Hurricane or no hurricane, you can rely on the American Coffee Shop


It was the only place open. Its neon window sign proclaiming invincibility in the face of Hurricane Irma.

The American Coffee Shop was open at 8am. I hadn’t had coffee in more than 36 hours and my body was protesting.

The queue, a day after Irma smashed through Florida, stretched down the counter and out of the door. Three quarters of Broward County – including Fort Lauderdale – had no power and needed to go out for their coffee. Not just any old coffee either.


Every person in front of me wanted a cappuccino or a cafe con leche. Surely in a time of crisis you’d all pull together and just get the drip, rather than asking for a sodding almond milk crapuccino with sprinkles. Oh and while I’m here maybe give me five frothy nothings, with arse shavings. But not in the coffee, mind. On the side. And can I pay with a card?

I took my coffee black. Paid cash. It seemed like the decent thing to do.

By this time, I’d already pulled a pretty full day. I’d tracked down a trailer park and interviewed a handful of residents who – for reasons that remain no clearer to me  –decided to stay in their mobile homes rather than run for a shelter.

Coffee restored my balance, enough to try and fail to reach the beach (turned back by the Law) and then get back to my hotel to file.

My journalist’s emergency snack pack was depleted. I had finished the jerky and was half way through my pack of mini-cucumbers. I would have to venture back out for lunch.

As I drove towards the American Coffee Shop I passed a McDonald’s with a drive-thru. The queue backed up for half a mile. Irma had sparked the great pattie panic of 2017.

The American Coffee Shop was no quieter. The counter and all the tables were full. Orders were shouted back and forth, sometimes in English, more often in Spanish

“It has been like this since 6.30,” said the grillman and owner Nelson, as he manipulated three omelettes at a time. “It hasn’t stopped.”

They were out of bacon and low on everything else. The bin at his feet told the story of the day in eggshells.


My cheeseburger order (medium, American cheese) went up on the order rack, written out on a piece of paper that gradually became more transparent every time it was moved and another fingerprint of grease applied.

Only it didn’t move at first.

I watched eggs crack and Cuban sandwiches pressed on to the griddle. Grits and oatmeal were mixed and slopped into bowls. Someone ordered bacon and then unordered 15 minutes later when the mistake was spotted.

A British family sat in the window. They were veterans of these storms and had weathered it like everyone else.

While they waited for their meal, the father said it was one of the rare occasions when South Floridians pulled together. He had checked on his neighbours first, then his friends and then his business.

“It is not normal for people here to come together like this,” he said.

This was my first hurricane. The power at my hotel had stayed on (albeit at reduced voltage in a brown out). My coffee cup was being refilled in short order and I had a burger on order (although my ticket had yet to move). This was not how I expected it to be.

Yet, I could sense impatience all around. The queue at McDonald’s. The drivers ignoring police warnings to stay off the roads. Worse, those that were on the roads were speeding through junctions where the traffic lights were out – rather than treating them like four-way stops (and if you’ve never navigated a multi-lane four-way stop then you have no idea of the sheer terror they hold).


And at the American Coffee Shop, Nelson senses the tension. “Almost there,” he says as he flips out another set of pancakes and my ticket moves a step towards the front of the queue. He later tells me a couple of customers walked out, impatient at the wait – a day after a deadly hurricane ripped through the city, keeping businesses closed, taking down powerlines and prompting food and water shortages…. sheesh.

I had spotted the shop on Saturday, as Irma roared in. While other coffee shops were closing early, they kept going as late as possible. Nelson told me there was no question of not opening the day after Irma blasted through.

Finally my burger was on the flatplate grill. It was flipped twice and then the slice of yellow cheese was plonked on top. It was all served on top of a toasted bun, with lettuce, tomato and onion.

The fries were cold. But I had got the very last batch. With a dollop of ketchup, I felt myself a lucky man. A hurricane survivor with a juicy burger in my hand.

“Summer, lock the door,” Nelson called to the waitress.

He threw four battered chicken breasts on the hot plate. Staff lunch.

They were done for the day and with one last refill of coffee I was on my way.


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Baseball blow-out


There have been changes at Citi Field, home of the Mets, this season. The inter-innings entertainment has switched from a four-car running race – fire truck, yellow cab, police car and er was it a limo? – to a three-car pedal race – with corporate branding. And Keith’s Grill, purveyor of some of the finest burgers in New York, has moved from behind left field to somewhere in the right-hand corner.

