The Reno Café, Newtown

Kiama, NSW

Not long after his arrival in Australia in 1948, my Father realized his dream. Working three jobs and “saving the pennies” as he would say, in 1952 together with one off his compatriots he bought into the milk-bar business. After some ill-fated partnerships George became the sole owner and for almost half a century -day-in and day-out- this would be his life’s work. Only once after a double-hernia he took a few days off to be put back together again. It was not a prison as many had tried to convince him. He loved what he did and with a passion. My dad, like so many other dads of that generation, was a Superman. His cape was his white apron stained with the lifeblood of bulls which he would brush to one side and leap from the back of the kitchen to the front of the counter. Afterwards dad would share his secret powers with Mother and she too would learn to defy nature and fly about from one table to the next. The milk-bar (in truth more of a restaurant) which was to rule our lives and to later become a permanent fixture in our shared memories was the Reno Café on 341 King Street, Newtown.[1] The shop or ‘shoppe’ as we would call it underwent a number of face-lifts during those five decades, but it was always George and Helen’s. The Reno became a legendary ‘refectory’ patronised by the widest spectrum of the community: actors, writers, politicians, gigolos, sports people, gamblers, prostitutes, musicians, preachers, addicts, con artists, lawyers, corrupt cops, and others in weird and wonderful clothing who would sit and stare and talk to themselves. It was as well the meeting place for the deaf-mute, for my Father could also speak with his fingers by curling them into different shapes. This beautiful language which would dance in the air and make the telling of lies a terrible waste of time, George would later teach his little boy. And the regulars who smoked like old English chimneys possessed their own swag of marvellous stories which they would carry on their backs like homeless Father Christmases.

Before moving in the mid-60’s when the dreams would first begin, we lived on top this big heap of seething humanity. It was a ‘theme-park’ of magical proportions where I would not only play and chase soap bubbles the size of small balloons from giant sinks but also learn to study faces and pick up on the secret of how to read people. In other ways, too, I would grow up too soon and often frustrate my parents and my teachers with the kinds of questions they would prefer to leave well enough alone: “Is Lionel an alcoholic?” Or “Why does Peter’s daddy smack his mummy?” Or “Why did Fatty Franco hang himself?” Or “How do angels slip and fall?” Much later I would grow to understand that to some things there will be no answers.