When I was around eight years old, we moved out of my grandparents’ house to a little half-house in East Brunswick. We might as well have moved to another country.
Let me describe the house. It was at the back of a Spotless Dry-Cleaning agency, which was itself quite small. That shop had its entrance on Lygon Street, and when you walked around the back of it there was a “front door” to our house that opened up right onto St Phillip Street. When you walked through that door, you found yourself in a tiny front entrance which had a little telephone table in the front left corner and an old large brown radiogram in the far right corner. I distinctly remember waking up on Saturday the 23rd November 1963 to see my father pacing anxiously around that room listening to that radio and holding a newspaper. When I asked him what was the matter, he said “They’ve killed President Kennedy and I’ve failed Advanced Accounting B”. At the time, I wasn’t really sure which was worse.
So, on with the grand tour. On the left was my parents’ bedroom, which also housed my sister’s small bed; on the right was my tiny bedroom, which basically could fit my bed and a chair; and straight ahead was the lounge/dining room which again fitted a little table and a little couch. The kitchen was also tiny, and then……. as far as the “house” was concerned….. THAT. WAS. IT.
There was a small concrete back yard, and off that yard was an outside bathroom, an outside laundry (which used to be called a “washroom”), and an outhouse – an outside toilet. Let me tell you….. Winter was a bitch!!
This is a photo taken in 1963 of me and my sister outside the back door. You can see the kitchen window in the background (right behind the broom), and the outside bathroom and washroom are on the right.
But wait, there actually was more. At the back of the yard, there was a “factory” containing the six large, industrial strength knitting machines that my father slaved away on, trying to make a living, pretty much for the purposes of paying off the machines – or so it seemed. My mother also worked in there, either helping him on those large beasts or working on her little overlocker. And after school, we’d often go in to the factory too, and assist with removing the next length of knitted yarn.
But there were three really exciting bits to the whole place.
The first was St Phillip Street itself. It was just wide enough for two narrow cars to pass each other plus some parked cars – in parts. You see the street changed its width every hundred metres or so. But it was also wide enough for football and cricket matches. Now let me tell you, parked cars (with big side mirrors) and football and cricket matches (played by mostly inaccurate kickers, bowlers, and batters) don’t really mix. So on the one hand, it was almost impossible to play a ball game and not break someone’s mirror. But on the other hand, you had plenty of places in which to hide when you did it. The street really was the coal face of the melting pot – to mix metaphors. And it was here that I met and made friends with my second lot of non-family friends. Life was a blast.
The second was the table-tennis table that my parents got a carpenter to make for us. It was made of the wrong wood, it was painted the wrong (ugly light green) colour, and it had not been made to be sitting outside in the Melbourne winter elements, so after a while, the wood had started curling up at the corners. This really gave me a “home ground advantage” when playing against other kids – I’d aim my shots at the curly bits, much like a spin bowler aims at the rough on a cricket pitch. They never knew what hit them. Balls would bounce off at right angles or simply stop dead. I didn’t lose too many games.
That’s my sister standing on the table tennis table (when it was still new). You can just make out the cricket stumps painted on the factory wall, right underneath the crudely drawn CFC monogram of the Carlton Football Club. You can also see the dilapidated fence and the large St. Phillip Street factories peering out over it into our yard.
And the third great bit was that over the back side fence, just near our toilet, was the back of the Italian espresso bar whose front was next door to the dry cleaners on Lygon Street. When you walked in to that place through the front door, you were greeted by an overwhelming aroma of strong espresso coffee (way before coffee bars were so plentiful in Melbourne), the sight of the beautiful rich Italian pastries, the sound of men playing a strange card game in which it seemed that the intent was to throw down your picture card with the biggest flourish and the loudest “thwack”, and last but certainly not least, the promise of a small lemon and chocolate gelato cone. But when you got up on the roof of the little cubby house near our outhouse and looked over the back fence, you could see the old paisanos playing bocce – a quaint old Italian game that resembles lawn bowls but without the hats and not quite as gentrified. I used to sit there for hours watching them casually playing, smoking strong-smelling cigarettes, arguing and swearing in Italian. My parents weren’t too happy about me hanging around the back fence, although I’m sure they thought it was infinitely better than me being at the front, or heaven forbid, inside the cafe. I think they had visions of me being swept up in a strange and dangerous subculture a la Calogero in A Bronx Tale.
And indeed, as my sister reminded me recently, very soon after that, my parents got us our first television set. We couldn’t really afford it at that time, but my sister and I didn’t think about those kinds of things back then – we were just glad to have our own TV!!
When I went there a few months ago to see what the little shop and house and the corner looked like – WOW, what a shock!! The Spotless Dry-Cleaners is gone (along with our house), replaced by a “Gelateria”, a big gelato shop serving up around 35 flavours. And the Foodland grocery store, the Italian espresso bars, fruit shop, delicatessen, and barber – all gone! All replaced by cool little bars, coffee shops, and restaurants of every possible cuisine (Thai, Lebanese, Spanish, Vietnamese…… perhaps even some Italian). And all of them with al fresco options – tables and chairs out on the street.
It was so unfamiliar, and even sad in a way. The loss of an old world. On the other hand, the community spirit was still just as evident – hundreds of people sitting around eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. If I would’ve looked harder, I may have even seen some kids playing in the street trying to avoid hitting car mirrors.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.