Saturday 10 November 2018

Black Days for Coffee Culture in Melbourne This Week.

It's been a tragic week for cafe culture here in Melbourne.
Adalberto 'Bibbi' Succi, the owner of Ti Amo Bistro in Carlton, passed away last Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 79. I worked at Ti Amo from 1993 till 1998. Bibbi was the definition of firm, but fair. He was a jovial and, at times, cynical boss to work for, but he was one of the best employers I ever had.


This cafe had been known as The Black Pearl when it was first opened by two guys in the early 1960s. I'm not sure when the name of the place was changed, but Bibbi started working at Ti Amo back in 1977 and he became a part-owner a few years later. Sometime in the early Eighties, he became sole owner of the place. By then, it had become a Melbourne institution that served great coffee and plain and simple Italian food. No menus to hand out to customers, it was all written on a couple of large blackboards hung up in the corner of the room. With it's low lighting and timber furniture, it was a cozy place to grab a coffee or quick meal. The walls were adorned with posters for a variety of movies, festivals, plays, etc. People would sticky-tape them over each other, to the point where we would take a knife every six months or so and cut them down once the tape was no longer holding them in place. At the end of the year, we would remove as much of them as possible to try and get back to the bare walls underneath.
This was not a place for fine dining. This place was real. As such, it was a very popular cafe with students and lecturers from the nearby Melbourne University.
I made coffee for singer Nick Cave once. He had a long black. Made perfect sense.
Man, how many nights did I stand behind behind this bar churning out coffee after coffee after coffee? 

Two American guys came in one busy Saturday night. I looked over at them and my jaw hit the floor;
"You! You're Jay Sanders! You were in the first episode of  'Private Eye'. And you were in 'Crime Story'!"
The guy who came in with him said; "Man, does this guy know your whole resume?"

 I turned to him and said; And you're Tony Plana! You were in an episode of 'Miami Vice'  where you jumped through a window! One of the bad guys."

 pic  above courtesy of

Star-struck, I asked them what they were doing here in Melbourne, Australia. They were filming a movie called Silver Strand. Jay Sanders then said that he and Tony had worked together once before on a very controversial movie a few years earlier.
"Basic Instinct?", I asked, even though I didn't recall seeing them in that movie. 
"No. 'JFK' ", he replied. 
They then asked for coffees, nothing fancy. Just a couple of our popular sellers. I made them a couple of lattes.
Don't think I charged 'em, either. Don't recall exactly. 
And I think I may have served author William Gibson one time. Definitely looked like him, and he had an accent. He was in Melbourne in 1994 for a Science Fiction Convention. I'm sure it was him. 

Ti Amo was an interesting place to work. Half of the tables had numbers. The other half had names, based on where they were situated in the room. The four-seater table next to the telephone was called telefono. The table against the wall below the framed map of Italy was called Sicilia (since Sicily was the lowest part of Italy on the map). The small two-seater was called piccolo (little).

I will admit that I had a chip on my shoulder back then. I was pushing thirty and still working as a waiter, with no clear direction as to where I was headed. My own fault. Thank God I had a girlfriend. I met her here. She became my wife.

Friday mornings at around ten am, there would be a steady influx of old Italian men who would come in and have a quick coffee. This was an unofficial meeting place for them and they would sit up at the bar and stay for 20 minutes or two hours. There were great to talk to, and they'd often correct my pronunciation of Italian words and phrases.
One of them was called Caruso. It was years later that I learned of his first name. Carmelo. This gentleman was 74. He would come in regularly, always dapper in a suit. His silver hair would be neatly combed, and he'd wear a gold pinky ring on his right hand. It was like serving Sinatra.
"Wei, damme 'na sigaretta"*, he would say, with a gentle tap on my shoulder. I'd pop open my pack of Marlboro Lights and light it for him with my Zippo.
He had a mild heart attack in the place one morning. We laid him down on the floor, on top of my trench-coat, as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. It arrived shortly afterwards and took him to hospital.
He was back in Ti Amo about a month later, ordering an espresso and asking for a cigarette.

I saw him once walking down the street with his brother, who was also decked out in a suit, with a short-brimmed fedora tilted at an angle. They looked like a couple of retired bank robbers. 

Despite whatever cynicism or negativity I had about my work life back then, I will sometimes think back on my time at Ti Amo and smile. Or laugh out loud.

I'll be going to Bibbi's funeral on Monday.

Pellegrini's Cafe in Bourke Street is another well-known and much-loved establishment, often cited as the first place in Melbourne to set up a coffee machine, way back in 1954.
It too offers great coffee and good food. It's a long, narrow place, with a bar running the entire length on the right and a long, mirrored counter-top running along the left.