The menu has been modified as well. Last time I visited the was either the Gold Glove burger – basically your standard 6oz burger – or the Mex burger – with avocado and bacon. Both were thick enough that the juice ran down to your elbows.

Now you can get the 108 burger* billed as a taste of the Big Apple. It comes with Havarti cheese, Deli mustard (ie mild as you like), all topped by a huge mound of pastrami inside a pretzel bun and served with a Titanic-sized pickle.

burger.jpgJust like older versions, the burger was thick and juicy and the bun had the sort of solid consistency needed to hold the whole thing together. The pastrami was incredible, caramalised and chewy in just the right places. It rather overpowered the rest of the ingredients, and just the sort of thing – you imagine – favoured by a muscular first baseman.

It still comes with the bag of crisps (potato chips, if you must) and the lollipop.

Last Friday’s blow-out against the Dodgers was the second part in my sporting doubleheader. Earlier in the day Nottingham Forest started their latest Championship campaign with a nervy 1-0 win over Millwall.

I don’t think I have ever bought food at the City Ground. Why would you? You don’t go to English football grounds to eat. My routine is generally to buy haddock and chips from Carrington’s Fish Bar and scoff them on the way to the ground. Beer is drunk at a pub en route. The whole point is to arrive a few minutes before the game and leave at the final whistle.

The culture surrounding English football could not be further removed from that surrounding baseball, where fans arrive early to eat and stay late to watch fireworks (after Saturday home games) or run the bases (with Mr Met on Sundays).

Here are some of the difference I have noted in the past three years with the Mets…

  1. Tear down season – the most depressing aspect of the 2017 Mets. With no relegation or promotion and the play-offs out of reach, this season is effectively over. The team is done, being broken up with an eye on 2018. Lucas Duda and Addison Reed have been shipped out and any numbers of others would have followed if they were wanted by other teams making a late season push. There is no notion of mid-table security in this game, which kind of tells you all you need to know about American sport
  2. Punditry – the TV commentary makes no attempt at neutrality. Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez (the burger maker) are fans. Cheerleaders. Their channel SNY is jointly owned by the Mets. So last season, they made no mention of the fact that David Wright clearly couldn’t throw the ball from third to first, and made only fleeting reference to the tabloid scandal that clearly derailed one of Bartolo Colon’s outings 
  3. Corporatisation – everything is sponsored to within an inch of its life. When sponsorship changed from Pepsi to Coke the Pepsi Porch seating area became the rather clumsy Coca Cola Corner. Banner boards proudly proclaim Cheez Doodles to be the official cheese puff of the New York Mets. And – of interest to readers of this blog – all the burgers in the stadium are made from beef supplied by Pat LaFrieda. A million miles from Forest who not so long ago played with their owner’s name emblazoned on their shirts for lack of other sponsors.
  4. Entertainment – I dimly recall the Hooters girls performing during half time at the City Ground when football was trying to go glam. Everyone was too busy going to the loo and getting a cup of Bovril to pay any attention. It never really worked out Baseball entertainment takes things to a whole other level. Look what the Braves got going on…

What does it all mean? Two different sports, two countries. America has the better burgers. And the Freeze.

* (If anyone knows why it is called the 108 burger then please do let me know. Is it behind section 108? Is it related to a Keith stat? If so, I can’t find it…)

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Bakers and burgers in Trump country


Frank DeViva, owner of the Bakehouse Bakery and Café


Sit down at the table under the television at the far end of the Bakehouse Bakery and Café and you know immediately where you are. Not just Kingston, Pennsylvania, but Trump country.

“I’m pro-America, pro-gun, pro-God,” is how John Sorber, a retired lineman, introduces himself (And anti-Obama, anti-Stalin and anti-government meddling in healthcare).

It is just after ten o’clock and the informal breakfast club is winding down. There’s just time enough for one last cup of coffee and a chance to take the pulse of a county that voted Obama in 2008 and 2012 before plumping for Donald Trump last year.

Because despite what the pollsters and pundits are saying about a stalled legislative agenda, a gaffe-prone White House and a string of broken promises, there is no buyer’s remorse here.

Mention Saturday’s 100-day milestone and the response is a weary smile.

