Steve Braunias returned to his favourite golden mile of eat-in and takeaway food – Lincoln Rd, in west Auckland – on a day before New Zealand shut down.

God I ate well when I ate Lincoln Rd. Burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, fantastic amounts and varieties of chook – this was 2016, when I set out to eat at each and every one of the 55 food joints along the golden 3 km stretch of Lincoln Rd up high on a flat plateau in west Auckland. I wrote a book about it. The book sold out, because it was a joyous and emotional record of the people’s food, fried and fast and topped with sauce or sugar or salt. We all ate out then. Those were the days.

And so I returned to Lincoln Rd on Wednesday, not to chronicle the food that a nation eats, but to see if anyone was still around to eat it. In innocent 2016, I was the title of my book, The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road; in sickly 2020, the Year of the Plague, I was the man who maintained correct social distance while I approached others eating Lincoln Rd. I expected it might be empty, or just hanging on. Some of it was empty, just hanging on. But much else presented a wonderful and actually quite moving sight: people going about their business, in the mood for a good feed, happy. None of us knew any better. Stores were open so we walked in and ordered. It was poignant and dangerous.

I walked to Lincoln Rd from my home in Te Atatu. The neighbourhood was quiet. The blinds were drawn in the home of National MP Alfred Ngaro, and the only patient waiting in the medical centre was a bogan on crutches. Builders stood on the scaffolding of two terrace housing projects which will one day allow householders superior views of State Highway 16. Lycra’d fools were cycling alongside the motorway as I hoofed the track in pleasant autumn sunshine to the Lincoln Rd exit. To the west, the fuzzy blue-green line of the Waitakere ranges; to the south, the direction I was headed, the green arcadia of Henderson valley. It took about an hour and 20 minutes to get to Lincoln Rd. I took a deep breath – I only ever did this outside, never inside – and smelled the air. Immediately, I picked up the scent of the world’s favourite bird, and headed into Texas Chicken.

Workers from the construction site of Nido – it’s going to be the biggest retail store in Auckland, an enormous blue shed – were queuing for chook. All my professional life I’ve set out on assignments where the day’s work demands that I bowl up to complete strangers and start talking to them; I’m a shy,  self-conscious sort of rooster, with a fear of rejection, and it takes a bit of effort to get over myself and conduct these interviews. The tone of the day is often set by the first person who I approach. If it’s a sullen, go-away character, I go about the day’s business with dread; if it’s an open, yeah-mate character, I’m good to go.  I asked Ben Clayton, 32, blue-eyed with a lot of blond hair and sucking on a milkshake at Texas Chicken, for an interview and he said: “Yeah mate.”

Crane driver Ben Clayton at Texas Chicken: “It sure ain’t gonna stop me from how I live.”

He said he worked on the Nido site as a crane driver: “I got into cranes when I was 20. It gets you around.” You couldn’t dispute that. I asked him about the virus and his whole attitude was that nothing threw him. He was full of good cheer and good spirits – he was Good Keen Man incarnate, and he said, “I’m personally myself not too worried. You know? People shouldn’t let it get to them. Eat a lot of fruit. Keep active. The mind is a powerful thing and you’ve just got to think right. It sure ain’t gonna stop me from how I live. I ride bikes. I’ve got two Harleys – I used to have three, and a couple of dirt bikes as well. Yeah man! You know?”

If ever there was a guy whose hand I wanted to shake it was his, but I left him to his milkshake and headed past a stripmall of joints such as Spicy Hot Pot and Flame Pizza to yum cha restaurant Mr Lobster. A sign on the door advised, “Customer who is coughing to stay away.”

Inside, owner Nora Kou, 40, was a model of calm and poise. “We knew weeks ago it would have a huge impact based on what happened in China,” she said. She thought up a range of crayfish promotions at the end of January – buy one, get one free, and it got the restaurant through February in good shape. “We were happy,” she said.  “Even on Thursday, after the first cases, I thought, ‘Should be fine. Should be fine.’ But Friday changed everything.” She meant Black Friday, March 13, and really the first overt announcements that things were bad and getting worse. Business since then had gone down about 50%.

