So three cheers for one element of the new normal and DC’s decision to allow restaurants to deliver drinks with meals. Last night, a six-pack of Ghost White IPA came with a burger and tater tots from Duffy’s Irish Pub. And the beer (after a day that began at 6am when I groggily realised that NPR was saying Trump had contracted Covid0-19) was more essential than the food.

The burger was slathered in mushrooms and cheese, and came heavily charred. Maybe a touch too charred. But it made for a serious umami hit, all washed down with an IPA that even at 5.9 percent (come on America, what is wrong with you?) managed to keep its hoppy sourness under control.

I write about politics. But I’m a reporter and I try to stay out of the actual politics, pontificating side of things. Its up to you which normal you want. But I can live with this kind of new nom nom normal.

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Back on the road: Where’s the bacon?

Blake Marnell, AKA Wall Guy, at President Trump’s rally in Latrobe

“Crilly,” I barked at the receptionist. “Do you mind if I eat my cold miserable dinner first and then check in second?”

“Sure, honey,” she said in the sort of voice that suggested she had seen it all on the late shift and would only be fazed by a gun-wielding late-night Holiday Inn raiding crew demanding all her rings if they failed to observe the “masks must be worn at all times” sign. “There’s a microwave if you want to heat it up.”

I looked at the Wendy’s paper bag in my hand. The thin, cold burger inside was not going to be helped by 90 seconds of full power irradiation. It needed redemption, not reheating.

Life on the road. In campaign season. I had forgotten what it’s like. The driving and driving, the late-night filing and above all the moments of adrenaline followed by fast food and ennui in empty dining rooms.

But you don’t learn anything about American elections sitting in Washington. The place is full of bloviators bloviating. More than one pundit has taken Nate Silver’s new election modelling, his algorithm, his careful separation of signal and noise in the data to calculate that Donald Trump has a 27 percent chance of winning the election, and told me (after presumably checking their gut and the wind direction): “Yup, sounds about right.”

Which is how I find myself in a hangar at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, just down the road from Pittsburgh. If you want to know whether Trump will win you need to work out if he will hold on to voters here, the blue collar types who would have been Democrats six years ago but now make up the Trump base. If Biden can shave off a point or two here then he might have a chance.

Trump is arriving from Washington in a couple of hours for one of his hangar rallies, his new way of getting in front of supporters in the time of pandemic. (The crowd is teased with audio of the control tower talking to Air Force One — “You are on final approach” — before the presidential plane lands right in front of us, before taxiing back and providing the backdrop for Trump’s speech. You can read about it here.)

Wall Guy was there having lined up at 5am to bag a plum seat in Trump’s eyeline. He was on a tour of the US encouraging Trump supporters to wear pins to work, or their MAGA hats in their freetime. “You only hear about the bad things,” he said. “I want everyone to show their support and not be afraid.”

Members of Boilermakers Local 154 union arrived and took their seats to the side of the podium. The rest of the crowd erupted in cheers. Trump would thank them for their support later in the evening. His campaign rolled out details of their endorsement just before he took the stage – an important indicator that Trump reckoned he was holding on to crucial parts of the coalition that brought him to power.

That was perhaps one of the highlights of the speech. Go to enough of these things, watch enough of them on TV and you know the greatest hits – Sleepy Joe, Made in China, shout outs to the local Congressmen and women, Where’s Hunter. In Pennsylvania, you also get fracking and energy.

My pieces were written before he had got to the “together we will make America great again” line that means he is wrapping things up. I was on google maps looking for restaurants between the airport and my hotel that would still be open after I had allowed for an hour of so getting out of the car park. Then my phone blew up.

The Atlantic had published a piece about how Trump apparently cancelled a visit to an American war cemetery outside Paris in 2018 because he was worried his hair would get messed up in the rain. Worse, unnamed officials claimed he had dismissed the war dead as “losers” and “suckers”.

Had I seen the piece, Republican contacts wanted to know? Outrageous, they said. I messaged a couple of sources who might know. My phone started ringing just as Village People’s YMCA – Trump’s unlikely walk-off music – blasted through the PA.

“Hello, Hello,” I said. “Hello?.”