“I never liked the 100 days thing,” says Gordon Price, who worked in the telephone industry before retiring. “I’m still behind him.”

His administration is not yet fully staffed, runs the thinking here, and the same pundit class that dismissed Mr Trump’s chances in the election is now declaring the presidency a failure.

The view in Kingston is different. These are the people who took Mr Trump seriously but not literally. They don’t see flip-flopping or commitments broken.

They see a president who has begun the process of dragging America into a new age, reasserting itself in global affairs and undoing the damage of the Obama years.

“We had eight years of Obama. He damaged the country. He made this country a laughing stock,” says Mr Price, folding away that morning’s Wilkes Barre Times Leader newspaper.

“I’m not going to say much,” says Kathy, a retired teacher, “but I agree with that.”

The missile strikes on Syria are an illustration of a president who means business, she adds.

This part of America doesn’t care that he has not released his taxes. They shrug at the defeat of a healthcare bill, as if to say that’s Washington business, not their business. They have other issues that they care about.

That’s why Hillary Clinton missed the trend in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the other states she took for granted.

Kathy and Gordon are both former Democrat voters who backed Trump this time around.

“We used to be the silent majority,” says Gordon echoing a Trump refrain, “but these are desperate times.

Kingston and its bigger neighbour Wilkes Barre have long known desperate times. The region’s economy was once based on anthracite mines that produced a hard coal with a high carbon content. When that disappeared in the second half of the Twentieth Century it was replaced by manufacturing industry in general and women’s clothing factories in particular. In time those factories disappeared as well, to be replaced by a mix of small-scale service industries leaving an unemployment rate that tracks a point plus change above the national average.

The high street has more than its fair share of empty stores, making for a sorry sight when the town’s residential roads fill with bursts of cherry blossom at this time of year.

If I were better at this there would be some kind of metaphor in Biggie Burger, a joint that closed down recently before re-opening inside the Bakehouse, bringing owner Frank DeViva’s businesses under the same roof.

Rebirth, renaissance or some such.


The point of this trip was to get a different view of America, a different view of Trump. I didn’t bargain on finding a different view of the great American burger.

Yet that’s what happened when I ordered a cheeseburger with pickles and grilled onions after the breakfast club had drifted home. The burger was great. The Angus beef made it all a substantial mouthful, thick and juicy.

But the star of the show was the bun. It was crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. It soaked up the juice of the burger but held its shape. This was more than mere delivery system it was part of a greater whole.

Having already heard Frank’s story I should have known what was going on. He describes himself as a bagel baker from Queens NY. His bun includes malt and olive oil, and is baked only after 36 hours of fermentation. You get the picture.

He described it as European style, and I was too polite to say that I’d never had anything that good in Europe.

Business at the Bakehouse looked brisk. And after lunch I find another local businessman who says things are looking up.

Chuck Molinari sells exercise equipment from a shop crowded with static bikes, elliptical machines and weights benches. And in the two days before we met he had delivered two $4000 treadmills to buyers – not the sort of purchases made when times are tight, making him something of an economic bellwether.


Chuck Molinari

Last year was his worst on record. This is year is better already, something he puts down to Mr Trump’s plans to energise the economy.

“People that do the kind of thing like I do – sole proprietors, small businesses – we are all on the same page,” he says, sitting in his shorts on a bench.

There is a lesson here among the Trump voters of Kingston, a two and half hour drive in a rented Nissan from the media bubble of New York. Their mood is upbeat.

And mood matters in American political life of 2017.

Just as the election turned out to be less about facts, programmes and political philosophy, and more about emotion, feeling and tribe, so too this presidency will be judged in part on atmosphere.

Who is hurting?

Having learned this lesson when an election shock took shape on the night of November 8, too many commentators have reverted to their conventional yardsticks and the verdicts of an entrenched establishment.

What happened to all their post-mortem self-flagellation?

Did we get around to reading the rash of books that sought to explain the other America, you know, those ones with titles a bit like Redneck Lament?

The views that matter lie not in the political saloons of Washington DC or the newsrooms of New York, but all around the country at tables just like the eight-seater beneath the TV screen at the Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe.


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Terminal burger


“Welcome to the Central Diner,” reads the sign. “24 hours of food and fun.”

Inside the atmosphere might be better described as subdued. Table come and go in a low hubbub. Customers have planes to catch.

