Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Last Days of Rodis

My days are mostly solitary. Except for the dog and sometimes the mice, it’s just me and words and worries. I have strategies to prevent madness. I cycle around Walthamstow Marshes to stop myself getting fat. I go to Rodi’s Café to make myself fat again.

Rodi’s is the most beautifully preserved Café you have ever seen. I originally started going there over ten years ago, because it was cool, unchanged and an absolute time traveling experience. That’s what we like isn’t it? Cool, old things. Rodis has been there since 1925.

About eight years ago I wrote a song about Rodi’s and even themed an album around it. It’s what we do isn’t it? We sit and watch and write and use. In the song, I sing out the address. It was a plea for people to come and support the café. My heart was in the right place but I was worried I was using both the place and my experience of it in a selfish way. Not every thing we do and feel has to be written about. Some things can be left alone.
Somebody wrote to the address trying to contact me and I was sussed. Franca said, “We know who you are.” when I next ordered omlette and chips.

Maria and Franco opened the Café at 6am every morning, Julie was there too, making the sandwiches. Maria’s sister Franca usually arrived at 10am to help with the lunch time rush. They closed at 3:30. Maria and Franca’s parents, Louisa and Cyril ran the café before them and before that was grandad. Before opening the Café in Walthamstow he had Café’s in Islington and Victoria. Maria vaguely remembers the Café in Islington and being driven past when she was a child but she can’t remember when those Café’s closed or if she was told when they were opened. The details are lost in time. This is a small but long history and nobody wrote it down. Maria’s Grandad came here in the 19th Century. This Café has a family history stretching back over a hundred years.

Franca, Franco and Julie became my friends quickly. Franco called me ‘Bobby Dylan’. Maria is wise and harder to impress. After four years she called me by my name. After five I got a smile. After six she let me have a tab when I forgot my money. My wife said that visiting Rodi's is like ‘going to meet Darren’s in-laws’ . They tell her to take care of me.

I’ve never had a ‘place’ or a ‘local’, not sure if I wanted one. Rodi’s became my place, it was my office and living room and Franco and Maria were my work colleagues. They don’t know it but they helped me write songs. I felt safe and welcome there in a way that I felt nowhere else.

Last week it all ended. I went in on Tuesday. I’d been thinking how hard Franco worked in the kitchen at 68 and I was wondering how long the Café could exist for. Maria told me, ‘We’ve sold up. We close on Friday.’ I said, ‘I’ll come in every day.’

When I got outside I felt that winded feeling, like when someone punches you in the stomach. I was bereft. I thought selfishly about how mad I was going to go without Rodi’s. I cried a bit.

I phoned my friend Steve who love’s Rodi’s like me. ‘Rodi’s are selling up. They leave on Friday. Let’s go every day.’

Maria and Franco’s children are teachers, there’s no-one to take over and they are tired. They’ve worked hard and deserve their retirement. Nothing is supposed to last forever.

On Wednesday I went in with my Wife. She took flowers. Riza the new owner was there, learning the ropes. He said he wouldn’t change the café but of course it isn’t just about the walls and the 1970’s 7up sign. I took my last ever roll of Polaroid 600 film. I’d been saving it for something like this. Steve came and we stayed there a few hours and talked about late era Byrds. That’s usually all we do in Rodi’s.

Thursday was my birthday. Rodi’s weren’t letting me pay for anything anymore. They gave me wine. It was too much. I sat with Steve and talked about late era Byrds. As we walked back to mine, we walked past the Tescos Express just around the corner. It had just been built on the site of the Essex Arms pub. It was going to open on Friday, the day of the Rodi’s retirement.

On Friday I took in Prosecco for the ladies and red wine for Franco. Maria said I shouldn’t have. She said that my Wife had already bought flowers and that ‘it all comes out of the same pocket.’ Steve turned up and we talked about late era Byrds. Franco said, ‘come back at 3:30 when we close. Bring your lovely wife. Have a drink with us.’ As I left a young girl who'd been sitting in the Cafe tried to give me a leaflet for 20% off at the Tesco Express.

At 3:30 a handful of regulars arrived at the Café for drinks and cake. Some of them, remembered Cyril and Louisa, the earlier generation, but the clinetelle of a Café is transient and many of Rodi’s customers had moved on down the years. I got proper hugs and kisses off of all of them as I left but I didn’t cry. I did all my crying on Tuesday.

A small family business that ran for a 100 years, imagine that? It’s an incredible achievement. I’m so happy for Franco, Maria and Franca. There really should be awards for this kind of work. They were an absolute rock at a centre of a community, a community that consisted of a lot of lonely men with too much time on their hands, but a community none the less. They don’t know half the good they do, these places. They are the stitches in the fabric of society, without them it all falls apart. No-one will be raising a glass for the Tesco Metro in a 100 years time.

‘Don’t let the old things change, Let one small thing stay the same’, I sang about Rodi’s. But things we love will always change. Just savour them whilst they are there. That’s what I tried to do last week.