“Hello? Hello? Hello?” came the response. “Hello?”

There was nowhere quiet. The place was in pandemonium with Trump supporters dancing and cheering, and the campaign playlist booming through the hangar.

And so it was that I spent the rest of the evening sitting in my hire car as the parking lot emptied around me, making calls, firing off SMSs and trying to type it all up as I read my notes with the light from my mobile phone’s torch, cropping photos to go in an online story, messaging first one editor (who was going to bed) and then another.

It was after 11 by the time I pulled into a Wendy’s drive through. “We are out of bacon,” came the disembodied voice as I tried to order the big bacon classic. OK, I’ll have that without the bacon, I said, hoping that whatever I had ordered wasn’t simply a bacon sandwich. Were staff right now giggling about the English-accented customer who had just ordered a bun filled with lettuce and tomato.

There was no need to worry. The bun was patty positive. Albeit the sort of limp grey job that would have benefited from a layer of bacon. It tasted of fading adrenaline. Only 60 days to go.

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I’ll have what the president’s having


You don’t need me to tell you it’s been an unconventional convention week. Like most reporters, I covered it from in front of the telly for the first couple of days. The downside was slipping off to bed after filing, with adrenaline still coursing through your veins, when really you wanted to be in a gloomy hotel bar having an ill-advised last bourbon while some policy boor shouts in your ear. The upside was not having to endure that extra bourbon and the policy boor.

And being able to eat what you wanted when you wanted. Not shoveling junk food in your gob because either it was free or it was all you could find open in a country that seems to think dinner time is 5pm.
Until Wednesday. That was the day I packed a little parcel of beef and mustard sandwiches to tuck in my satchel before boarding a minibus to Fort McHenry. If only the press van had been up for a sing-song then it would have felt just like a school trip to the site that inspired the Star Spangled banner after the Royal Navy shelled the fort in 1814.


He’s ready

The occasion was Mike Pence delivering his acceptance speech. He used the history of the site and the motif of the flag as the threads that held together an attack on Joe Biden for failing to protect the nation’s monuments and values. And there was me feeling like the setting was simply to troll the only Brit in the expanded travel pool (technical term for the reporters covering the VP that night).

Which brings us to Thursday and the big event, President Trump’s set-piece speech formally accepting the party’s nomination for president. As ever logistics are everything. Which found me at the White House about five hours before he was expected to take the stage.

With limited seating, I wanted to plonk my name card on a seat on the south lawn so that I would at least be able to file my story from while balancing my laptop on my, erm, lap. Job done I had time to kill and the nagging fear I would go hungry if I didn’t try to eat before we were called to our seats.

But where is open for dinner at 6pm in downtown DC in the middle of pandemic. When all the businesses that had stayed open through coronavirus were boarding up their doors in expectation of a fresh wave of protests.

McDonald’s, that’s where. And anyway, what better pre-match meal than a double quarter pounder and fries to steel the arteries for a long night. You know it’s what Donald would have wanted.

I plonked myself down on a stone bench inside the White House’s outer security cordon to wolf down the thin, grey patties as a stream of cyclists burned down 17th Street chanting “B-L-M.” They tasted only of ketchup and pickles. Which is kind of all right by me.

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Texas toast in El Paso

It’s not so much the flowers, those bundles of white roses wilting in the Texas sun. Nor the cards with the handwritten messages riddled with a faith that is blind to the futility of it all. “Through the darkness light will prevail.” Indeed.

It is the people. It is the living, breathing souls who stand in quiet reflection before the candles, balloons and 22 crosses all jumbled together.

Whether in Ferguson, Pittsburgh of the countless other scenes of American violence, it is the tributes of the living, that very 21st century communion of souls, that always catches me out, makes me pause, makes me blink back a year.

This time it is across the way from a Hooters restaurant in El Paso. And in the car park of a Walmart. Not much more American than that.

Who comes to a memorial like this early on a Wednesday work day with the temperature way north of 90F? It is work for some. The men in suits come to be interviewed by CNN and the news crews who have set up live points beneath white canopies. Billy Graham’s followers have a truck offering counselling across the way and other church groups are doling out bottles of chilled water.

