Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Rio

On the corner of this and Smith Street is a Medical Centre, owned by someone my friend M calls the Little Mogul. He's a Portuguese who also owns and operates the pharmacy in Lackey Street, above which M and her partner J live. He also owns a fair amount of other real estate in Summer Hill. Above the Medical Centre is a pathologist's office. Next door, is Francois's International Hair Salon. Francoise, who surely is not French, parks his car, a silver Holden Astra, at the back of my building. He's a big, gloomy man who looks like he comes from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Next door to his establishment is the Rio, a milk bar. Next door to that there's a bespoke tailor, a cafe - Muse - with a photographer's upstairs, Ellen's (trissy) Interiors and Flowers, a mysterious, always shuttered office which purports to belong to a courier business, then an art gallery that shows oddly retro art, the kind of thing I used to see in Art Society exhibitions in Wellington, New Zealand, in the 1970s, when it was already old-fashioned. (This is a real connection, since one of those 1970s Wellington artists, Shay Docking, has been exhibited here in Summer Hill.) Then a plumber, a garage, a laundry (Nice & Clean, it's called, run by a Vietnamese couple with two young children; I get my washing done there) and finally an orthodontist that advertises mouthguards in any colour you choose. The first two buildings, which include in their frontages all the businesses mentioned as far as the plumbers but excluding the Medical Centre, are old (1893) two storey brick constructions, with residential apartments upstairs. I never see anyone coming or going from these residences, nor have I ever seen anyone on the balconies or at the windows of what look like spacious and probably quite elegant apartments. With one exception - the Old Man who runs The Rio.

I don't know his name. I've never spoken to him. M told me he's from Eastern Europe, probably the Balkans, probably from what used to be called the former Yugoslavia. White-haired, slow-moving, intent, I see him sometimes moving round his shop when I pass by. The Rio is a classic 1950s milk bar, not the kind with tables to sit at, the kind where you used to buy your sweets and drinks, your milk-shakes and ice-creams, over the counter and then go somewhere else to consume them. It's painted blue and white on the outside, the paint is old and tacky, the signage ancient. Sweets, Smokes it says. In the window, cut out pictures of novelty ice creams pasted onto a piece of styrofoam. Some tattered silver tinsel frames half the glass. An Australian flag in one corner. There are coloured stars stuck here and there. Inside, large bottles of soft drink are placed at intervals along the shelves. The shop, which is always half-dark, has a high counter along one side, and on the shelves behind it, more wares are placed at careful intervals. A step leads up to the door that goes into the room behind the shop. The Rio opens regularly each morning except Sunday, and stays open until the early evening. It is usually empty of both customers and owner. In fact, apart from the owner, I have never seen anyone in there at all.

I've only been into the shop once myself. It was last summer. I had my sons with me and two colleagues were visiting to talk about a screenplay. One of them had her two children, older than mine, with her. So there were seven of us, three adults, four children, going to get ice creams. A bell rang as we entered the darkened shop. We stood at the counter, waiting. Nothing happened. No-one came to serve us, there was no sound from the back room, no movement. We stood. Waiting. It was as if we had stepped into some other time, perhaps a January afternoon in 1958. It was endless. Nothing kept on happening. Eventually, we left and went across the road to the shop on the other corner, a mixed business run by a Chinese couple, Tom and Tina, and bought our ice creams there.

J, who has lived in Summer Hill for longer than I have, says the Old Man buys his supplies in bulk from the local Franklin's supermarket. He is of the opinion that the Rio is not really a shop at all, but an art installation. That makes sense from one point of view, but is it the point of view of the Old Man? No-one knows. M has another story about him. She observed, one Christmas morning a few years ago, a large group of people of all ages crowding into the shop and then upstairs where the Old Man lives by himself. They were his extended family. The sound of celebrations continued for most of the day. He takes such care of his business, eccentric as it is. He works hard at it, if by work we understand the attentiveness that he surely gives it. The time we stood waiting for the ice creams he had decided not to sell to us, I never for a moment thought that he did not know we were there. I could feel his presence in the back room, monitoring us, waiting for us to go. That I haven't gone in there again is, I think, out of respect. I think that's why none of the locals go in there. Yet the Rio is always open.