This is terminal four of JFK Airport, one of the shinier terminals at a run-down airport, one that fits neatly into my theory that airport naming committees will always find you out. (Benazir Bhutto might be revered around the world but her reign coincided with one of the most corrupt periods in Pakistani history, her father pioneered the country’s lurch into the hands of armed Islamist proxies and her ministers embraced the Taliban with gusto. Her airport in Islamabad is rubbish. And in New York, when they changed the name of Idlewild Airport to JFK they surely were sniggering at the fact that Kennedy’s myth was bigger than anything the man achieved.)

To my right is a classic diner counter lined with stools.

Waitresses with East European names and accents dispense coffee refills and NY attitude.

What makes the Central Diner different is its location at the heart of the fight against Donald Trump’s Muslim-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban. It is all down to quirk of scheduling. Terminal four finds itself on the frontline because twice a day Emirates flights arrive from Dubai, carrying passengers whose journeys start all across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

It was where Hameed Khalid Darweesh stepped off his flight last Friday and was promptly detained, even though he had arrived on a special visa designed to protect the life of a man who had worked for US armed forces in Iraq. A weekend of protests followed.

Rabina Taj, an immigration attorney who lives in East Harlem, was in Vermont on a skiing trip when she heard the news. By the time she and her friends began the journey back to New York on Sunday they had set up a website to help co-ordinate the efforts of volunteer lawyers and get information to worried travellers.

Since then she has taken time off her job to pull long hours in the pop-up legal centre that has taken root in the seating area beside the diner.

The night before we meet she was working until 2am.


Volunteers have fanned out through the airport trying to track down travellers who have got caught in a tightened net. Without access to areas beyond the arrival hall it is a tough business.

They look out for relatives who have been waiting hours for arrivals who never arrive, or they simply hold up banners offering assistance to anyone in need.

Although several courts have pushed back against the ban and the White House has dropped its requirement to include green card holders on the blacklist, the problems aren’t over.

There is nothing to stop border officials taking anyone out of line for secondary questioning which can last for up to seven hours, about the time lawyers would file a Habeus Corpus writ demanding the prisoner be presented in court, says Nabila.

People snared include naturalised American citizens, those from countries other than the seven seven affected countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) and some with green cards and the legal right to permanent residence in the US.

The result is that even with the chaos of that first weekend easing, lawyers like Nabila say they will be sticking around for as long as they are needed.

That means lots of Central Diner coffee.

“They’ve been incredible, serving us food and letting us come in to talk and so on,” says Nabila.

“We had more of their space. It’s cordoned off now but at one time we had all their dining area.

“We really appreciate them letting us have our headquarters here.”

As well as giving up their staff for volunteer work, a number of law firms have chipped in to pay off the tab.

People coming off planes have made donations, including one passenger who handed over $90. That went straight into the diner tip jar.

And a gofundme page has raised more than $5000 for tips and diner gift cards to go to other airport staff who have gone out of their way to support (or turn a blind eye) to the legal effort sprawling across the terminal.

Nabila thanks me for the coffee but says she won’t stay for a burger.

I don’t blame her. Although the burger is nicely packed with lettuce, tomato and red onion, the patty is a let down. Grey with a dubious hum of freezer taint. It’s the sort of thing I might have eaten at a British regional airport in the 1980s, but doesn’t really fit this distant outpost of Camelot.

After a couple of bites the red onion is too much. Eye wateringly too much.

The fries are nothing to write home about (unless, that is, your address is Underwhelming French Fry House, Chipping Awful, Worst Chipshire or some such).

I leave a big tip anyway.




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On the Road



The California Burger at the Rio Grande, Yanceyville

There’s nothing better as a journalist than getting out on the road. Except perhaps for getting out on the road in America, a land of big cars, wide roads and wider skies. And as many cliches as you can shake a stick at.

That was roughly my state of mind on Thursday as I slung my bags in the back of a rental car in Charlotte for a weekend of chasing the Ku Klux Klan through rural North Carolina.

Chasing people is one of the most fun things a journalist can do. Whether it is the company director who has done a bunk with the profits or the Royal holidaying in Africa, it is a battle of cat and mouse, where the journalist has to rely on his or her instincts, whatever contacts can be rustled up in a hurry and the occasional bribe (although certainly not in any place where such activity is illegal, let’s just be clear on that point).

