I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.
But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.
(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)
On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.
(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)
Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.
Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.
Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.
In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.
At the end of the week, Surry Hills Shopping Village will cease trading, closing for good on the 10th January. Advertisements for the apartments to be built on the site are draped over the facade, across the building which follows the curve of the corner of Cleveland and Baptist streets. The banners announce that the ‘residences’ are available for purchase, even though construction of them is yet to begin, and beside this announcement the image of a woman in an evening dress promises impending, incongruous luxury.
Below the banners is the familiar former bank building with its striped pillars, and two columns flanking a door with a neon sign above it, for Noodle Star restaurant. Many of the businesses in the shopping centre have already left, but Noodle Star will trade to the end. Every table inside it occupied, and others wait on the inside steps for their takeaway, in the glowing yellow light of the advertisement for laksa that hangs in the entrance as a welcome. Along the side wall are further photographs of the available dishes, an honest gallery of noodles and dumplings.
The mall was built in 1981 on a former factory site, and since then has retained the same functional atmosphere, it main enticement its utility, promising nothing more than a collection of useful shops collected together under the same roof. When it opened it was called Redfern Mall, but in 1992 changed its name, to Surry Hills Shopping Village, the business owners citing the fact that it was closer to the Surry Hills shopping strip on Crown Street than the Redfern shops near the train station. Later other, meaner, names were given to it, suggesting a reputation of crime and vice. But its most abiding story has to be that for four decades it has performed the task of being an ordinary shopping centre. Some locals have shopped there regularly for that whole time, buying groceries, posting letters, visiting the newsagent, buying bread rolls.
Standing in the carpark to take this photo, I remembered my favourite thing about the Surry Hills mall: how the carpark behind the centre follows the incline of the land, and how the expanse of parking spaces forms a breathing space in this dense part of the inner city. I like how the centre spreads out across its corner lot, not making more of the space than it needs to, and that it is surrounded by eucalypts and casuarinas trees. Inside, I like its easy-listening radio soundtrack that gives it the atmosphere of a wan 70s nightclub, playing Band of Gold by Freda Payne, Sweet Sweet Love – Russell Morris and other such long-ago hits, as it does today in its last days, and as it did in the busier times of its past.
This year I have been a Visiting Writer with the Sydney Review of Books at the State Library of NSW, although, earlier in the year, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit in person this year at all. In late March lockdown measures were put in place and the library was closed. But after a few months, as Covid case-numbers fell and the situation improved, the library re-opened and I masked up and ventured into the reading room.
I based my research around Sydney department stores, and particularly David Jones, inspired by the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. I’d read this novel again during the lockdown months and it gave me cause to reflect on the significance of department stores within the city, as part of people’s everyday and working lives.
You can read ‘In the Catalogue‘, the essay I wrote on department store archives and The Women in Black, at the Sydney Review of Books. To write it I made weekly trips to the library, spending days in the reading room looking through catalogues and ephemera. While I was in the city I also went to visit David Jones, following the trails of my memory.
One of my strongest childhood memories is visiting David Jones with my mother, travelling into the the city on the train and walking through a labyrinth of arcades from Town Hall station, to arrive at the Elizabeth Street store. In the shoe department I’d look out the window, over the treetops of Hyde Park, and feel a transformed sense of perspective on the city.
I was entranced by the wide, dark mass of the fig trees, and the arches of the cathedral beyond (it had no spires in those days, as these were added in 2000). It was my first memory of seeing the city as a place that could hold many different areas and moods at once and a foundational one for the work I would go on to do. There is still so much to go in search of.
The long, straight stretch of Gardeners Road that runs through Rosebery has houses on one side and shops on the other. Mid-way along the shopping strip is a building much grander in scale than the rest, though now dilapidated: a former cinema with a wide, neo-classical facade. The cinema was called the Marina for most of the time it was operating, but I think of the building as Videomania, after the vertical sign that hangs from the roof, from its latter days as a video store.
Every time I approach Videomania I expect it to have been demolished, and while it does change in minor ways – a mural painted down the side of it in the mid-2010s, and more recently, the front awning removed – it marks the ebb of the years with its rust and peeling paint, resistant so far to redevelopment, though surely not for too much longer. Every few years I stop to take a photo of it, thinking it will be the last one.
