Saint Kilda was always frayed around the edges, but oh so comforting. Our neighbour, Mrs Smith, felt sorry for us eating our dinner of stuffed cabbage instead of a nice steak. Like us, she didn’t have much, but used to share whatever she did have, such as Lamingtons on baking days.
The rest of the people in our street were surrogate family, fellow Jews who embraced us. They passed around used clothing and bits of furniture to each new wave of refugees.
Sailing down memory lane on board the Galleon Café in Barkly Street, I recall all the shops in the neighbourhood that have now vanished. They gave me a sense of stability and permanence. The Galleon is furnished with Formica tables and cushioned plastic chairs, as if time stood still and we Baby Boomers are just kids, resting in our mother’s kitchen, dipping into pastel canisters for a biscuit. The places has no-nonsense dishes such as bubble ‘n’ squeak and “drunken sailor’s brekkie”.
Nearby, on the corner of Mitford Street, an elderly watchmaker in a small nook once repaired the watches of fellow Holocaust survivors for next to nothing. The exclusive dress shop that now stands in his place sells the same style of clothes I wore as a teenager. Opposite, the former rock-solid milk bar is now a high end sportswear boutique. I feel the original shops are still in there somewhere, lurking behind the new facades.
St Kilda was brown sourdough bread covered with caraway seeks, vanilla scented European cake shops, Saturday night dances at the Town Hall, icy poles beckoning from the pavilion at the end of the pier, and the artist Mirka Mora’s angels floating overhead.
The helping spirit is still alive and well here. Breakfast at Sacred Heart Mission in Grey Street is served by ladies your nanna’s age, wearing red baseball caps. They dish out porridge and ask how you are doing.
Luna, the rag doll cat, drops in regularly. There is something supernatural about her. She targets the saddest, loneliest-looking person and sidles up to him, calling out in her scratchy voice. The man, morose and rejecting, turns away, but Luna repeatedly extends one of her paws and places it on his knee. She keeps doing his until he stares at her in wonderment. A couple of minutes later, Luna is purring on the man’s lap, and he is wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
A mother walks past the mission’s opportunity shop, holding her small daughter’s hand. She is talking about red tape, mutual obligation and how hard she finds it to get someone to look after her daughter while she goes to job interviews. The girl, Amy, holds an ice cream cone, and is lost in chocolate heaven, ice cream dripping all over her dress. Her mother shrugs.
“Amy has a good head on her shoulders,” she tells her companion. “She’s not going to do it tough like we did. She talks about running her own business and making heaps of money when she grows up.” By now, Amy’s face is a dark chocolate brown. She licks her lips, waves goodbye and give me a pink-washed smile of promise.
I walk past the pub Misery Guts, near Fitzroy Street. The sign outside reads, “28 days since the last bad review on Facebook”, proudly proclaiming this as a quality joint. Centrelink can cut off your income, but it can’t kill your sense of humour.