And to do it in America makes it all the more of a thrill. Beyond the Beltway is the real America, where gas stations double as diners and come with coffee refills.

The first sign that things might not be quite as romantic as they sound came with the car. If you have never seen a purple Nissan Versa compact, well suffice to say that as well as obviously being very Japanese it simply is not the sort of car anyone would choose for their American road trip. Although it does give excellent MPG.

Think Chili Palmer in Be Cool when his own vehicle has been blown up and he has to drive around in a Honda Insight rental:

Martin (Danny Devito) Hey Chili, that your car?
Chili: Yes, Its the Cadillac of Hybrids.
Martin: A bit tight for a guy like you?
Chili: a small price to pay for the environment.
Martin: But what about speed? (its parked between Ferarris)
Chili: Martin, when you’re important, People will wait.

And it wasn’t the only part of the Jack Kerouac dream that didn’t quite live up to reality. Life on the road on my kind of budget invariably means dodgy motels and meals in soulless strip malls that shut at 8.30pm.

My lodgings were the Economy Inn. In a country where almost everything is marketed to within an inch of litigation, it is fair to say that anything describing itself as “economy” in its own name should be treated with a healthy dose of DDT.

And the food was fast. I racked up two burgers in the course of Saturday alone. The first was in a BurgerKing.

The second was in the evening. I had spent the day watching the KKK and as I made my way home from trying to doorstep the Imperial Kommander of the Loyal White Knights for the second time I spotted half a dozen police cars parked up at a Mexican restaurant alongside Highway 86 N (much less glamorous than it sounds). I couldn’t resist.

Inside the Rio Grande was a functional kind of place, comprising at least three dining rooms joined together as if the owners had expanded their way through neighbouring joints one by one. The cops – I could tell they were state troopers from their cars – were just leaving, returning to their shifts, as I came in.

I recognised one from the KKK parade, where we had both parked up in a vacant lot waiting for their arrival. I decided not to ask if his was the squad car behind me when I rolled straight through a four-way stop as he chased the parade through the small town of Roxboro (officially a city of 8000 or so souls). Instead he gave me his impressions of the Kavalcade, as the Klansmen insisted on calling it.

“We were laughing at them because there weren’t very many trucks. Some looked like they was in those little rental cars you can get for $19,” he said, guffawing.


He was looking straight through the window at my purple Nissan Versa. I let it go.

My burger was OK. Advertised as a California Burger, it was dressed up with Pico de Gallo – the chunky Mexican salsa – which served to season a pretty average thing into a slightly above average thing.

But when my other meals had been in fast food chains or dubious strip mall restaurants, including the heaviest sushi I have ever tried to lift with a pair of chopsticks, that counts as a win.

KKK celebrates Trump victory with brazen parade

KKK Imperial Wizard misses his own Trump victory rally

(It was

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The Donald and the Goat – or the appeal of Trump

The Trump show has been a blast from the minute he descended into his own campaign launch by golden escalator, accused Mexico of sending rapists north of the border and walked into a row with Neil Young over his use of Rockin’ in the Free World.

Jaded colleagues told me not to get too excited. They remembered the ludicrous birther campaign. Let him have his fun and carry on writing about candidates no-one has ever heard of before. HuffPost has rather snootily relegated him to the entertainment pages.

Yet here we are, two months later, and Trump’s lead in the polls seems more solid than ever – despite what any other politician would have seen as run-ending gaffes, over women, migrants, John McCain and probably some others. How can this be?

Which is roughly how I found myself sitting down at the end of a five-and-a-half hour drive to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire (that final half hour being a rather testing search for a parking spot), in The Goat.

This is a crucial state and the second – after Iowa – to select its candidate in February. From now until then, candidate after candidate will pass through, kissing babies, addressing town hall meetings and generally being seen out and about.

Trump was due to speak up the road at Winnacunnet High School in the evening and I was in need some fortification of the burger kind. I ordered what I looked like, the Hot Mess, and nipped to the loo, asking the group at the next table to keep an eye on my hat.

On my return, they were polite enough to answer my questions: Did they know Trump was speaking up the road? Was the Bacon Bucket on the menu really a bucket of bacon? Which other campaigns had been through town?

“The person you really want to speak to is Kerri,” they told me.