This time when I stop I make sure to inspect it closely. On the facade the seashell rendering makes up part of a scuffed canvas, along with bill posters ripped back to reveal their previous layers, and the recessed remains of the marquee above the entrance. Down the side of the building, by the fading spraypainted pink panther emerging from the green snarl of a tag, is a side door with a KEEP OUT notice on it. The door is padlocked but there’s a wide enough hole where a chain’s been threaded through for me to look inside to the cavernous interior. The seats are gone but otherwise its reasonably intact: the stage with its long curtain pulled back, the proscenium arch, the red-painted ceiling. The flutter and coo of pigeons resounds from within. At the far end are signs from its video store days, an arrow pointing to the Greek movies section, the rates for hiring new releases and weeklies.
Gardeners Road is something of a time capsule, from the days before shopping malls and big box retailers. Despite the number of empty stores, their attrition no doubt hastened by the pandemic, there are some that have been there for decades. One such business is Mr Yawn’s mattress shop, which has plastic-wrapped mattresses lashed to the front doors and various versions of its mattress mascot on display.
For many years, passing by Mr Yawn’s, I had wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then it came to me: I remembered the blue, yawning mattress with outstretched arms from the frequent airings of tv ads for Mr Yawn that broadcast when I was a teenager. In them Mr Yawn – embodied by a person wearing a mattress with a yawning face as a costume – would describe the features and specials in a tone of somnolent excitement. The ads usually featured Mr Yawn on the footpath outside the store on Gardeners Road frantically waving his arms to attract attention.
There has been no such media exposure for Giacco’s Shoe Repairs, which trades in an intriguing combination of giant amethyst geodes and shoelaces. When I pass by it is closed, but I peer in through the door at the rows of geodes that flank the counter, trying to figure out the connection between shoe repair and crystals. I’m not saying there needs to be one. When I lived beside Parramatta Road in the 1990s I’d often go by a shop with a sign for “tobacconist and jeanery”, which seemed like an invitation to imagine other such unlikely combinations.
At the western end of the shops is Sam’s MFC supermarket, with a wall of cans of olive oil in the window, priced with a flutter of taped-on paper labels. Inside the smell of olives and spices encloses me, aromatic and comforting, and I browse amid the vats of olives, dry goods and massive bags of spices for a while, wondering if I would manage to consume 6kg of cinnamon even across my whole lifetime.
Further along the street I look in on the Evergreen Spot milk bar, with its melamine booth seats and perspex menu board, sizzle from the fryers, and ‘cash only’ notices in prominent positions.
Usually I only see the exteriors of these places, from the windows of a car or a bus, on my way east or west. This section of the road is so straight and flat that it has the effect of a roll of film or a series of pages, and my attention moves smoothly from one shop or house to the next. Sometimes I look out at the shop side, other times the house side. The houses are on the north side of the street, bungalows on wide blocks with bore water signs in their gardens, a reminder of the flows of groundwater that underlie this land, as water drains towards Kamay to the south.
If it’s night when I’m making this journey it’s hard to discern much in the dark, but I look for Arida’s International Fruit Market, which is the only shop beside the takeaways that stays open late. It’s like a lamp lighting up the nighttime, glowing with fluorescent light and the displays of fruit and vegetables in the interior.
But today as I walk along Gardeners Road it’s bright with spring sunlight, and I can see all of the details clearly.
One day around 2002 I was at Central station and, as I walked down the stairs from one of the platforms to the concourse below, I noticed that a panel above the stairwell had been removed, exposing the wall and the wiring, and an advertisement from decades before. Four faces grinning with big, wide-mouthed smiles, with their hands upheld in gestures of abandon, broadcasted a message in two speech bubbles: ‘Come on Along. We’re a Billion Dollars Strong’. I had my camera with me – a 35mm film camera in those days – and made sure to take a photo before it was covered over again.
There was something unsettling about the fact these faces had been lurking behind the wall for so long. Perhaps it was just the spooky effect of the blacked-out teeth, the holes punched through for the wires, and the vigour of their optimism, now obsolete. Come along – to where? On what journey had they been taking their billion dollars?
