Here's a link to an article in The Age about tiny cafes opening up in former milk bars in Melbourne's inner north. American readers may not know what a milk bar is: a small corner shop dispensing bread, milk, minimal fruit and vegies (if you're lucky), assorted dry goods and tins and groceries, and odd bits and pieces, as well as icecreams, lollies (that is, candy), hot pies. Not coffee; not really. We looked all round St Louis, and never found anything remotely resembling one.
The photo here is of the cafe more or less opposite our house; though because it's next to a primary school, its clientele is rather of the parents-and-prams, or teachers-having-meetings variety, than the artists and writers with their laptops. And yes, it's great to have a place that does reasonable coffee and a respectable spinach pie within spitting distance, as it were.
But I still miss Isella, who ran the milk bar six and half days a week for something like 20 years in the same spot (Saturday afternoons and evenings she had off; to go to mass and prepare large meals for a family get together). She watched Joel grow, from my pregnancy until we went to St Louis; she taught him how to buy things, and how to say hello and goodbye; she knew all the neighbours and the story about the haunted house down the road; she told stories about her own children growing up; and showed us pictures of her first grandchild. After her husband was retrenched, he would stand in the doorway between the shop and the back room during the afterschool rush, just to make sure the kids didn't give her any trouble. Once every couple of years she'd close the shop for a few weeks and have a holiday in Queensland; and then once back home to Sicily. I didn't always agree with her politics and her comments about how it was time to have some more children, but I loved her warmth and her sense of the community we lived in.
In 2005 I was listening to the radio and heard about a man attacking a woman in a milk bar in North Fitzroy, and so, indeed, it had happened to Isella. A man had come in and threatened her with a knife, and she had gone to get some money; locked herself in the back and called the police. She was ok, and would dismiss everyone's concerns with a wave of the hand. But in the second half of that year she took another trip home to Sicily and must have decided, then, not to return. The milk bar stood empty for a year; and then the horrible grey shelves were ripped out, the fancy open box windows in the picture were installed, and now there are Portuguese tarts a-plenty (as the article says) reasonable coffee, dreadful bread, and a rather self-consciously cool bunch of very young things behind the counter. It's ok, you know; but I'd rather have Isella. The very strangest thing is that the new cafe, Julio (by the school yard!), kept one sign painted in yellow on the glass: "hot and cold drinks". I'm a little nostalgic for the one they scraped off: "Isella's mixed business."