Doing my rounds of 'strange attractors' in the city I stopped off at my favourite hotspot, the Picoloo Cafe, to wind Vitto up and watch him jump, to chat with the 'usual suspects' of freaks, rogues and cranks, and to eyeball the passing crowd thru the windows as if they were exotic fish in an acquarium, swimming around and around. In the window boxseat I saw a gaggle of women all dressed up like the 'Madwoman of Chaillot", flouncy hats and layered lace skirts and I got deja vu, and sure enough they turn out to be the sisters of an old regular from here, Liz Trully, who hasn't come for years, abashed at her old memories and reclusive because of a mastectomy, no longer the outgoing pot-party fiend. She never got over her cancer and died a few days ago, and this was the day of her cremation, her sisters had dressed up in her old clothes and come back to her favourite haunt to celebrate the wake.
Liza had looked like an extravagant bag-lady freshly flung from the Moulin Rouge, she was a cheery soul, affable, agreeable with everyone and anyone if she could get on the end of a riff, she made it as one of the classic Picoloo characters in my 1st drawing of the place. So it was somewhat surreal to see 4 more versions of her laughing and swishing about as they toasted Liza with glasses of cafe latte. She could now be one more soul added to the cafe's roster of spectres doing the whirling dervish at the heart of the shoe-box theatre-like premises. The dead and the disappeared, like Liza's old boyfriend of many years, Allen Spender, who left her with a mountain of debts as a parting gift, he'd always chased the young girls and caused her misery, maybe she was well rid of him but it was the beginning of the end for her, her broken heart broke her body.
Alan had long ago won $150,000 and blew it in a year, then was sent to gaol for 7 years for conspiracy to import 'acid trips'. He defended himself and pleaded 'counter-culture revolution' and thus got the heavy sentence. He was a quirky, fun old hippy type with pony-tail and head bandana, he had a repertoir of hairy stories to tell about the Cross, but he doesn't come here anymore, he travels the country in a combie-van with a sweet soul called Spring-blossum, so he might as well be a vague apparition reflected in the Piccolo's windows with all the others.
Reading many famous Auzzie biographies I'm surprised to learn how many of them say they hung out at the Piccolo Bar on Roslyn Street. Chrissie Amphlet of Divynals fame says she hit the joint in the small hours of the morning, and the lead guitarist from Cold Chisel, Don Walker, says he was a regular, it seems there are crowds of famous artists queueing for blocks to get in, but when you get there all you find is deadbeats and lunatics. Bands have their photo taken and their video clips shot there, artists pose in front, writers look seriously thru the windows whilst glowering from the literary columns of the Establishment press, most only come once, like tourists, to say they've been part of the action, true Bohemians. I've virtually lived at the cafe 24/7 for 35 years and most of them I never saw. I missed the night Nick Cave had his 15 minutes worth of coffee, and when Mary-Anne Faithful tried to come in but was swamped by the gronky crowd clamouring about their fandom, causing her to flee in horror.
Since it's establishment in 1950, artists, musicians, actors, writers, makers and breakers, chose it as a hide-away to sit intimate and hassle-free after their late-night gigs, often smoking maijhuana so that the tiny cafe was filled with blinding acrid pot-smoke. The place was a maelstrom of polemical politics, cultural deconstruction, fleshpot pick-ups and nonsensical gossip, guitars twanged, bongos thumped, the juke box wailed, the dump jumped till dawn when Vitto handed over to the day shift. Then the Queen Mother got bashed in her bedroom and her savings robbed from under the mattress and he wouldn't come in to work the coffee machine for months, finally agreeing only to the day shift where he felt safer with the sun shining and revealing all. And so the saturnalias of the nights shut down, regular rousters drifted off to other deviant clubs or they dropped dead, wasted away, their time in the moonlight over, they'd been burning the candles for 50 years, withered relics from bygone swinging eras they were fatigued by the dance and like a rare breed they died out. Some of their photos hung from the Picoloo's walls, nameless wannabes and hasbeens and desperate young hopefulls, groping towards their 15 nano-seconds of fame, pictures of ghosts that shimmer in the light-beams.
Within an hour the parade of freaks belonging to the Side-show Alley Cafe marched in and out. Old Auntie Crack sat in a corner all alone, nobody speaking to him as he'd fought with everyone over paltry crap, he gnashed his teeth trying not to tune into my latest adventure which I told with much laughter and glee to fellow wags nearby. Hammid the African poof sat down, black as satan and peeved at his difference, a jolly fairy when you broke thru his defences, and we bitched about the staff in nursing homes where he works as an assistant, and laughed at the antics of our fellow silly poofs. He went to the toilet and I found $20 blowing in the wind where he was sitting so when he returned I asked him if he'd lost any money. He admitted to losing $5 and I kept on, "no other money?" "I lost $5." I told him I'd found $20 and he jumped on it, "It's mine!" "I hope so." "Oh thanks Toby, I was so broke!" What was the guy telling me? Fuck it, I didn't need the $20, but it always amazes me how people jump when there's money floating down the street.
Then Greg and his side-kick Barry lumbered in, Greg being the gi-normous "Fat Lady" and Barry the "Geek" in our local freakshow. Florid faced, candidate for his 1000th heart attack, he once joked that he was so fat he couldn't reach around to wipe his own arse. When I asked him, "Then what do you do?" he replied, "I don't bother." That could sum up their domestic milieu, the facts are too nauseating to delineate. He's an ex-Vietnam War vet, closeted for most of his life, swears Barry is merely his adopted son but everyone knows they've been lovers for most of their association, and good luck to them, Barry is mentally challenged and no one else would look after him so assiduously. Greg runs a business sucking grease out of chip-shop vats, often has a desperate junkie-type trailing in his vast wake hoping to pick up any crumbs dropped, he's tight as a crocodile's arsehole and just as goodlooking, and only lately has he admitted to being 'gay', a refreshing breakthru as it was most tedious skirting around the issue so as not to rile him.
Acquaintances who have cleaned house for him have told horror stories Edgar Allen Poe couldn't have dreamed up in his fecund nightmares, one friend even being made to put the guy's dirty socks on his gnarled feet, and then chasing the $45 fee for months while Greg throws hundreds at pokie machines daily. Live and let die, yeah, as long as he doesn't let go of the load next to me when he carks it I couldn't give a shit, for every freak show has to have it's fat lady and pinhead geek.
Then a bunch of revellors showed up to celebrate a birthday, Judy had survived to 30, a hard slog for her as she was a Thalidomide baby, born without arms or a leg, she lit cigarettes using the toes on her one foot, a trully sweet soul who got a bum deal but makes the most of the life given her, despite the gruesome disabilities. Sometimes, late at night, I see her sitting alone at the outside tables, ciggie between her toes, looking out of the swim, and when I asked how she was handling things she admitted life was lonely for her, and I imagined that probably no guy gave her a second look, so it was endearing to see a crowd of people come to wish her love and joy on her birthday. (I'm told she trawls the WEB and gets many a kinky guy over to her flat!)
For all the infamy of the Cafe and it's disparate, disreputable patrons, it's the only Cafe I've ever found that welcomes all, encourages strangers to interact and lends a community vibe to the cold, alienating winds of Roslyn Street, all under the auspices of the Circus Ringmaster, Vitto. Would I want to be a member of a club that would have a fuckwit like me? You bet, it beats being lost and alone in the dehumanising expanse of a superficial, exploitative city like Sydney.