Soon after, once the work was completed, the ad was again hidden again behind a panel. For a while I thought about them underneath it, and then from time to time something would set off the slogan in my head or the image of the ad would come back up in my memory, as I’d done some writing about it at the time in a zine, accompanied by the photograph I had taken.
I’d wondered what the ad had been for, and some years later found the answer when I was looking through a box of photographs of 1970s and 80s buses at a secondhand store. Back then in the pre-digital era of photography some of the only people regularly taking photos of city streets were bus enthusiasts, and their photographs can sometimes inadvertently contain useful urban historical details.
NSW Permanent Building Society had been a large home loan and insurance firm that, in the 1980s, changed to become the Advance Bank, which then later merged with St George. This ad campaign predated these changes: on the back of the bus photograph was the date, March 1979. Anyone watching commercial television in that year would have seen these characters in action to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, which had been reworded with a financial-institution twist.
At the end of my zine story about the uncovered Central station ad in 2002 I had written how behind the new, fresh wall built in front of it, the ad would remain there, message hidden, until the next time that part of the station was refurbished.
It was as if I knew I would see it again.
Almost twenty years later works for the Sydney Metro at Central Station have required the removal of certain ceiling panels above the stairwells.
Now when I saw them I felt as if some old friends had reappeared, somewhat worse for wear, still wearing the same outfits and with the same expressions as they had farewelled me with almost 20 years before. Despite the pipes and the wires and all their years in hiding, their invitation remains.
Later I compared the photographs, one taken in 2002, the other that afternoon, wondering if it was indeed the same ad I had seen all those years ago. I had remembered it being at the other end of the station, but eighteen years is a long interval to remember the exact location of a hidden sign. But in my earlier photo, when I examined the holes punched for the wires, and the peeled off section of the woman’s face underneath the claim about the billion dollars, they did indeed seem to be different versions of the same ad. The other one is still hidden, for now. Keep an eye out when in Central station: they could be just there, behind any wall.
Thanks to Demetrius Romeo for alerting me to their reappearance.
When I first saw it on the map I thought I’d misread it: Grand Flaneur Beach. The beach was on the shore of the lake at the edge of Chipping Norton, the location marked with a green pin with a beach umbrella inside it. It seemed unlikely for a number of reasons, firstly for being a beach far from the ocean, and secondly being named “flâneur” (but without its circumflex accent hat over the ‘a’) a word which brings to mind images of 19th-century Parisian dandies rather than the south western suburbs of Sydney. A flâneur is an urban stroller, someone with no particular place to be, for whom just being out observing is a full occupation. What kind of beach would a flâneur – a grand one at that – give their name to?
The place known as Chipping Norton is an area of land enclosed by Tucoerah/ Georges River, the river that divides Dharug land to the north of the waterway, from Dharawal land to the south. The river curves around, turning back on itself, and at the turn it swells out into a lake, inside which are a number of small islands. The river has flowed for thousands of years, but the lake is only a few decades old. In the mid-twentieth century, the land was extensively mined for sand, and by the 1970s resembled a “bomb-blasted” scene, scarred by the disused pits of the sand mines. A plan was drawn up to flood the area, and transform it to what the Minister for Public Works in 1987 decreed would be “an aquatic wonderland of the west”.
This wonderland was quiet in winter. It was the end of June when I visited, a time when the days were cold and short, leading up to the shortest day of the year. The city was waking up a little from the first wave of the pandemic and a few people were out, but those who were kept their distance from each other. I turned off from the streets of sensible brick suburban houses and into the parkland. Grand Flaneur Beach is marked by a plain, solid road-sign, pegged into the ground on a small clearing amid the lawn that leads down to the lake.
I walked down to the water’s edge, to the strip of sand churned by footprints. I’d read that sometimes bull sharks swim up into the lake to breed, and I imagined I might see a fin above the water, gliding along, although this is a rare event, and there were only ducks to be seen on the surface on this afternoon. The lake was calm, a plain, but peaceful place to be. I sat on the lawn looking over it, pouring out a cup of tea from a thermos. As I put a slice of the lemon cake I’d brought with me onto a plate I heard an unfamiliar sound, and looked up.
The buzz overhead was a light plane flying over, after having taken off from the nearby Bankstown Airport. It had been a while since I’d noticed a plane, it being months into the travel bans, and I sat and watched the plane progress over the blue canvas of the sky until my view of it was blocked by the trees. As I watched the plane, a myna bird hopped up and started to peck at the cake, bold with the experience of many Grand Flaneur Beach picnics.
