These days, Blok M is a bit like a car engine that's not firing on all cylinders. Some nights the places are packed and humming, others - all too many, I'm afraid - have all the bustle and excitement of a Trappist-run funeral parlour. The Blok is, in effect, a microcosm of the expat community in Jakarta; there are fewer guys around, and the Bali bombings have had their effect. The old hands, the diehards who are denizens of Jakarta, are still there propping up the bars and carousing away their evenings in glorious dissipation. But there are virtually no transients these days, the consultants, salesmen and entrepreneurs who pass through on business; this has hit in particular the up-market business girls who ply their trade in the big hotels, quite a few of whom have migrated to the Blok in search of greener pastures. The company guys who are here on contract seem to be the most vulnerable, as their operations downsize and put projects on hold, or defer them; they are the ones who have to pack up and go when the going gets tough, regardless of whether or not they want to stay - and to a man, they do. It says a lot for the resilience of the old place that - with one sad exception - it's kept its character and atmosphere, and in true Indonesian fashion meanders along in its inscrutable and eccentric way.
Mr Micawber would have been proud of the owners and managers of the bars on the Blok - something will always turn up. The exception is Top Gun, my old stomping ground. A month or so ago there were ugly whispers on the street that the management had gone completely doolally and was revamping the main bar. True - there's now carpeting on the old stone floor, and that dingy lighting that was part of the atmosphere of the place has been replaced with bright lights that would do Blackpool proud. Even more horrible, I hear that the management is planning to introduce live music in a desperate bid to attract more punters. I have this apocalyptic vision of the worst of the Oscar's bands pounding out their decibels to an empty, characterless bar. Top Gun, RIP. You can tell when the other bars are doing badly - all the girls flock to D's Place early in the evening. Just as the sight of seabirds well inland means that there are storms on the coast, the girls are an economic barometer. I sit upstairs, sipping my Pernod, and nod to each group as they come in; ah, here are the Oscars old girls, that's par for the course, but hang on - they've come with the fledglings, oh dear, it must be a really bad night there. And next, a gaggle of the Top Gun girls - they have a lean and hungry look, the rent must be due. And what's this? Some of the smart girls from Lintas Melawai, a couple from the Club, dismayed to find that they are upstaged by the younger denizens of D's Place. What most of the guys don't see behind this influx is a vicious territorial war going on; the D's girls all have their corners and their tables marked out, and woe betide any interloper who tries to move in. By about eleven o'clock, after the ladies' lucky draw, the intruders retire as gracefully as they can, licking their wounds and bestowing saccharine smiles on everybody. I went down to Oscars one night to see if there was any life under the stone at the end of the street. Yes, I know, I'm an incurable optimist, the more so after a skinful of tequilas chased down with
Bintang and followed up with a couple of Pernods. The management have, bless their cotton socks, made a valiant attempt to whip up trade - they've put a large fish tank behind the bar, populated with some of the less expensive varieties of exotic carp. I was sitting there, talking to the goldfish, when Tony (the manager) came up to me and asked why I was talking to the fish. I explained that there was more life in that fish tank than in the whole of the rest of the pub, and that I quite fancied the sultry fish that was languidly waving its fins at me. If fish had eyelashes I'm sure it would have fluttered them at me. I have to update the info on Lintas Melawai. 11 o'clock is no longer the break-even time to go, if you want to see any action it's all after midnight. The sad thing is that for the most part it's now just the regular girls, there aren't as many amateurs and good-time girls as there were before.
And more ominous, there have been some ugly scenes involving non-western expats who get drunk and turn aggressive on both the girls and the regular customers. One of the drawbacks of being a Blok M reveller is that just as you're slumping gracefully onto the bar counter in a beatific alcoholic haze, you suddenly find yourself next to the girl of your (wet) dreams. She has a body to kill for, a dazzling smile, and lust written all over her face. She asks you for a light for her cigarette, your eyes meet, you offer her a drink - and in the immortal words of Casablanca, 'this could be the start of a beautiful friendship'. But even as your fuddled senses tell you that you've hit the jackpot, a little warning voice reminds you that your get up and go has got up and gone. As you weep into your beer and quietly curse the Demon Drink, the sweet young thing slips you her handphone number and disappears into the night.
To prevent this tragic scenario the hardened regulars (perhaps an unfortunate expression, given the circumstances) have recently discovered that miracle of pharmaceutical science, nature's gift to the erectionally challenged - Viagra. They get their supply from seedy little shops that advertise 'obat pria perkasa' (which roughly translates as 'medicine to make men strong and powerful'). Sallying forth one day in search of a supply, I came across a likely shop discretely trading under the name of "Dr Viagra". To call it a shop is perhaps an exaggeration, it's really a lopsided wooden shack divided into a shop front and a back room. The place is dim and squalid. There's a dirty glass-topped counter in which one can make out grubby boxes of sex aids, jellies, creams and evil-looking unlabeled bottles of dark liquid. The shop assistant peered wide-eyed round the back room partition, then disappeared again. A bit later he emerged and staggered towards the counter. His skin had an unhealthy pallor and glistened in the half-light. With a shaking hand he tipped four tablets out of a grimy plastic bottle, and dropped one on the floor. As he scrabbled for it I looked again at the wares under the counter, and wondered what depths of sexual frustration (or depravity) would drive any normal bloke to buy stuff like that. Well, that's about all for now - as the saying goes, 'watch this space' for periodic updates. Block M - the bars The Street The centre of gravity of Blok M is Jalan Pelatehan (or Jalan Fellatio, as some wags call it). This is a side street next to the bus terminal, and is home to four expat dives and a thunderously loud disco that no-one ever admits to having been in. Top Gun One of the legends of Blok M, this place (located in the middle of Jalan Pelatehan) has been in a time-warp since the mid '80s when it opened - and has slowly gone to seed under a succession of disastrous owners who make the emperor Nero look like a rank amateur. And to no-one's surprise, this hot potato is reportedly changing hands yet again.
