I had only just started stepping to and fro under the shifting blush of light-emitting diodes, and with only the most pitiable amount of rhythm or flair, when a strawberry blond officer of the Wellington Police crossed the dance floor, tapped my shoulder, and asked me to come outside. My first thought was that, at last, I was getting hit on by someone who had their own car. Then I prayed, “Please, please be arresting me for writing about my impressions of the South Island.”
Since arriving, I had not suffered so much as one evil eye in the world’s southernmost capital city (the closest being when I somewhat brusquely thrust a five-dollar note, the front of which shows the grinning profile of explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, at a middle-aged Chinese fruiterer at the Vivian Street open-air green market; she glared at me and my bag of ripe apricots). A peachy, pacific place. What could I have done to attract this sun-damaged arm of the law, aside from describing the kea parrot as a “bastard”? Being a bastard myself, I have nothing but affection for the kea. Had my two-step been so criminal?
“Slow night?” I said.
He asked how much I had been drinking. I managed a modest guess, adding, as he copied the details of my driver’s license onto a clipboard, that I worked for the university.
“And how long have you been here?” The officer pointed his pen at the indefatigably thumping club.
“About two minutes.”
He sighed, embarrassed by his task (a random check, I would later learn), and wrote my two minutes down on his official paperwork. “All right. You wanna head back in?”
Tickled, I followed my police escort toward the bar. “So,” I asked him in a shout, “where would you go, if you were going out tonight?”
The next week, I made plans (and an attendant hand-drawn map) to spend all day and night Friday criss-crossing the city, shading in as much of the local watering hole spectrum as stamina allowed. Because after one has dispensed with the popular points of interest in town—the panoramic views from the foot of New Zealand’s oldest operating wind turbine, the big Maori waka taua (war canoe) in the national museum, the bushy botanic garden—what remains for the solitary sightseer but to go searching, longingly, for the very thing Sartre said hell was?
To that end I boarded an early afternoon bus near my apartment in high-perched Highbury, bound for low-lying Kilbirnie five miles off. (“Where the Pak’nSave is?” a bartender would say to me later that night, baffled.) As we barreled through the downtown shopping district, I found myself pleasantly distracted from the passing scenery by what appeared to be a single piece of golden confetti lodged in the hair of a handsome, broad-shouldered Pacific Islander sitting in front of me. While he peered from one window to the next, waiting for his stop, hands tucked into the pockets of a denim jacket/hooded sweatshirt combo, headphones drowning out the purr and chatter of the bus, my eyes stayed glued to that rogue glint. When he disembarked, I wondered if all my staring at the back of his head would provoke an intrigued or annoyed glance. Alas, the man with gold in his hair disappeared into his day, his destination presumably more practical than mine.
The bar I visited in Kilbirnie had been described to me by some white-collar Kiwis as “working class,” which on this occasion only seemed relevant insofar as, it being midday, everybody was at work, and not at the bar. In any case, I had come in part for the pokies—video poker and slot machine consoles into which I could drop my heavy one—and two-dollar coins, or, if I was feeling reckless, slide a mint-colored polymer twenty bearing the face of Queen Elizabeth II into the bill validator. The suntanned, bleached-blonde woman behind the bar, which swung out in a sickly, lime green, semi-circular smile, coaxed me into ordering a beer brewed up the road in Mangatainoka.
“Try a Tui Dark,” she said. The tui is a native bird; I had seen one on my first day in town, heard first its noisy one-man band’s song from a branch above me (the tui has two voiceboxes), then glimpsed the cotton ball tuft on its throat. I recalled hearing, on our Christmas visit to Fox Glacier, that a friend’s son had played a tui in a local primary school production. He had relished his small speaking role: “I am a tui. I sing all day.”
I took my Tui Dark over to the grim pokies in the corner, sitting near a thin old man in an olive suit. We perched apart on our leatherette bar stools, tapping big square buttons to make the simulated reels of the slot machines spin. My luck at the machine seemed bad, though drinking and waiting for it to change proved diverting for a spell.
On the hike from Kilbirnie to Newtown (where I would soon down another lonely beer and then eat lamb saag), I admired the multihued houses stuck into the slopes like pushpins. Later that evening, a new friend would correct me when I compared Wellington, with its taste for cute houses pushpinned into hillsides, to San Francisco. “In San Francisco, the houses are very ordered,” he said. “We’ll build a house anywhere, and figure out how to get to it later.”
My walk back towards the city center completed a perfectly tipsy afternoon. Passing by Newtown Mall, a miniature, coin-operated stationary ambulance startled me as it kicked to life, began to buck a little boy who was gleeful enough to hang on and possibly imagine he was coming to somebody’s rescue. His mother, three feet away, waited with folded arms for the fun and flashing lights to end. Further down the road, the smoky gray, privacy-tinted windows of the Phobic Trust of New Zealand, an anxiety clinic, denied me an opportunity to nervously check my hair. When I paused at a crosswalk, two tall Japanese twentysomethings in rockabilly attire, both of them carrying banjos, stared in my direction from the other side, motionless but for their string-plucking fingers.
On Cuba Street, with its vintage boutiques and satay houses and bookstalls, a Malaysian curry fortified me for the five bars still to come. A man with a white goatee, and a charcoal trilby cocked just so, crooned “Me and Mrs. Jones” over a prerecorded backing track. I did my due diligence by stopping in at the city’s primary gay saloon (Me: “How are you?” Bartender: “Good, so I’ve been told. And yourself?” “Jury’s out.” “That’s not what I heard.” “Oh, stop.”), and then, en route to my next stop, spied a young man standing in the middle of the pedestrian mall, in the steady light of 6 P.M. on a Friday in January, tearing open the tiny paper windows of a cheap advent calendar, gutting it for chocolate.
My spirits sank slightly when I learned that the Thorndon politico bar on my list had temporarily closed because of a fire a few months earlier, but I rallied, and turned down Taranaki Street to a subterranean craft beer cave. “So,” someone said to me there, “you write fiction because you’re afraid of real life?”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong.”
Then, around the corner, an upstairs cocktail lounge welcomed me with warm leather couches and an inactive fireplace. Though it wouldn’t be the last stop of the evening, it proved to be the most convivial: the game Irish bartender teased me, gloating as he held up a bottle of Cuban rum, a prize prohibido back home. He was the one who said “Where the Pak’nSave is?” when I told him I started the day in Kilbirnie. Then he fixed me a stiff one flavored with homemade falernum and peppery flakes of real gunpowder.
At one point, between mixings, he muttered a complaint, not about me, to my neighbor. I only caught the words “unapologetic Americans.”
“Aw,” I said, “did you have some unapologetic Americans around here earlier?”
He turned kittenish, went on stirring some concoction with a long, twisted spoon. “Who said anything about unapologetic Americans?”
“Sorry anyway,” I said, and took another healthy swig.
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.