Why was the beach called this? There was nothing I could detect that solved the mystery. Who was the grand flâneur? Was it me? As much as I liked to think so, the truth was otherwise.
Grand Flaneur was a horse. A champion stallion, winner of all the major races, including the Melbourne Cup, and unbeaten upon his retirement from racing in 1881. Grand Flaneur was owned by the politician and horse-racing-enthusiast William Long, who established racing stables here, and gave the place its colonial name of Chipping Norton. The stables and racecourse that still operate at Warwick Farm had their beginnings in those days. William Long loved horses and horse-racing, but apparently he did not much like women, and it is said that he didn’t even allow women to come onto this Chipping Norton property that he held by the river.
But, well, there I was. Sitting by the side of an artificial lake, by a beach that is named after a racehorse. I was thinking about being a flâneur, about walking and observing, as the bird pecked at my cake, and another plane buzzed over above. The plane brought me back to thoughts of the pandemic and all that had changed in the months preceding me coming there. As the fear and the changes had taken hold people had asked me how this time would affect my investigations of Sydney. I wondered this too, and I still do. But I know that I’m attracted to quiet, unusual, and underpopulated places, the kind that persist despite the city changing around them, or that are hidden in plain sight, yet are not often given attention. These are the places I go in search of, and even in difficult, restricted times, they are to be found.
Heading north along Burwood Road I walk by house after house. Some are low, brick Federation-style houses, the kind that have wooden gables and front porches, although I see no one sitting outside on this weekday late afternoon. There’s still an hour or more of the work-day to go, but daylight has already started to fade from the sky, and the air has turned chill.
So I keep moving, past the roadside trees that have been cut into weird shapes to avoid the electricity wires, until I reach a curve in the road. Following it around I see up ahead that the factory I was looking for has all of a sudden become visible. Its tall metal chimney rises up from the central building, a high, wide block with long walls made of opaque glass, bracketed by two brick walls on each side like bookends. The view of the factory shifts the scale from domestic to industrial, although like the houses the factory is surrounded by gardens, which softens somewhat, the hard appearance of the industrial buildings.
Around the factory are landscaped grounds with tall, spreading conifers, and garden beds planted with clusters of agapanthus. I look in through the fence and read the text on a sign beside the driveway that runs down along the office building closest to the street: Green Bean Deliveries: Please report to Bean Storeman immediately upon arrival. On the side of the central factory building is another clue to the goods produced inside: a huge letter B, white against the bricks, two-storeys high. Within the top loop of the B is a tea leaf, and within the lower one, a coffee bean.
The Bushells factory began to operate here in the late 1950s, after moving their roasting and blending operations from Harrington Street in The Rocks, to this larger site further west in Concord. Bushells was the first Australian tea company, and was strongly established by the early 20th century. They were prolific advertisers, with ads being painted on the exterior walls of corner stores across the country, leading to there now being many Bushells ghost signs out there for the finding. In Canterbury Road in Belmore is one such sign, with a traffic-related message: “STOP for Bushells, Go refreshed”. Underneath this, behind the slim trunks of casuarina trees, is a carefully-painted box of the signature Blue Label blend.
The factory is on Wangal country, on the south side of the harbour, as the river moves west towards Parramatta. The peninsula had, before colonial intervention, been woodland on the higher ground with mangroves by the water’s edge. The colonial claims on the land saw that this area, as with much of the swampland that had made up the harbour foreshores, was filled in for the purposes of industry. Beginning in the 1920s, it had taken 12 years of depositing rubble here to “fill the hungry swamp”.
Now instead of the hungry swamp is a golf course and a park, and estates of apartments and townhouses that have replaced the timber mill and the metalworks that had also once operated near by the water. But of all the structures here, the Bushells factory dominates the headland, a symbol of colonialism both in the immediate sense of the changes to this land, and in the wider history of tea as a commodity.
Turning in through the entrance to the golf course I follow the path that runs along its edge, by the tall wire fence of the factory site. An earthy smell of coffee drifts over, although the factory’s operations are much reduced, ahead of its imminent closure. A residential development is planned for it in the near future, taking advantage of its waterside position, part of the general move towards deindustrialisation of this area.