The main bar has a characterless long counter with all the charm of a public urinal on the left, facing a pool table; behind it (at the back of the bar) there's a separate restaurant room, and to the right another bar with a pool table. (This room, too, used to be separate from the main bar - but one day management knocked the wall down without warning anybody and several of the more inebriate regulars fell over when they tried to lean against it.) Drink prices are about average for Blok M. Top Gun has always been a girlie bar. Until fairly recently you could find anything to suit your taste (and your pocket) there, but now it's haunted by a diminishing band of over-priced under-performers. On a bad night it has an air something between a convent and a mortuary. It's the hunting ground of choice for Indramayu girls, whose general inactivity in the bar (and sometimes in bed) would do Madame Tussaud's proud. The management is arguably the worst on the Blok. Security supremo Ballan looks and behaves like one of the nastier creatures in The Lord of the Rings, and Iwan (the pool wallah) is an uncanny Gollum look-alike. Mitigating factors: pleasant and efficient bar staff, two (albeit crap) pool tables, and the best nosh on the street. Oscars Catering for the late-night reveller, Oscars nestles in splendid isolation at the bus terminal end of the street. This bar is a character in search of an author. It can't really decide whether it's a live-music-and-dance bar, a pool joint, a watering hole, or a girlie bar.
It tries to be all things to all boozers, and falls between more stools than you can count after a skinful of beer. The downstairs is one long room with a bar on a raised floor at the far end, and the usual counter on the left as you go in. On the right there's a small stage for the bands, and behind that a seating area that has all the charm and character of a railway station waiting-room. Upstairs there are two pool tables and a slightly quieter bar, and a rather forlorn eating area which is usually empty. Drinks are expensive, and Oscars has probably the worst bar service on the Blok. You could die of thirst before getting a drink on a busy evening, and settling your bill is a leisurely process. The bar staff are collectively not very good at arithmetic and occasionally develop fits of amnesia about bringing your change when you've paid the bill. The only live music on the Blok, bands of dubious pedigree strum and howl their way from one 'hit' to another. The ageing Elvis impersonator, a great guy, has to be seen to be believed. On weekday evenings before about 11pm Oscars has all the activity and bustle of a gold-rush ghost-town. Most of the Oscars girls are well past the first bloom of youth, but there are some real characters to console and entertain the erectionally-challenged reveller. D's Place As the saying goes, "nature abhors a vacuum", so D's Place was called into existence to provide the sort of service and ambience for which the Blok M bars were so rightly famous until a few years ago. And I must say it's largely succeeded, drawing much of the boozing trade away from the other bars on the Blok and attracting a stunning variety of girls in the process. D's Place has a great ambience - it's a good place to get slowly and sociably smashed out of your skull. By general consensus it's the best place on the Blok for cheap drinks and honest bar bills, but service can be patchy. Getting a bar girl to take your order is sometimes like trying to get a London bus - you wait for ages, then suddenly two or three arrive at once. Downstairs is a nicely designed bar and pool annex, but it's rather small ("bijoux" in the parlance of estate agents) and the pool table is so close to the side wall and a central pillar that it would challenge Harry Houdini to play a decent game. Upstairs is a cool, dimly-lit bar with what might best be described as an up-market sleaziness.
D's Place has become the most popular pick-up place on the block, and after about 10.30 pm upstairs is usually wall-to-wall pussy. You can barely make out peoples' faces in the half-light - and many a jar of beer has missed its mark when being put down on a table, ending up on the floor instead. Picking up a girl in D's Place requires the fly-fishing technique. You have to be deft and skilful to attract and retain the best girls, as competition can be fierce and they get very picky. My only negative comment is that D's Place has suffered a bit from well-intentioned over-management - for example, constantly changing the facilities, layout and decor, and going for gimmicks - but top marks to the management for making an effort, and they're gradually getting it right. The Club [a.k.a. The Bali Hai] Located on the corner of a run-down, rather shabby block to the right of the bus terminal entrance, the Club has since time immemorial been a convenient watering hole for those finishing work and requiring a little something to round off the day en route for hearth and home in south Jakarta. It's basically one large bar with three pool tables in the middle and an eatery at the far end, and a U-shaped bar on the right. Although it has landmark status, this place is in fact a living fossil. An odd mix of clients and girls makes it vaguely interesting to visit if doing a pub crawl round the Blok, but you enter at your peril as a bunch of ageing harpies lies in wait just inside the door.
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