In my much younger days, my mom and I lived in an area that is today better known as Richmond Hill. Back in Our Day, as far I can remember it was pretty much part and parcel of the larger neighbourhood of ‘Central’. Before it got larney, you see. But even when it was still just plain ol’ Central and my mom and I weren’t the wealthiest of the lot, well, you know how it goes, when you live with an artist, money is no matter. Most times. Long as there’s a roof up above and food on the table. My homes have always been filled with beauty, brightening and bursting out of every crevice and corner. A remarkable woman, that mother of mine.
Today you will find it very much changed. The price tags on the homes aren’t what they used to be (good luck getting in if you don’t at least have a few pennies to rub together!) and the Stanley Street of my memories, of a small grocer and liquor store and ice-cream factory shop, is now beset from one end to the next by trendy eateries. And so it is with gentrification. As for the people, well some of the original home owners remain. Characters that they are. The artists. The mechanics. The electricians. The fishermen. But the vibe’s changed. And trust me, those original home-owners aren’t the ones enjoying Monday morning chai lattes or the sushi smorgasbords, sipping on champagne on a Sunday afternoon. They’ve become more recluse. Taken to gardening, or repairing their latest fixer upper. If anywhere else, you might find them at the one pub that has stood the test of time and barely aged a day in all these years, The Rouge (otherwise fondly known now as Stevie Nicks).
And myself? Well you’ll find me on the other side of the Espresso Curtain, in ‘Central Proper’. A whitey in the mix surrounded by neighbours of all origin from coloured South African to Ethiopian to Nigerian to Xhosa to others just like me, ‘penniless’ white people. But don’t get me wrong, many of us live in beautiful homes. Our nick of the woods just falls under the ‘Undesirables’ category, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! Funny that, Cape Town has their Espresso Curtain and now we in Port Elizabeth have ours, otherwise known as the Great Divide that is Russell Road.
But back in those days, in the days before the Espresso Curtain, there was an Italian pizzeria and pasta restaurant only a few blocks from our home. It was called Rome. I’m sad to say that today it is no more. All empires I suppose must fall eventually. It was always warm and filled with the smoky smell of wood-fired pizzas going in and out, and in and out, to the patrons’ demands, and those oh-so-vital aromas of garlic and robust tomato sauce thrown in for good measure. (Find these wanting in a pizzeria and grow very suspicious, I warn you solemnly.) I loved it there. Bare brick walls. And tables beset almost tackily with chequered table cloths. All alit with candlelight. I would rejoice in my Fanta float. (When last did I have a Fanta float? Woe is me!) What magic for a child. A single scoop of ice-cream in orange soda pop.
I had a white polar bear teddy, in those days, who accompanied me everywhere dressed as he was in a scarf and beanie for all seasons of the year. In spite of the fact that I think polar bears require neither beanies nor scarves, no matter the season. He had been preceded by a dearly beloved Care Bear. Many a pre-primary school photographer had been met with a glum expression each time that Care Bear had been wrestled from me. (All pictures of my early childhood at this school show a very unhappy child. She was not so. She just didn’t like a photographer to come between her and her Care Bear.)
Here, at Rome, I loved the restaurant for more than its cosiness and Fanta floats but for the old man who owned the restaurant and went from table to table checking on us, his patrons. Even better befitting, he was a lover of cats like I, and the restaurant had its own furry feline that adorned the place as if it was part of the furniture, as all cats do. Beyond this, I loved that he spoke always to both me and my bear. He would assure me that, just like Paddington, all bears loved marmalade and have some sent over to the table. And he would make nothing of my ever-peculiar order. Plain-as-can-be spaghetti with nothing at all but a side of vinegar.
Of course, I came to appreciate their pizzas in later years, but there I was, in a bonafide restaurant, this teeny lass, with all the seriousness of a pontification of priests, and my lovely mother’s indulgence, ordering my plain bowl of spaghetti with a side of vinegar. Whether my tastes have grown more or less ‘sophisticated’ who knows and who cares? Or more to the point, does such a thing, a sophisticated palate, exist? Is not loving food in whatever shape or form it may take simply the point of it all in the end? We like what we like. And I like what I like. And that’s good enough for me.