It is a pilgrimage for others, who walk slowly along the line of pictures and placards. Children stand beside parents, perhaps wondering what the lesson in all of this is supposed to be. That we mustn’t let it happen again? Or that we should honour the dead?

And, by Wednesday, it has become a preaching ground. A microphone and PA system have turned the site into a speakers corner of sorts. There are tributes to the dead and insults for the politicians who are seem powerless or uninterested in trying to halt the violence.

“I am really nervous,” says one man before offering a halting prayer for tolerance.

The sign outside Whataburger

President Trump and his hostility towards Mexican immigrants is a recurring theme in a city that would straddle the border if its other half did not go by a different name, Ciudad Juarez.

I have come because I need a story. When you are starting from scratch, when you arrived in town around midnight, a town where the hotels are full apart from a two-star motel with damp-smelling pillows and where every rental car is rented, when you don’t know the city, then the obvious place to begin is the memorial.

You can find the quiet words of resilience which are expected from well-behaved survivors of violence, some paragraphs of colour, and if you stop one of the men in suits coming and going from the cameras you can include some quotes from a state senator.

The Starbucks you passed on the way here will have free wifi. It will be your media filing centre for the day. Then with your first story written it is time to do the other stuff, get on with some digging. Where is the friend of the Trump supporter, the baseball coach, who was shot as he shielded children from the gunman?

There’s a Whataburger on the way back. It’s a Texas institution, apparently, one of those chains with such strong a strong connection with place — like In-N-Out Burger in California — that it was declared a state treasure in 2001.

Predictably its sign declares “El Paso strong” when I pull into the car park. No-one is allowed to be weak or sad or in despair any more. Within hours of each outrage, even before the dying are dead, the population of San Bernadino or Las Vegas or Dayton is being told to buckle up and get on with it.

Texas toast

I order the patty melt —two burgers inside “Texas toast”, doorsteps of bread grilled up with butter. The melt, in all its greasy unctuousness, distracts from the two fairly average bits of grey meat inside. My fingers will smell of this all day.

The memorial is louder when I return in the late afternoon. It is as if it is taking on first the character of El Paso, its hodge podge of people coming and going, and then latterly it comes to encapsulate all of America’s fuckedupness.

This is who else comes to a memorial: Two women — one Hispanic, one black — begin chanting, “We love Trump.” Withering looks fly their way. Then shouts. “You’re not welcome.”

Half a dozen police officers surround the women and a young black man wearing a Make America Great Again cap, gently trying to ease them away from confrontation.

Police escort away Trump supporters

Do you think it is appropriate to make this sort of protest at a memorial, I ask gently. “Get your fake news camera outta here,” shouts the Latina in my face. “Latinas for Trump,” she chants.

I ask the young man what he is doing here. “I’m trying to keep my mother out of trouble,” he says.

He poses for a photograph and a blonde man dressed in black shorts, T-shirts and protective glasses sidles over. “Do this,” he suggests, joining thumb and index finger in a circle, splaying his other fingers. It’s the new white power salute. The black man follows suit.

The white man’s name is Thomas Bartram. He is 21. He works as a power wash operator and drove the 10 hours down from Houston in a pick-up truck carrying a poster of Trump dressed as Rambo in order to make his point.

Thomas Bartram, jetwash operator

“An event like this is always a political thing,” he says. “There’s no way around that.”

He has, however, made a concession. Normally “I’m an open carry kind of guy,” he says, but left his rifle at home given the tragedy that occurred.

He drives off in his truck soon after, worried that a storm is bearing down on the city.

The next I hear of him is that he has been arrested outside an immigrant centre, reportedly carrying a gun and a knife. Photographs showed him wearing blue, latex gloves. Police found clips of ammunition and a bag of white powder. He was detained briefly and released, a police spokesman said, as he was carrying his firearm legally.

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A win and a bust in Vegas


Ana, who works at a Las Vegas casino, and Leah, who has come from New Orleans, work on getting out the Democratic vote

This is the other Las Vegas. Take the turning off US95 where you see the iHOP sign and keep going past the Olive Garden until you are surrounded by unglitzy bungalows, their front yards filled with yellow, desert rocks (golden if you must) that don’t need watering.