Kerri Ruggiero, it turned out, was a volunteer George Pataki, the former governor of New York, and was seeing first hand how Trump’s appeal had destroyed the form book for the New Hampshire primary. She could see his appeal.

“People like him. They think he’s a breath of fresh air,” she said. “And he has the means to do it.”

Younger voters in particular were lapping up his message, she said, that he was a man of means who had no need for donors and lobbyists who would later want to cash in their support. (At this point my burger arrived, with some beautiful golden French fries leaving me to wonder how rude it would be to tuck in, mid interview.)

My phone buggered up on the day. So this is taken from The Goat's facebook page

My phone buggered up on the day. So this is taken from The Goat’s facebook page

She made clear she was no fan. (I waited 10 minutes, offered her a French fry with a lame, “I don’t know if you’ve eaten, and then tried to eat the burger without too much ending up on my face.) And that having allowed three of his companies to go bankrupt in order to save his personal fortune she was worried he would do something similar to the country.

At that point she texted a friend to find out why the bar was called The Goat. I was keen for it to be related to the chap with a goat who takes it to meet candidates. For the record, it wasn’t. The name was an acronym: Greatest Of All Time.

That evening, the fervent and the merely curious crammed into Winnacunnet High School auditorium. Many echoed Kerri’s words. They talked of honesty, of Washington needing a kick up the backside.

And this is the appeal of the man. Beyond New York and DC there is a country that feels left out, that is feeling the squeeze and that sees in Donald Trump a return to what made America great.


It was a theme he riffed on repeatedly, of dim politicians selling the US down the river because they simply didn’t have the skills or the courage to stand up to China, big company bosses or whoever else it might be.

But the key to understanding his appeal was in the conversations I had with the people in the hall and the queue to see him (some arrived four hours early). There were three recurring themes:

  1. Honesty – he doesn’t need donors or lobbyists who will stop him saying what he believes
  2. Deal maker – he is a businessman with a history of making deals. That’s what America needs
  3. Confidence – America is on the back foot in the world. He’s a big beast who can help make it great again

Sure, the man is ridiculous in many ways. You might not like his rhetoric. He has fleshed out his policies with the barest of bones. And whether his skills can actually fix any of the problems he has identified is another question. But if he can surge in New Hampshire – where the Republicans have a reputation as liberals – then you ignore him at your peril.

(You can hear my RTE World Report here.)

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I take my burgers like Keith Hernandez


You don’t pick your teams. They pick you.

That, anyway, is how I roll. So while I admire Kevin Clark‘s recent effort in deciding between Mets and Yankees – trying both teams for a month, wearing the caps and watching the highlight reels when he moved to New York (and I thoroughly recommend that you read the piece) – I already had my team when I arrived in Brooklyn a year ago.

It was 1986 (can you guess?). And I had my American football team: The Jets. So I asked and asked and asked for our Brit friends living in New Jersey to bring a shirt the next time they visited. I can even remember hearing the door bell, racing down the stairs and just about managing to hide my disappointment when a pin-striped white shirt was thrust in my face with a rhyming team’s name scrawled on the front.

Then the Mets won the World Series and they became mine. It got even better. Just like my favoured football (soccer) team they had scaled the heights of greatness, only to disappear into mediocrity. It played to my inner snob: Only a baseball aficionado would support such a team. Leave the Yankees for the tourists.

I’m still learning the finer points, but catch me in a lyrical moment and I’ll describe the attraction as similar to cricket: It might be a team sport, but out there in the middle it is man against man, pitcher against batter. It is why baseball books and films work in a way that football books simply can’t. It’s one on one. Mind against mind.

And this is shaping up to be a cracking season for Mets fans.

It could have gone either way last week. There was the extraordinary day when Wilmer Flores cried on the pitch because he thought he had been traded. Then it turned out the stellar deal for the big hitting Gomez had fallen through. The next day they collapsed from a 7-1 lead to lose 7-8. Here we go. Just like my football team, where off-field shenanigans have a habit of ballsing up the most promising of seasons.

And so it was that I arrived at Citi Field last Friday. First came the burger. The best in the park is round at Keith’s grill (imho). The golden glove is a thick slab of beef, piled high with onion, lettuce, tomato and cheese. The meat comes from Pat LaFrieda, who seems to have some sort of stadium deal. And the result is an intensely satisfying hit of big, charred meaty flavour. (Shake Shack needs two patties to compete.)

