Monday, May 23, 2011

Landmarks rekindle memories of the way we were

SITTING in the Bioscope in Joburg’s CBD took me back. Beigebrown leatherette chairs, hard neon lighting, and an industrial grittiness to the small cinema.

Even the name took me back: the Bioscope. It was what some called the movies way back when – I don’t think I’ve heard the term since the 1980s, perhaps. This was when mall cinemaplexes started ruling the roost and independent movie houses – aha, another word I haven’t heard in ages – started shutting one by one.

But what did it take me back to? I couldn’t say exactly. French film actress Simone Signoret famously called her autobiography Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to be, but sometimes there’s another word for it, a word that English doesn’t have. No, it wasn’t nostalgia, but a vague sort of memory perhaps, a memory you can’t always put your finger on, something that shimmers out there, until you can grab it, date it.

Places do that to you – bring you back to the past in ways you had never considered. That’s one of the beauties of having lived in one city most of your life, or most of your life. The past fuses, and little things bring it all back.

I went to a new friend for lunch one day, driving back to Highlands North and on past Balfour Park and my old high school, Northview. Turning from Louis Botha Avenue I passed the corner where Bimbo’s used to be. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, the current fast food establishment – I think it’s a fish joint – disappeared, much as Bimbo’s disappeared from that spot years ago.

Memories I hadn’t thought of for years came back – being 14-years old, ordering Bimbo’s burgers after school or on Saturday nights. They came with a pink sauce: a combination of tomato sauce and mayonnaise, and very deliciously lapped up then. Afternoons of sitting at the table at Bimbo’s, watching Madonna on the television set, discussing such matters as the right age to lose your virginity.

I hadn’t thought about pink sauce for years, in fact, I was half tempted to try it again, but perhaps some things are better left to a teenager’s memory.

Similarly, visiting Norwood, again now off the beaten track for me, is another jolt into and out of the past. When I was growing up, living in a home just off Grant Avenue, there were two restaurants on the strip: La Lampara, since relocated to KwaZulu-Natal and the Drug Store. The Drug Store was an institution, it lasted long into my mid-twenties: a place of fries, burgers, milkshakes and memories, not least of which was trying to stretch our rands between a group of us. Nobody shares a burger better than teenagers and university students.

But by then other restaurants were beginning to mushroom along Grant Avenue, and the Drug Store was no longer unique. Still, I drive past the place where the Drug Store used to be – a secondhand-furniture, clothes and odds and sods sorts of place – and I’m looking twice. The Drug Store stands there still – so ingrained in my memories and experiences.

Kensington, Bedfordview and Edenvale provide another sense of déjà vu for me. I lived in Troyeville then – on the same street that David Webster died, and around the corner from the famed Gandhi home. I was a reporter for the community paper – and knew the area, like, well the back of my hand. Driving down that broad sweep of Langermann Drive is like driving into another decade, a time when the golf course still existed and hadn’t yet become a site for yet another shopping mall.

In yet another restaurant on yet another corner, three of us chums, all only children, debated our psychologies, wondering how growing up without siblings had affected us.

Days later it came to me – why the Bioscope seemed so strangely, vaguely familiar. Two years ago in the US a friend took me to see a movie in an art deco cinema in Oakland. The foyer was grand, impressive with sweeping architectural curves, but the cinema itself was strangely bare. Hard seats, black scuffed floors, like the back of a school hall. Again, there was something familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Days after going to the Bioscope the memory returns. At the age of seven my mother took me to see the movie Odds and Evens. The film has made no impact on me, beyond the fact that we had to write about what we had done that weekend.

I pondered how to spell the name of the movie, thought I had it right, but also thought it best to ask my Grade 2 teacher. It imprinted the memory onto me – a movie house where smoking had just been banned in cinemas, a fact my mother, as a smoker, remarked on, and cartoons and news took up a sizeable time before interval and the main show.

I had forgotten all these details, but they came rushing back, piling up on each other,  layering, unlocked by the fact of having sat in another old cinema, the past unlocking like a jigsaw.

Published in The Sunday Independent, May 8 2011

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