It is the closest thing you’ll find to the city’s suburbia, home to the armies of waiters, cleaners, valets, croupiers, security guards, cooks and bar tenders that keep the fun running 24/7 on the neon-lit party strip downtown.

Ana, a casino porter, is my guide. She adjusts her red union cap and pauses before ringing the next doorbell. Her spiel can be a hard thing to sell here.

“Usually these people don’t want to hear it,” she says. “So sometimes what I tell them is that I can that you are blessed, but you know what… I think its important for us to care about our community, the people who have low wages, can’t afford healthcare, decent meals.”

It is the Saturday before the midterms. And Ana is one of the 300 canvassers sent out by Nevada’s most powerful political force, the Culinary Union Local 226, to make sure registered Democrats will vote.

After three months on doorsteps, nothing fazes her. Not the man who says he can’t vote because he’s a felon (“Maybe next time”), barking dogs (“I’ll leave the leaflets just here”) or the shouts to go away (“Not everyone wants to talk”).


Casino workers (mostly – although there’s an international arms dealer at the back there) at the voting centre for the Las Vegas strip

Three days later, the results came in. In a mixed night for both sides the Nevada Senate race was one of the biggest bright spots for Democrats. Jacky Rosen, who built a reputation for quiet efficiency in her two years in the House, defeated the incumbent Republican, Dean Heller, whose tactics of talking up Trump seemed to have won him a bump in eve of election polls.

And in so doing, it suggests a path to a broader victory for Democrats who still seem to be struggling to define who they are – other than as the resistance to Trump.

I spent the week here, watching the work of the culinary union, the bad-tempered television adverts, the last-minute celebrity visitors (Jimmy Kimmel and Eric Trump) and then monitoring the results as they came in at the Republican watch party (at the South Point Casino, some way down the main drag, prompting derision from a union friend – “it’s like they are hiding away.”)

Here’s what the Democrats did right:

1) Their message of health care, minimum wage, social security was carefully tailored on the doorstep to match the needs of working voters in Las Vegas.

2) That was possible because of the huge organisation at their disposal. Along with Ana – who had been working six-day weeks since August – there were volunteers from out of state, swelling the effort to 350 union workers knocking doors on the day. It was slick and well directed, and just one part of the Democratic machine.

3) Nevada was winnable. It featured a Republican incumbent in a state that Hillary won in 2016. So while the party poured millions into a telegenic but unwinnable campaign for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Nevada was a top target and benefited from a surge in resources, flying canvassers and national attention.

4) Trump’s final immigration push did not resonate here. This is not the Rust Belt where foreigners are blamed for taking scarce jobs. Las Vegas still runs on migrant workers and even in rurual counties, that break for Trump, immigration is not the same issue as it is in say Pennsylvania.

5) This is where the Democrats demographic advantage shines through. Minorities and the young hold the advantage in Las Vegas, the city which dominates the Republican counties around. It was Nevada this time, but other sun states – such as Texas – will follow.

The outcome of all of this was immediately visible on election day. Polling centres uniformly busy. Minimum wait times ran at 20 minutes. The busiest of all was the one closest to the strip, where buses laid on by the big casinos dropped Hispanic maids in brown dresses, chefs in whites and slender dancers looking bleary eyed in the daylight. Wait times here hit the hour mark, and upwards, but did not deter voters who held scraps of card, whatever they could find, over their faces to protect themselves from the strong desert sun.


Burgers on the pass at Gordon’s

It is all a reminder of where real power lies. The Trump name may shine out across the strip from the top of a hotel. The likes of casino magnate Sheldon Alderson may give billions to conservative causes. But they can’t do much when labour gets organised.

Nowhere are the power dynamics, mores and charms of modern America made more visible than Las Vegas – where high rollers throw down hundreds at one end of the strip, while Mexican immigrants hand out flyers for prostitutes (legal) and nickel slots buzz happily at the other.

It is a cheap city with expensive promises. Or a bankrupt one with a chequebook. Where you have to pay $20 for wifi in $300 hotel rooms and $5 for bad coffee at giant glittering entertainment complexes mortgaged to the top of their 60th floor (actually the 45th).