Oddly the burger comes with a packet of crisps and a lollipop – “exactly how Keith eats his burger” according to the blurb. It wasn’t until later that I discovered this was no vague marketing invention, but apparently the way Keith Hernandez likes his burger (And if you don’t know who he is, all you need to know is that there’s a Seinfeld episode in which he develops a man crush on the chap).

So anyway the game… It was memorable for the chants of Wilmer Flores every time the little fella was involved – a diving stop at second in the first innings, an RBI single in the second and so on. Hardened New York fans showing they could be sentimental.

And with the game all square at the end of 10 innings I went home. So I missed his walk-off home run winner…

KzxYxDSo not only have the Mets apparently turned a pretty significant corner, but I discovered I take my burgers the same way as Keith Hernandez.

(Or possibly Bartolo Colon. I bought his T-shirt in the club shop a few weeks ago. They only had one variety. Unlike say David Wright or Matt Harvey. When I asked why, they said he wasn’t very popular. Bonkers. In Britain, a tubby 42-year-old who sometimes lost his helmet as he swung at the ball would have his own chants not to mention T-shirts.)

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You don’t need Islam to explain the Chattanooga shootings

mosque (2)

Chattanooga is not Murfreesboro, where plans to expand a mosque sparked protests and ill-feeling. Instead, the doctors who made up the board of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattangooga invited Bassam Issa, a real estate developer, to join them in order to help ease through their plans for a community centre, mosque and school deep in the Bible Belt.

He helped find a site outside residential zones, close to shopping malls, where no-one could object.

Mr Issa arrived in the mid 1970s, when he estimates there were maybe 40 Muslims in the city and for years they worshipped in a former church. Today there are several thousand, and never, he says, have they experienced discrimination or abuse.

“Our sisters and daughters wear scarves wherever they go, and there has never been an issue,” he says, at the mosque, which opened about three years ago.

As we speak, there should have been inflatables outside for the children and parties to mark the end of Ramadan. This year, Eid has been cancelled in response to the awful mass shooting last week.

Residents of the city and worshippers at the mosque are horrified that such destruction could be unleashed in a place like Chattanooga. Everywhere I stopped – including Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken (no burger on this trip, well it is the South) – it seemed everyone was searching for answers.

“This is not the Chattanooga we know,” said the young woman sat beside me at Champy’s bar as I ordered my two-piece dark meat plate.


Inevitably that search is focusing on Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s Muslim heritage and frequent visits to Jordan and Kuwait, where he was born. Days before he launched his deadly spree, Abdulazeez’s began writing a blog:

Brothers and sisters don’t be fooled by your desires, this life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to allah may pass you by. Take his word as your light and code and do not let other prisoners, whether they are so called “Scholars” or even your family members, divert you from the truth.  If you make the intention to follow allahs way 100 % and put your desires to the side, allah will guide you to what is right.

Perhaps some of these words sound chilling to those unfamiliar with Islam and the Koran. To me, they sound like the words of someone who is lost and lonely, who wants his life to end. The killers of al-Qaeda and Isis have far bloodier epitaphs.

So too the trips to the Middle East, where his family says he was sent to clean himself up and kick the drug habit he was developing. Jordan seems an unlikely place to go to seek radical training (although it does border Syria). As the days go by, the more it seems Abdulazeez was a young man in pain, suffering from depression. One friend has says he had no truck with Isis.

And this is the most difficult answer for the people of Chattanooga. There is no easy external explanation. There is a difficult explanation closer to home, tied up in questions of gun control and the way America deals with mental health.

In so many ways, Abdulazeez’s is an American story: He liked to wrestle, smoke marijuana and shoot guns. And he chose a Ford Mustang for his final, violent act.

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The seat facing the door


To be honest, I didn’t really think about it, just plonking myself down in the chair facing the door.

Reda Hassaine hesitated, unsure of quite what to do. Then he face broke into a broad grin and and sat down.

“For 10 years I have always sat in that chair,” he said pointing at mine. “I always faced the door so I could see who was coming in.

“Now it doesn’t matter.”

A couple of hours earlier we were sat in Court 15A of the US District Courthouse in downtown Manhattan – no more than a 10-minute walk from where the Twin Towers once stood – listening to Judge Katherine Forrest send down Abu Hamza for life.