Kou is Malaysian. She spoke quietly and with conviction. Now and then my thoughts drifted while she was talking, and I studied the poor old crayfish blindly crawling over each other in the tanks at Mr Lobster. I asked how she felt about the threat worse than financial collapse – death – and she said, “Personally I’m not really that scared. There are things you can do. We sanitise all the door handles and tables twice a day. Everyone is wearing gloves. We’ve ordered clear face masks from China.”

Nora Kou at Mr Lobster: “Personally I’m not really that scared.”

It was better that people were educated about staying safe, she said, than simply closing everything down. And then she said, “The rumour going around is that Auckland will be on lockdown next week.”

The official line last week was that such rumours were a total nonsense. Those who spread those rumours or believed those rumours were fools and knaves. But the rumours turned out to be true. I hadn’t heard that rumour before my interview with Nora Kou but I did the next best thing: passed it on to everyone I met on Lincoln Rd. The first person was Tony Scholes, 54, a truck driver who was delivering salsa to Mexicali Fresh. He was a fit, tough little guy with missing teeth, and he said: “I hope so, mate. I hope so. And shut down the border. We’ve never been in this kind of shit before and you don’t know what’s going to happen. The backpackers and that, they think they can just do what they want, come here and not do wassisname, that thing – yeah, self-isolation. Nah. Keep ‘em out.”

A 53-year-old resource planner scoffing a burger for morning tea at Carl’s Jr declined to give his name. I asked him to rate his anxiety level from 1-10 – 10 being freaked out – and he marked himself a 7. “I have asthma,” he said. “So if I get it, I’ll be suffering.” He hoped there’d be a lockdown and already was staying close to home. “We’re minimising times we have to go out.” I raised my eyebrows. He got what I wasn’t saying. “Well – I knew there wouldn’t be many people in here at this time of morning,” he said. Carl’s Jr was empty. “Still. It’s a risk.”

Punjabi Kitchen, Shen’s, West City Bakery (marshmallow chocolates on a skewer!), King Roast, Tank, Subway, all the stations of the New Zealand appetite… “Lockdown? I hope not,” said Wiremu Wehi, 55, smoking a Rothman’s at an outside table at Columbus. “But hey. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” He ranked his anxiety level at a calm 5. He had a very elegant way about him. I really liked his company; he was a classy guy. “I woke up this morning breathing,” he said, and paused to take a drag, the smoke rising in the autumn sunlight, “and everything since then is a bonus.”

Wiremu Wehi at Columbus: “I woke up this morning breathing.”

The 32nd food joint I popped into was KFC. There was a Samoan family of four eating a meal and a Māori family of three eating a meal and both said, when I asked to speak with them, “We’re eating a meal.” Fair call. They were sullen and go-away, and also I was a Pakeha, a Palagi, and also was I carrying The Plague? They shrunk away when I approached. I sat down and read terrible news about the virus on my phone, but turned it off and got into one of my favourite songs of all times, playing really loud in the restaurant – “Bang, Bang” by Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. And then a crazy Māori lady with spectacular lipstick came in and ordered a cup of water. I asked for her thoughts on the matter, and she said, “I’m not frightened at all. Uh-uh. It’s from Korea. People are sniffing a lot. People’s mouths are drying out. Um. And that’s about it.” She turned and fled. God knows how she’s going to get through the next month and likewise all the crazies, the homeless, the sick, the vulnerable, the various assorted explicitly unhappy people who found it hard enough to hang on when the rest of New Zealand was functioning.

Around the corner, Samira Hamud, 39, and her daughter Taty, 20, were coming out of Pak’n’Save with an enormous trolley of provisions. “We do our shop every two weeks,” said Samira. “But today, we double up on everything.” It had cost $220. She looked into her trolley, and said, “Eggs. Cornflakes. Beans. Flour. Sugar. Noodles. And now we’re off to get the meat.” She meant Mr Meats, further down Lincoln Rd. They were lovely, open people, and although they didn’t take offence that I’d raised the subject of the virus, I sensed a certain kind of reluctance to discuss it, that I’d transgressed a social code. Taty said, “It’s not something people talk about every day.”