It is exactly the sort of place where you’d expect the humble burger to be dressed up into something more, all doused in star dust.

Which is how I come to be sitting at Gordon Ramsay’s burger place, down towards the seedier part of the strip by a casino that features a “pleasure pit” – which I’ll leave to your imagination.


The Hell’s Kitchen Burger

I have been here long enough to know that the name means nothing. Ramsay is not likely to be cooking the burgers. Indeed the presence of “Dubliner cheese” on the UK Burger suggested he hadn’t even looked at the menu. Had he done a Trump and just flogged his name, brandified his career to a chain decorated with Union Flags and selling bottle openers at $22 a pop?

The Hell’s Kitchen Burger was utterly unmemorable. A thick slice of avocado overpowered the burger – which was grey in both colour and flavour. The aioli was missing in action. And the fries were the sort of chewy texture that keeps you going back for more if only to try to work out how they could have gone so badly wrong.

Still, when you are in this most American of cities, but most inauthentic of places, I guess that’s what you get when you seek out an Englishman’s* idea of a burger.

* As his geographically challenged menu might have it.





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A Brooklyn metaphor in a bun



Money on the table. Dili Dili. Old School football Sunday.

“Where is everyone?”

At 12.40 on a Sunday in September – football season – the bar should have been heaving. The regulars would be a fair way through their half pints of Budweiser. (The smaller glasses ensure it stays cooler, I eventually realised.) And the transplanted Steeler fans should be assembled in front of the choicest screens.

I almost didn’t come. Watching a Jets game generally meant relegation to the small TV at the far end of the bar, away from my normal spot at the angle, closer to the door. Yet some of my favourite Sundays have been here, particularly the days with London games, when the fella with the Italian bakery would pass around his lard bread (as good as it sounds) as we tried to make it all the way through to the late game.

This day, Bobby, the Brooklyn barman, who is so old-school he turned down Jimmy Kimmel when his show came looking for old-school Brooklyn barmen to be on TV, looked at me as if I was a cretin. Not for the first time.

I knew the bar was closing next month. I knew the owner was sick and wanted to cash in and enjoy his retirement. But what I had not realised was that this sports bar – the dark, wood-panelled spot that I considered MY bar – had not renewed its NFL TV package. For the first time in a long time it would not be showing every game of the season, just the ones on local cable.

The owner was stationed close to the door so he could explain to the steady stream of (mostly Steeler) fans who entered that the package was all-season or nothing, so it wasn’t worth buying just for a few weeks. They were sent on their way with a recommendation for a place around the corner.

Still, a reasonable crowd of regulars made it in. We joked about Jimmy Times, who said he was so looking forward to seeing Steeler fans being turned away that he had planned to come early and sit outside.

There were other benefits. So many screens were now free that the Mets game was on one TV and the Jets on the next. With the commentary turned on. Unheard of for a football Sunday.

We should have done this long ago, was the gag.

Yet there was a sadness too. This was a slice of old Brooklyn in a long gentrified neighbourhood. While the brownstones were now affordable only by bankers and the coffeeshops had become the preserve of mums with thousand dollar strollers, my bar was a throwback, favoured by construction workers, cops and the occasional journalist.

Of course the clock was ticking. The second hand bookstore had gone a couple of years earlier when the owner was made an offer he would have been dumb to refuse. And the new bookstore went soon after, unable to afford the escalating rent. It was all smart sandwich shops, estate agents and women’s clothes shops these days with just a handful of hold-outs.

I moved away a couple of years ago for cheaper climes. When I returned I was unsurprised to see a food truck selling waffles and sushi. No joke.


This is the story of New York. Where things come and go so fast in a race to the dollar. It should be no surprise.

Yet the bar had hung in there for 30 years. A lifetime in these parts. It felt permanent and with that came a sense of place, of belonging, for its customers.

What happens next? We talked about other bars. Without much gusto. We wondered where the staff – all longserving Brooklyn pros – would move next. Did they have anything lined up?

And then we stopped discussing it. We had arrived from different neighbourhoods. It was the bar that brought us together, a disparate band of football fans and beer enthusiasts. The others, I suspect, knew each other better. But I had never once met any of these people outside our haven. I didn’t really want to think about us all going our separate ways.