Picture below of the long bar courtesy of Trip | Pellegrini's Melbourne

And when the place is full, as it often is, there's a table out back in the kitchen where you can sit and have a meal while the ladies cook a few feet away.                            
Occupational Health & Safety be damned!
It's one of the coolest dining experiences you can have in this fair city.

Sadly, there was an incident in the CBD on Friday afternoon at around four pm. A man set fire to his car in the city before getting out and attacking random strangers with a knife. One of the victims was Sisto Malaspina, the 74 year-old co-owner of Pellegrini's. He approached the car after it caught fire and was attacked by the driver, Hassan Shire Ali, who was later shot and subdued by police. Authorities are treating this as a terror attack, citing that Ali had ties to extremist groups and that he was also mentally unhinged. The car was later found to be filled with gas bottles.

Malaspina succumbed to his injuries at the scene. His death is a major blow to the cafe culture of Melbourne. Pellegrini's Cafe is, understandably, closed today (Saturday, at the time of writing) and I'm sure that the staff will feel the effects of this incident for a long time to come. Tributes have flowed through Twitter and some are asking for a State funeral for Malaspina, such was the impact that he had made on the city.
Malaspina was the life and soul of Pellegrini's, almost always seen greeting patrons, with his cravat loosely tied around his neck.
Last time I visited the place, with the family on a busy Saturday night, he ushered us into the kitchen where we sat at the table and had a quick pasta.
He will be sorely missed.

You can get a good cup of coffee almost anywhere in Melbourne. Competition is fierce and the quality is, for the most part, extremely high.
The one thing that makes the difference is the people behind the bar. The personalities of the folks who work in or own the place.
Melbourne lost a couple of much-loved cafe personalities this week.
Very, very few of them left.

Thanks for reading. 

* 'Wei, damme 'na sigaretta' - loosely translates into "Yo, give me a cigarette."

Monday 5 November 2018

The TWSBI Precision & The Rotring Rapid Pro - Two Similarly-Styled Ballpoint Pens of Differing Quality.

I was looking at getting myself a modern-styled ballpoint pen. While there's no shortage of ballpoints in my stable, I thought I'd go for something with a more modern and technical look. The kind of pen that I used to hear about back in the early Eighties from fellow students who wanted to be draftsmen or architects. Basically, I was considering a Rotring. 
This well-regarded German brand was founded in 1928 and produces a range of writing instruments. As I said, the guys in school who wanted to go into design fields would often talk of Rotring mechanical pencils and fine-liner pens used for drafting blueprints. These pens, I noticed, were always black and they had a nice weight to them. 

Anyway, fast-forward thirty-six years and here I am, watching a few of these ballpoints on eBay. Specifically, I was watching the Rotring Rapid PRO. It's a modern-looking pen - looking more along the line of a mechanical clutch pencil - in black PVD coating. It has a push-button arrangement and a knurled finish along the lower section of the barrel to provide a sure grip when writing. This pen, after a reasonably thorough search, was priced at approx. $55.ooAUD excluding shipping. 

Meanwhile, back at work, my boss was on a pen buying spree and he showed me a website that was selling a TWSBI Precision (pronounced 'Twisby' - why they don't just throw in an extra vowel is beyond me) ballpoint pen. This Chinese-made pen was of a very similar design to the Rotring and was priced at $50 bucks. 
I decided to go for it, since my boss was buying some mechanical pencils for himself. 

The parcel arrived about a week later. I took ownership of the TWSBI ballpoint, replaced the black medium-point refill with a broad-point blue one and used it consistently at work over the next few months. 
Then, one night at a work function, I took the pen from my pocket to jot something down and saw a piece dislodge from the button section of the pen and fall to the floor. I picked the piece up. It was a small metal ring, used to secure the upper spring in place. I couldn't figure out what held it in place, so I put his piece in my pocket and continued using the pen, noticing that the spring action now felt rough and the refill no longer smoothly clicked back into the pen. 
The next day, the watchmaker that I work with said he'd have a shot at re-attaching this ring back into place. Sure enough, he managed to glue the ring back onto the pen and it worked fine for another few weeks before it fell off again.This time, however, I had no idea as to where it landed. 
Of course, by now I had also decided to get the Rotring Rapid PRO. Close inspection of the eBay photos showed a different design to the push-button section of the pen. The Rapid PRO is available in either silver or black. I opted for the black. The eBay seller was based in Japan and the pen took about six weeks to arrive. This seller charged $53.40 for the pen with free shipping. I have to say that I have not had one bad experience with Japanese sellers on eBay. A few of them have sent extra items along with the purchased item. When I bought my Yashica Electro 35 camera a few months back, it arrived with a short letter thanking me for the purchase and reminding me to leave feedback. Enclosed in the parcel was a bag of green tea. 
The Rotring seller enclosed a pencil eraser in the shape of a piece of sushi, as well as a folded origami of a Warrior's helmet - it was explained to me in the accompanying thank-you note that they sent. 
I love the way the Japanese operate.
Here are the two pens. You can see that the TWSBI design borrows heavily from the Rotring. Both pens are of similar weight and they are great to write with as a result. And because they both accept Parker refills, getting replacements are not an issue. I have used the Schneider Slider 755 XB refills in broad blue and they work great, although they do tend to run out sooner rather than later. I'm gonna try getting some Monteverde refills next. While I don't mind a medium-point refill, I prefer the broad ones, as they tend to cover up the flaws in my handwriting a little more. 

