I am sitting in an inner city café, sipping a flat white. I sip it nervously, as the scowling man who made it for me has a particularly nasty inflammation rising to prominence on his upper lip, one that even his yellowing moustache cannot hide. As I peer down at the cup, I notice that it has been encrusted with evidence of those who have imbibed before me and place it down on the table slowly. In this café, hits, a flat white represents the latest and greatest in coffee making technology. In fact, coffee here goes by two names: white, or black. A faded 1982 calendar hangs decrepitedly from the wallpaper – a barely discernible pattern of green bamboo clumps turned to an invisible grey, a mere suggestion of pattern, unable to withstand the ravages of time. Under foot, strips of blue, industrial strength carpet, gaffer-taped into place with symmetrical stripes of green. A solitary mouse creeps surreptitiously along the skirting board, climbs up the shelf housing empty ouzo and whisky bottles and makes a dash for the outside. Behind the mission brown partition leading to the rusty and malodourous kitchen, a Grecian 2000-haired, crease worn face snarls: “Bloody mice, bastards.” Then he turns to me and exclaims: “Hey you randy bastard, how are you re? What you wanna eat. I fix you a toast.” It is futile to resist. A few minutes later, four slices of butter-saturated toast materialize under your nose. “Eat re. How you gonna chase the girls if you so bloody skinny.” He wipes his oily hands on an apron festooned with stains as variegated and complex as a map of the Aegean archipelago and sits beside me. “Move over. Tell me your news.”
This is Jim, as old as the hills, perpetually scowling, the oldest and the last of the Greek café/take-away shop operators in the city. Walking into his establishment is like entering a seventies time capsule. The walls are as grimy as food is tasty and full of cholesterol. The laminex has well and truly parted company with the rest of the table exposing the flecks of particle board that are finally beginning to extricate themselves from the adhesive that has compelled their form. The songs one can request to be played by the glass encased receptacles above each cubicle feature songs so prominent in the eighties charts that they have long since been forgotten – that is if one can se them, for the pages containing their names are rusted and cannot be turned and they can barely be discerned behind the food encrusted glass. This is the last pocket of virgin rainforest City Café territory where even health inspectors dare not tread. Behind you sits a short, wizened old man, perpetually grinning, his gold teeth sending rays of light off his beer can and onto the laminex. “Poor bastard” snorts Jim as he pours himself his nine o’clock double shot of whisky. “He was a good businadoros. Made a fortune in the eighties. Then the bloody bank took it away. He was too soft. You have to be hard in business. Just like for a woman.” He laughs, choking on his whisky. The next time I visit, he is nowhere to be seen. “Poor bastard went off to the better place,” Jim explains as I ask after him. “Or at least that’s what he thinks. His wife is waiting for him there.” He splutters into laughter that too eerily resembles the sound of sobbing, then dry wretches and is silent.
The momentary pause is due to the passage of two young giggling Asian girls, clad in short skirts and knee high black socks who walk past, not even glancing sideways at the portal that marks the entry into a starkly different world. “Po, po,” Jim exclaims to a fat balding man sitting in a corner, from whom an odour emanates strongly reminiscent of a Gorgonzola cheese in its final stages of putrefaction. “These are women. Lithe, sleek, and taunt little behinds. Not like our women whose posteriors drag on the ground as they walk. If I had a kineza, I’d show her….” He sneaks a furtive glance at his wife, registers her scowl and lowers his voice with a smile whose counterpart could only be found on a schoolboy surreptitiously relating a dirty joke.
As much as this is a place where ageing patrons and proprietors alike can express sexual frustration and an impossibly rich and inexhaustible gamut of misogynistic sentiments, place is a treasure house of information. The early history of the Greek community is inextricably bound to its confines. Myriads of deals were negotiated here, thousands of partnerships were forged, millions of snippets of idle or malicious gossip were formed and disseminated. Today, it is frequented by gnarled, faceless and nameless old men, ghosts of a by-gone era, of whom you have heard tantalizing bytes of information from grandparents and parents who were too young then, to know these prominent members of the community. “I was the first one to bring magazines and music from Greece” says a bald, keen eyed man in a corner. “I was making a fortune. People were coming to my shop from all over Australia.” Annals of forgotten triumphs, of adversity, of excruciating hard work; the ghosts of the past haunt the stamping grounds of their heyday, whispering to each other in the unintelligible language of anachronism. They were the youths who jumped off the boat full of optimism and raring to go. They were the Jims whose introduction to Australia was endless shifts washing plates at hotels and then sleeping fitfully on couches far to small for them in people’s hallways. These are the ones who take pride in their children’s achievements, dentists, doctors and lament their prodigal sons who “don’t get me wrong, he is a very rich businessman” did not go to university. Such are the bones of human endeavour, upon which our community is based. Jim stands up as his wife offers a greeting. “I was just telling him he should have as much fun as possible with the girls, then settle down with a nice Greek girl only when he is old. Not like you who I have to put up with for bloody years.” “He’s tired” she tells me. “He’s been working all of his life. Day in day out, all we know is yes please and who’s next. We’ve done ok and our kids have grown up. But we’ve never really lived. We’ve found a buyer for the business, two Chinese guys. Recent arrivals. Keen and raring to go. We’ve had enough.” And thus it is that the last spring of life that grants a semblance of existence to the already departed dries up. The shades of yesteryear, the miscreants and Babi the eternal compo claimer who spends his days haunting the café with his theories of the superiority of the Vietnamese as opposed to the Chinese woman are relegated to the screens of the unseen. And at twilight, Jim, who the moment he found out you were Greek has never let you pay for your coffee, emerges purged of any evidence of the cares of toil, lies back and dreams of being in Greece, as a boy.
The last time I walk past the café, Jim is gone. It is a shiny new Asian eatery. I take off in the direction of Medallion, knowing that whatever time I get there, at least one particular Greek institution possessed of a Karl Marxian beard will be there to engage in conversation. On my arrival, I am greeted by an emaciated and white haired Jim, the lines on his face deeper than those of the East African Rift Valley. “What? Pantreutikes?” he asks me. “Vre ton pousti. I suppose if we have to suffer, so should you. If you want my advice, don’t have kids. They are just money pits. And never stop working. Your wife will drive you crazy.” He pauses for a moment to watch a girl of Asian appearance walk down the street. Then, turning to the waiter standing over the table, he spits: “You call this a coffee? This is rubbish. When I had my café..”
First published in NKEE on 28 April 2012