My burger arrived. Thick and juicy, from one of the old Italian butchers around the corner. Always the same. Familiar. My regular order. Unadorned other than a slice of cheese. A metaphor in a bun.

I pulled my phone out to snap a picture. Bobby noticed. He raised an eyebrow and maybe the corner of a lip. Old school.

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Live and local in Atlantic City


Hard Rock is adding some rock n roll to Atlantic City as everyone hopes for an upturn

The whole point of being in Atlantic City was to write about the opening of the Hard Rock casino and resort. You know the places, right? Too-loud music and burgers. Guitars on the wall and burgers. Elvis’s roller and burgers.

So what was I doing in Gordon Ramsay’s Steak? The “steakhouse concept” (according to the PR blurb) opened in June, just a week or so before, part of the “trend” I was attempting to write about: Atlantic City reborn, a gambling renaissance on the East Coast etc.

I was worried that I wasn’t dressed right. The blurbs said business casual and I wasn’t sure my jeans and linen jacket would live up to America’s slightly odd definitions of appropriate dress. Sure enough, I walked in behind half a dozen men who looked like they were on dress-down Wednesday, all shorts and sports T-shirts. Oh Gordon, you would not like this, I thought.

That was the least of my worries. After spending 45 minutes finding the right car park during what should have been a 15-minute journey, then another 15 minutes wandering through atmosphere-free slot machine rooms, I discovered that a “steakhouse concept” might very well serve $90 steaks but they won’t sell you a burger. I would have settled for a steak tartare thrown on the grill. But no luck there either.

So I did what I should have did in the first place. Went to the Hard Rock Cafe a night before its official opening. Turned out it had got its licences early, so had thrown open the doors to gamblers and burger lovers ahead of its grand launch.


Some of the memorabilia on display

Nancy, my server, was giddy with excitement. She talked 19 to the dozen, sitting down at one of the spare seats at my table, as she took me through the menu. These are good times for this much blighted city.

On my last visit, in 2014, I arrived on a Greyhound bus packed with half a dozen pensioners who looked like they would grimace their way through a grey weekend of slipping quarters in unforgiving slot machines. Three casinos were closing – following one that had already closed, and another that would soon follow – brought down by market saturation and a city that had none of the fake glitz and Michelin stars of Vegas. A staggering 11,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment hit 20%.

nancyBut it’s all cyclical, as a man who sounded too wise to ever set foot in a casino, told me on the boardwalk. And investors spotted an opportunity, what with the Supreme Court lifting its ban on sport betting and the native American tribe behind the Hard Rock brand seeing a chance to inject some fun back into the city that after all gave us the first Monopoly board, and with the saturation problem having been fixed during that last visit of mine.

“Its on the up and long may it last,” said Nancy, above the squall of a soundchecking band that had clearly got the Hard Rock memo about over-the-top noise levels.

I ordered the “local legendary”, apparently a Hard Rock thing that is supposed to reflect its environs. This one came stacked with peppers, spicy provolone, a fried egg and something called “pork roll”. Nancy couldn’t explain it other than to say “very Jersey”.

What it is, in fact, is some kind of processed pork slice. A local Spam. It offered only a burned note to an otherwise solid burger, not entirely unwelcome amid the sweetly oozing juices in each chunky bite.

Somehow it seems to fit this funny town of chancers and dreamers, schemers and losers.


The pork roll is right there

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What Anthony Bourdain taught me about food and about a ‘secret’ New York burger joint


The Burger Joint. Not a secret.

It must be the worst-kept secret in New York. But still I can’t find it. First one way and then back the other. In on a door on West 56th Street and out through a bar on West 57th.

Finally I ask the concierge. Behind the curtain, she says, in a manner that suggests I am the umpteenth person to have asked.

Behind the curtain there is a queue made up of those umpteen people. It goes through the doorway (was there an actual door behind the curtain? I don’t remember) past the booths and up to a counter, where four or maybe five cooks are a blur or burger flipping, ketchup-dispensing, cash-taking efficiency.