As the sun moves towards the horizon the sky turns golden, and its glow is reflected in the wide glass wall of the central factory building. From where I’m standing at the edge of the golf course, the building has the look of a giant radio set, its chimney like an aerial. Or a giant juice carton, with the chimney the straw. I look through the tall wire fence at it, making up analogies, as steam billows up from the side of the main hall, white puffs that drift upwards and dissipate.
Then I turn towards the harbour. The water in the bay is flat and glassy, shining with afternoon light, as if it is a bowl which swirls the colours of the sunset inside it. Sky and water seem a perfect mirror of each other, and for a moment, all other details recede.
This month, a special announcement: it’s the launch of the Mirror Sydney podcast, a collaboration between me and the audio producer and musician Lia Tsamoglou. You can listen to the first series, of six episodes, at the Mirror Sydney Podcast website, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or Google Podcasts as well as other podcast apps.
We started working on the podcast in earnest at the start of this year, with the bushfire smoke thick in the air, and put the finishing touches to it in the intense period of pandemic lockdown in March and April, as changes swirled around us, and the city went quiet. Recording the episodes became a way to travel beyond the confines of home and sink into the details of these places, some of them favourite and familiar, others places new to me. They were lots of fun to make! Lia did a magic job of transforming Mirror Sydney into audio and I hope you enjoy listening to them.
It is busy in Marrickville, even now with the lockdown measures in operation. On Illawarra Road it seems little different to other Saturdays, although people are wearing face-masks and trying to keep as much distance from each other as the pavement will allow, and there’s an undercurrent of tension that’s the mood of these pandemic times. However there is one Marrickville character who has remained as relaxed as ever.
Leaning back in her hammock, between two steel palm trees, the Banana Joes banana has the same starry-eyed look of unconcern that she has worn for decades, although she has, in recent years, lost the cocktail glass she used to hold aloft. Rain or shine she leans back, staring up into the sky, on her own tropical island of the awning.
The reclining banana is the mascot of Banana Joes, the independent supermarket that has, since 1984, traded from this shop on Illawarra Road. It’s a family business, run by Joe Khouri, and started out as a fruit market chain, with a number of Sydney suburban stores in Ashfield, St Peters and Campsie. It was fairly short-lived as a chain, and the focus has long been the Marrickville store.
I’d heard rumours that it was closing, but nothing seemed to happen for a while, until the recent announcement that the Easter weekend will be the store’s last. Among the signs on the door and the posters of weekly specials on pickles and giant beans, is a green Woolworths notice, announcing that a “fresh new store is coming soon”, news that no one would be greeting with much enthusiasm. For Banana Joes is a Marrickville shopping landmark, known for its fresh food, capacious canvas shopping bags, slow lift, and reclining steel banana. Just saying its name made going to the supermarket sound interesting.
From the rooftop carpark there’s a view out over Marrickville. I’m not the only person who is looking out over it: a man and his small daughter are standing at the corner, peering down, pointing out familiar places from a new aspect. Maybe this is something they often do, or maybe, in these days of isolation, when one of the few sanctioned reasons for going outside is to shop, any safe opportunity for amusement is worth taking.
Between the carpark and the store an old, slow lift conveys the shoppers who are patient enough to wait for it. Inside the metal interior of the lift posters of the weekly specials are displayed in frames on the wall. This gives it something of the look of a miniature art gallery, inviting scrutiny of the loaves of bread or cans of four-bean-mix or ground coffee that are featured inside. For a time, some years ago, there had been written in black marker on the door the words “smoocher’s lift”: it is obviously special to many people in different ways.
On its last weekend the shelves in Banana Joes are a little barer than usual, but the community noticeboard is still cluttered with the usual leaflets for services like the continental philosophy group, knife-sharpening, and meditation courses. Beside it is a crate inside which are stacked empty fruit cartons printed with mascots like top-hat-wearing avocadoes and smiling oranges. People queue up in distanced lines, waiting to buy their last round of Banana Joes groceries.
I’ll miss Banana Joes, but at least the word is that the banana on the awning is set to remain. In years to come it will confuse newcomers to Marrickville, who might wonder at its significance. But the locals will know, and remember.