What an extraordinary remark. I thought it was something everyone in the whole world was talking about, every second of the day, sometimes responsibly, sometimes obsessively, but certainly incessantly. But my day on Lincoln Rd was instructing or reminding me that people everywhere were just getting on with their lives. I had become an obsessive. I woke up at 4am and looked at Covid-19 updates on my phone in the dark. I was living in dread. On the anxiety score of 1-10, I was turned up to 11. For a few precious hours on Lincoln Rd, though, I felt better about things, buoyed by the human spirit.

I needed a beer. I popped into Good Home and ordered a glass of Little Creatures pale ale on tap ($11! What a rip-off!) and nursed it at a table. It was about 1pm. The bar was empty. A shabby bookcase lined one of the walls, and I took down an anthology of horror stories. Ray Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh, Daphne du Maurier…“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe included this dialogue between two characters:

“How long have you had that cough?”

“It is nothing.”

“Come. We will go back; your health is precious.”

“Enough. The cough will not kill me….”

Four customers at Nando’s, two at Hell, one in Sal’s, none in Yue’s Dumplings because it hasn’t opened yet (what a time to open a business!),  and a long queue at Burger King, where retired truck driver Paul Hart, 66, immersed a long white spoon into the sweet dream of his caramel sundae. I asked him about the virus. “I don’t wanna get it. That’s about it,” he said. He shovelled in another mouthful of sundae, and said, “I don’t know. We’ve just gotta do what we can. Keep hygienic. Hopefully it won’t get out of hand.” He wore a cap that advertised better times, and a life worth living: 90 Mile Beach Snapper Bonanza Surf Casting Competition.

Quite a few people who I spoke to during my journey said the media was over-emphasising the virus. “The media is over-emphasising it,” said Eric Breadmore, 76, at McDonald’s. “I’m originally from the UK. I read the papers online and what I see is that they’re predicting 200,000 will die. To me, that’s rubbish. You look at Wuhan. My wife is Chinese; we’ve got friends there. They go to the gate twice a week for food deliveries. Life is not easy. But it’s not life-threatening. We also have friends in Shanghai, and they’re all basically back into full production.”

He said he routinely sanitised his hands,  had 10 facemasks at home “in case”, and practised social distancing. “You,” he said, “are about the closest I’ve come to anyone.” We were sitting across from each other at a table.

He was with a lovely little black-haired girl, Elle, aged three. You can tell by the way an adult behaves with a small child whether they’re a grandparent or parent. The former are gentle, a bit childish, and treat the exercise like a novelty; the latter are more solid, used to it, and sit so close that they’re like a part of their kid, attached. And so I didn’t even have to ask, but Eric mentioned it anyway. “Obviously, we’re wary with this one,” he said, as Elle stroked his hair. “She’s my daughter,” added Eric, 75 (“coming up to 76”).

Eric and Elle Breadmore: “The media are over-emphasising it.”

There were 55 food joints when I ate Lincoln Rd in 2016. That number remains exactly the same, with some closing and others opening. How many will still there be in six months time, a year’s time? Less, a lot less? I was in a zone of probable ruin.

As I approached the final strip of food joints on the street (Happy Snappa, Chapati, the mysteriously named Le K K Bakery), I saw a tall, trim man doing God’s work: picking up litter off the pavement. In fact Colin Diprose, 70, was on his way to the Lincoln Rd Bible Chapel.

He said, “Are you the man who – what was it you did to Lincoln Rd?”

“Ate it,” I said.

“Ah yes,” he said.

We sat down and talked about the plague. “It’s an indication we are getting towards end times,” he said. “The Bible does talk about latter days and that a catastrophe is the prelude to God’s return.  So I live in the expectation that Jesus will return. But,” he said, “no man knows the hour and time.”

I liked Colin a lot and I’m sure he’ll forgive me when I describe him as a religious maniac. An apocalypse and the Rapture are just about the last things on my mind. And yet surely all of us entertain thoughts of some kind of end – at  best, to civilisation as we know it; at worst, to the lives of staggering numbers of people. Are we going to be okay? “It sure ain’t gonna stop me from how I live,” top man Ben Clayton said at Texas Chicken; “The cough will not kill me,” said the character in the Poe story I read at Good Home. I got to the end of Lincoln Rd and walked to West City mall in Henderson. I was hungry.

The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2016) is available online, probably.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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