The decor is CBGB chic. Or rather CBGB toilet chic. Think walls griffitied with names and dates of those paying homage. Tatty posters, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and a Ramones number – wanted “vivo o muerto” – make clear that this may be the swanky Parker Meridien hotel but there was once a different Manhattan, before the bankers and wankers sluiced the streets down and washed the fetid scum to the outer boroughs. Or wherever the hell they all are now. Detroit probably.

The umpteen and me are probably here for the same reason. The Burger Joint, as this place is prosaically and calculatingly named, was named one of the top three burger places in NYC by Anthony Bourdain. So we are here to pay tribute to a man who only ever could have lived in this city and whose initials were probably once written beside those CBGB urinals.


It’s a bit messy and stuff falls out

Except I don’t think for one minute that Bourdain ever would really have named his three favourite burger places in a video for the Travel Channel. Sure Shake Shack, the best of the chains, where a few extra customers ain’t gonna muck things up. But I have a feeling there’s a go-to late night place where the cooks and the drinkers end up, where there’s a secret code to get in and that isn’t mentioned on the tourist blogs, that he is keeping to himself for ever.

I order the cheeseburger (medium), works, fries, diet Coke (it’s one of those weeks). And pay cash. Because that’s the way it should be although it seems they do take credit cards these days. The transaction takes place in front of a stack of bags of Arnold’s Burger Buns, because showing off your buns is a thing. Apparently.

There are other places where you can read about Bourdain’s extraordinary life and work, written by people who knew him and worked with him. And there are even more places where you can read pieces about him by people who never – or barely knew – him. I offer no insider info. I just liked the man’s shows, and that way the first series of A Cook’s Tour was a bit dodgy, filled with insecurity and amateur-hour moments, but that if you stuck with its two seasons, then moved on to No Reservations where his voice – the one from Kitchen Confidential and the New Yorker – starts to come through you can then watch his writing and understanding blossom in Parts Unknown, which becomes almost entirely and naturally about people, like all the very best shows or books about food or places.

He enjoyed food and drink the right way. He talks about the flavours and the techniques when he is with a chef, learning a technique, filing away the knowledge. But when he sits down to eat he talks about politics, history, science, religion and sex. Can you imagine him halting the flow to mention the cherry blossom popping in a Shiraz? No me neither. He removes the idea that somehow good eating and drinking is the preserve of starched linen and maitre d’s. Sure you can have that if you want it. But his rants on the ludicrous, evangelical craft beer movement sum up his attitude to pretension in general, and to consumption in particular. You know his best drink is the cold one put in front of him in the moment, in the place.

My name is called and I return to the serving window to collect my parcel. The burger is wrapped in paper and the fries come in a bag. I take it to my spot on the bench and squirt ketchup in the bag. A suited wage slave has sat down beside me. In front, another suit is alone reading the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. The tourists sit at the tables, speaking Russian or German.

And the place crystallises some other thoughts on New York. For this is the fakest of fake experiences. I had imagined the Burger Joint might be some sort of rent hold-out, protected by an old-fashioned lease they don’t write any more. That it could not be evicted. That there have not been seven generations of patty purveyors doling out their wares from this spot as the evil hotel was built around them, cutting off their water, turning off their heat and draping them all in a curtain to stop customers finding them.

But this was a concept and a marketing plan before there was even so much as a hint of charred beef in the air. An executive chef from the hotel helped create the burger. The curtain serves the same purpose as the closed door of the bullshit “speakeasies” elsewhere in town. It’s a charade.

There’s no fakery in the burger, however. It is pure Black Angus Nebraska beef, from one of the cheaper cuts. A decent fat to lean ratio. And it is ground once, not turned to mush and packed with other gunk to hold it together. It starts to fall into strands as I bite through the bun and the works – tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles, mayo, mustard and ketchup (I think) – drip on to the papers. It is the best burger I have had in New York by some distance.

And in some ways it is the perfect burger for New York, this least authentic of towns. The food is a confection, served in a non-secret hidden corner that tries to conjure up a lost part of the city. Only less shitty and less scary than this place in the 1970s and 1980s. And with less of a smell of urine.