Now, I'm disappointed that the TWSBI only lasted me about four months. Having worked in hospitality for so many years (1979 to 2001), a ballpoint to a waiter is like a side-arm to a cop. When it's a busy period, you need a pen that just plain works. This is why I used a Fisher Space Pen for so long back in the day. I could place my notepad against a wall next to the restaurant's kitchen and quickly finish jotting down an order, knowing that the pen could write at any angle. 

My restaurant days are long gone, but I still used a pen to a great extent when I went into retail. Now that I work in an office environment, I'm back to using a pen a lot throughout the day, and I want something that won't let me down.
Even though I have disposable pens within arm's reach, I tend to prefer using one pen all day long, and I prefer that it has some weight to it. It adds a little balance to the writing and makes it look neater. 

Here's a close-up of the TWSBI's button section. There's a plastic ring protruding from it and the ballpoint jams whenever you click the button. Disappointing to say the least. Could I send it back? Probably, but I ain't interested. In the lead-up to Christmas, I got a million other more important things to attend to. Besides, there's no guarantee that the seller will refund or replace it. There's always the grey area of the 'customer mishandling' card that the seller may pull on me. I'm not interested. Not since I replaced this pen with the Rotring. Yes, I'm slightly poorer, but wiser. That's okay by me.

The lower section of the barrel has a ribbed finish, all the better to help grip the pen. Loaded up with a Parker refill, the pen wrote nicely. It had a nice weight to it. 
Although, since the button section breakdown, I began thinking that this is not a $50 dollar pen. If it were around half that price, it would make more sense. To me, anyway. 

The Rotring Rapid PRO has what appears to be a simpler push-button design. One that I hope remains intact for longer than three or four months of daily use. Both pens have a nice pocket-clip design, which work as they should, even though it's becoming increasingly harder to find shirts with a breast pocket on them. Unless I go for poly-cotton. Can't do that. I have standards, after all.
The Rapid PRO has a nicely knurled finish to the lower end of the barrel. Makes for a great grip of the pen. Again, similar to the TWSBI, this pen has a nice weight to it. It's about a centimetre longer than the TWSBI and it looks slightly thicker too. This pen I can see the $53 bucks in it. Downright bargain. Once you begin writing with it, it's the better pen. 

I have often said, though, that a pen is only as good as the refill inside it. This is one reason why I can't justify spending hundreds of dollars on a ballpoint pen by the likes of Mont Blanc, for example. Sure, I have tried a Mont Blanc ballpoint and it writes beautifully, without a doubt. But there's a plethora of much less expensive ballpoint pens out there that write just as well. 
But I suppose one doesn't buy a Mont Blanc solely for the writing experience. 
As far as refills go, I've used enough pens over the years to know what works for me. As mentioned, the bolder/broader refills tend to produce a thicker line on the paper and this goes a long way towards masking the gaps in the loops of my letters. 
The Schneider Slider 755 refills that I mentioned earlier are great, but they become a little sporadic towards the end of their life, cutting out halfway through a word, leading you to believe that the refill is running out. Five minutes later, they write like a champion, with no indication that the ink is running out. This can go on for weeks. 

I'll give the Monteverde refills a try at some point. Any of these refills are too pricey to purchase here in Australia. Most pen stores sell refills for anywhere between six to eleven dollars each depending on the brand. If I purchase off eBay, I can find them for about $4.50 each, once I include postage cost to Australia. 

Anyway, I'll get rid of the TWSBI, and let us never speak of it again. I'll take the spring out of it, as these can sometimes come in handy for use in typewriters. 
In the meantime, I'll continue putting the Rotring Rapid PRO through its paces. If my initial impressions are anything to go by, this is a lot of pen for the money. 
Very happy with it. 

Thanks for reading!