Jakarta’s Jalan Jaksa was once a great place for making odd, surreal and semi-imaginary friends, as Daniel Pope recalls.
When I heard that Bruce O’Flanagan (not his real name) had returned to Jakarta, I got off the toilet, packed my Dictaphone, and headed to where he would most likely be – his favourite bar on Jalan Jaksa. I was nervous about interviewing him. Bruce was a legend. But not an ordinary one. He was an Australian one. More foul-mouthed than Mel Gibson, more hard-headed than Ned Kelly, more flanned than Rupert Murdock. Here was a hard drinker who imaginably could stand triumphant over the paralytic body of Sir Les Patterson, clutching his thirtieth bottle of Bintang. I knew not a single other Australian who did not claim to be related to him. Such was his greatness. So his gran said.
As my taxi tore toward Jalan Jaksa, I wondered how much Bruce had changed. It had been two years since I’d last seen him passed out at a table in the bar. He may have mellowed beyond recognition, his arteries softened by the red wine that I’d heard he’d been drinking in moderate gallons. Would his palate take easily to Bintang again? I hoped so. It would mean re-employment for dozens of workers at the brewery in Tangerang, for bottle-top scavengers, for glass recyclers. They too would be celebrating Bruce’s return, as would a sizeable area of Blok M.
Regarding Bintang, I needn’t have worried. When I entered the bar I thought that a new wall made from green glass bricks had been erected alongside the toilet, perhaps to redirect the stench of decades-old urine into the kitchen, where it wouldn’t be noticed by the cooks. But it was Bruce’s towering piles of empties. I skirted them and sat down. I couldn’t believe my luck. He was still awake.
“Good morning, Bruce.”
“Morning?” he questioned.
“Erm, yes, it is morning,” I assured him.
“I know?” he inquired.
“You should do. The sun’s shining – look.”
“I can see that?”
I realised the reason for the confusion. So long had Bruce been back in Australia that he had readopted his countrymen’s habit of adding an upward inflection to the end of everything he said, regardless of whether it was a question or not – a sort of boomerang of sound. Indeed his voice had changed considerably. Whereas before he had spoken in an Anglophiliac murmur like something The Goons would have rejected, now he sounded like a tramp living in a garden hedge at the bottom of Ramsey Street.
I marvelled at how little his appearance had altered. The same square jawline that might have jutted out from a superhero’s mask. The same dense forehead resembling that of Frankenstein’s monster. The same wiry pigtail woven from his grandmother’s whiskers. He no longer smoked. But his hand lolled close to his mouth, as if still holding a cigarette.
“How do you feel about the closure of Romance across the street?” I asked.
We both looked wistfully at the empty hulk of Jalan Jaksa’s once notorious Romance Bar. We watched the flurrying ghosts behind the cracked, dirty windows, listened to the clatter of bottles, the babble of football commentary from the badly tuned TV, the loud drunken drivel, the Canadian fists thudding against Canadian cheekbones.
“So how much has Jakarta changed?” I said.
He ordered his favourite delicacy – another bottle of Bintang.
“Well, everything’s more expensive. The noodles. The seedy hotel rooms. The semi-comatose ride home in a taxi after a good booze-up. A massage. All the good things in life. Like the gorgeous ladies.”
Bruce had always been notorious for his debauchery. In his memoir, titled ‘Batavia Bloke’, he describes in shocking detail his sex life as a horny teenager growing up on his parents’ farm, calling it “several years of rollicking great fun when I took the meaning of the word promiscuity to a new level and did it practically everywhere – in the barn, in fields, in ditches, at the top of wood piles.” At 20 he left the farm and had sex with a fellow human being for the first time, and also began his life-long assault on his own liver.
But Bruce was also famous for his journalism. During his years as a hack at several of Jakarta’s failed newspapers and internet blogs, he had honed a style that was simplistic yet profoundly truthful regarding political and religious issues. Who could forget headlines like SCUMBAG MINISTER THE CHEATING TW*T, and FREAK MINISTER PLAYS THE GOD CARD THE TW*T, and the engagingly minimalist WHAT A TW*T. Wishing to move on to these more serious topics, I prompted, “Anything else here changed?”
“Well, this city has a high attrition rate. I’d advise anyone planning to stay here for more than a year to write their will prior to clutching their first bottle of Bintang. I’m okay though. I have a Chinese girlfriend…”
“Yeah, she’s lovely. Since being with her I’ve really grown to understand that David Bowie song. You know the one…” He placed his arms around an imaginary guitar, and not unlike a braying donkey sang: “China Girl played guitar… jamming good with weird and gilly… As a matter of fact I’m writing a novel. I hope to get it vanity-published next month. Just need some investors. The trick is getting them at the right moment at the bar. The book’s called ‘Zzzzzzzz…’”
Alas, the beer had taken its toll and Bruce had fallen asleep. Imagine a lanky pile of rags with a gnarled turnip propped at its top and you’ll get the picture. He snored. It was an Australian snore, with a rising intonation toward it’s spluttering end. Zzzzzzz? (Yes, you are asleep – stop asking). He still clutched his beer glass, tightly; had a waiter taken it away he might have hauled Bruce’s sleeping body with it.
What did Bruce dream of? Something bizarre, no doubt. Perhaps he dreamt of being in some Australia outback bar not unlike this one on Jaksa, but with a real swamp outswamping the toilet. He might be propped grandly at an Edwardian table, the Goons’ Ying Tong Song crackling from a gramophone covered in ‘Hello Kitty’ stickers, with a half-alligator, half-woman – a simpering mermaid variant – chained to his ankle. Prancing about the room, wearing a traditional Chinese costume, miming martial arts moves, might be David Bowie.
Were I a Vulcan like Mr Spock, I would have reached out and performed a mind meld in order to find out. Weirder things had happened at the damp, wobbly tables of Jalan Jaksa.