While huge chunks of modern life seems to be caught up in searches for authenticity, Bourdain’s TV shows seemed to offer an antidote. Or at least clarity. Authenticity is not about sourcing your ingredients from the right place, or using the correct recipe, or grooming your beard in the right direction. If you are spending your time thinking about it, or researching it, or studiously avoiding tourist traps or still venting at the hipster wankers in Brooklyn making their chocolate in the bath, then get over it. Don’t bore on about craft beer. And certainly don’t live in New York.

Authenticity is a hoax. A gimmick at best.

Just do it all. Drink the drinks. And eat it all. Do it with other people, people who won’t talk about the sodding food and drink all night. Argue about religion and politics and sex. The rest takes care of itself.

I lick my fingers. Throw the papers in the bin and walk out through the curtain.







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The Irma burger


There was a point when I wondered whether they were pulling my leg.

I got the bit about their elegant home being built on the highest point of Broward County. And I followed the logic of wanting to be in place to mount rapid damage assessments and make repairs as the night wore on.

It was just that a massive hurricane was roaring in towards Florida and from the Mayors’ first floor balcony I could see and hear the Atlantic Ocean, no more than 100 metres away.

Their home was in a mandatory evacuation zone, just outside Fort Lauderdale. But as I had already learned, “mandatory evacuation” zones did not mean what it sounded like they meant. The Mayors – veterans of two decades of hurricanes were very definitely not evacuating. Unlike me, who was preparing for my first such encounter. (That was a joke for sub-editors.)

The Mayors had readied their home, just as they always do. Storm shutters had been closed over the windows. Garden ornaments had been secured. An inch or two of water had even been let out of the koi pond to allow for flooding.

For sustenance, there was a roast turkey, pots of chicken soup and two types of freshly baked bread.

They were ready to ride out whatever Hurricane Irma could throw at them.  

In 2006 they had survived without power for six weeks. Back then they clubbed together with neighbours, who got a share of the Mayors’ generator in return for taking turns at cooking on the barbecue and dining together in the street.

“Whatever was the next thing to go off, that’s what we ate,” explained Deborah.

I left them to it on the Saturday afternoon – with some kind of idea in my mind of a disaster-themed street party, drinking punch while bandaging up survivors – to return to my hotel, where I was to spend a nervy night, watching the winds pick up through the picture windows which looked far too big to me to have any chance of making it intact through a hurricane.

I thought of their food and plans for a barbecue as I dinnered on cucumber and beef jerky. The wind lashed rain across my door, sending a puddle spilling across the floor.

The lights dimmed and the air-conditioner failed in a classic brown out.

But we survived. The TV failed for a couple of hours, and I heard the tell-tale freight-train noise of a tornado rumbling through. But as the light came up on Sunday morning, the hotel was still standing and we were all in one piece.

The next hours were a blur as I raced around assessing the damage, interviewing residents and finding something to eat. I couldn’t reach the Mayors. The phone network was overloaded. It is fair to say I was worried about their fate. The bridge leading to their ocean-front street on Barrier Island was closed for a chunk of the day.


Ocean Boulevard after it had been cleared

In the late afternoon I gave it another try. This time, as well as offering up my press card, I told police officers that I was going to see friends and was allowed through.

Ocean Boulevard was inundated with sand. A sea surge had deposited part of the beach on the road. But as I turned into the Mayors’ cul-de-sac it was clear they had escaped almost all damage. The driftwood, sand and assorted detritus was deposited only on the beach end of the road, indicating a fairly benign high-water mark.

Craig chuckled as he recalled their night. Their only concern came from an odd grating sound which echoed through the house even when everything should have been locked down.

“Debbie forgot to close the cat flag,” he said.


A long table had been set up in the driveway of the house across the street. With a cold beer in hand I took my seat just as the burgers came off the barbecue.

There was still work to be done. Craig later helped rig up a neighbour’s air conditioning unit to their generator and there were plenty of fallen branches to clear.


But for an hour everyone assembled for a cheeseburger and a plate of salad. It was one of the simplest I’ve had – nothing but minced (ground) steak seasoned up with a little garlic salt and pepper. It was served on a polystyrene plate with plastic knives and forks.

No mucking around. It was that sort of day. And it was perfect.

(This all happened in September. It just took me a while to publish.)




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