It was the first time I had seen the radical preacher in the flesh. He cut a charismatic yet forlorn figure: a powerful, handsome man whose wild grey beard had been tamed, but who seemed resigned to dying in an American prison.

His reputation and headlines were a long time ago, generated in a country far, far away. While the British media turned up early to bag the best seats, our American colleagues seemed underwhelmed. The court was busy, but not mobbed. The man from the New York Times was too late to claim a spot in the jury box (opened up to the press for once) and was clearly miffed at coming out second best.

New York life carried on outside. No-one really seemed to know he was.

That is apart from the British journalists and my new friend Reda, an Algerian who fled his home country’s stifling intelligence services for London and who carefully embedded himself in the crazy world hidden inside the Finsbury Park Mosque, which Abu Hamza ran as a state within a state. From there he did his best to alert the British police of the deadly venom being steadily

Yet no-one seemed to do anything about it. Reda spells it out in his book Abu Hamza Guilty: The Brits seemed happy to keep Abu Hamza and his acolytes where they could see him, soaking up tit bits of intelligence. Or – as Reda rather suggests – the gentlemen bunglers of the British security establishment simply never appreciated the danger he represented.

Reda eventually also worked with French and Algerian intelligence services, who were quicker to latch on to Abu Hamza’s threat. And he provided scoop after scoop to British newspapers.

All the while, it was taking a toll on his personal life. He suffered a break-down and his marriage fell apart. Inside the mosque he tried to sit on Abu Hamza’s left side, closer to the blind eye so that the preacher might not pick up the giveaway body language of an imposter.

And, knowing the lengths that Abu Hamza’s jihadi network would go to if they uncovered a spy in the midst, he always say facing the door. Until now.

After watching American justice do what British justice had failed to do, we marked it with a late, American lunch at Brinkly’s just up the road. He had the Grassfed Burger (no bacon) while I had the California Burger (perfectly satisfying but I’m not converted to the idea of avocado on a burger).

Reda took 20 minutes longer than me to eat. He was buzzing and there wasn’t much room for the burger as the words kept coming.

“I can finally say ‘mission accomplished’,” he said.

My colleague wrote more about Reda’s role in the prosecution, which you can read here

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Burger the Bragg, Confuse the enemy


A lot has happened in the decade since I last saw Billy Bragg perform live.

I moved away from the UK to become a foreign correspondent. My politics have undergone the inevitable overhaul of age. And I’ve grown a beard.

Bill has advocated tactical voting. Dropped his invitation to “Bootleg the Bragg, Confuse the Enemy” in favour of working out how to best deal with music streaming services. And he’s grown a beard.

All of which goes some way to explain how during the rousing finale of Levi Stubb’s Tears my view is blocked by an overzealous waiter pouring the dregs of a 2012 Zinfandel into my glass.

You see, this is not your average Billy Bragg gig. This is the New York City Winery, a swanky affair, where gig goers are welcomed by a man with an iPad before being escorted to their table. Everyone is offered a sample of the Zinfandel produced on the premises. And not once do my feet stick to the floor.

It’s a long way from that first album in 1983 with its “Pay no more than £2.99” slogan to Manhattan’s Lower West Side and the most expensive gig I’ve ever attended.

And this, being America, means that I can have dinner. There’s nothing Americans seemingly don’t do without eating – walking, movie watching, drinking, sports viewing, music listening are all apparently endured merely to facilitate the act of eating.

So my LaFrieda Burger (named for the local butcher that supplies the meat) with cave-aged Cheddar (I have my doubts about the capital C) arrives after the lights have gone down for Billy the Kid, serving up a nice enough slice of Americana to accompany my meal.

The burger was OK. As I’m learning in the US, it seemed to be nothing but beef, salt and pepper. A good thing in my book. But it arrived cold. The centre seemed rarer than I’d ordered, but I couldn’t see a damn thing.

Anyway the Zinfandel was sloshing down a treat. And by the time Billy Bragg came on I had lost my anxiety about seeing him perform in a wine bar surrounded by people in suits. From the opening salvo about the Scottish independence referendum to the closing “I’m just looking for another girl” it was vintage Bragg. Tank Park Salute always makes me stop dead. And Both Sides the Tweed carried extraordinary resonance on the night before Scotland voted on independence.

Maybe he hasn’t changed at all. I, on the other hand, have to buy XL T-shirts these days.

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