The Way the Wheel of Fortune Spins
by Andrew Pippos
Published October 2020
There is a peculiar practice in immigrant Sydney that I know well thanks to being born to a pair of Lebanese settlers. It is when a set of beliefs that parents hold true about other ethnicities (usually groups of people who migrated earlier than they did) are told to their children as a kind of forewarning. For example, as my father drove along Burwood Road to drop me off at Christian Brothers College, he would point at the cluster of Asian shops and say, ‘In business, Chinese are the most cunning.’ This probably would have made a lot more sense to me had my father ever engaged in ‘business’ but he hadn’t which meant he had inherited that saying from some other Lebanese man in a TAB somewhere who had probably heard the same from another Lebanese man and I suppose it could probably be traced to some misadventure of business between two eager men from different parts of the world. When my father said these things, I would nod. As would my sisters and cousins and any other third culture kids splattered around Sydney when their elders spoke these varyingly racist beliefs. We would nod. Not because we agreed, but because very early on as Australian-born children, we knew we would never speak the same language as our parents, that we were somehow more accepting than them if not purely by default of grazing our knees on the diverse playgrounds of Sydney’s schools.
About the Greeks, there were two beliefs that persevered. The first was that they were lucrative. They were money makers. Business operators. Tight asses. They made lots of cash and they never spent a cent of it. This one came up every time we saw the mega-rich old man from Thessaloniki, who lived near the hospital, driving around in his old patchwork mustard Kingswood. Or when we would visit Con the barber and if we were twenty cents short he would smile at us until the coin appeared from some deep crevice in my mother’s handbag. Or when the Nicolaous upped the prices at the charcoal chicken shop on Majors Bay Road just as the strip began to turn bougie.
The second was that all Greek women were strong. Too strong. Stronger than men. As though that should ever be a problem. So when my big musclebound cousin came home to his parents twenty years ago and told them he was in love with a Greek girl he had met while working at the Commonwealth Bank, it didn’t go down well – until they met her and she became the olive of their eye. On the other hand, her father was enraged by his daughter cavorting with a Lebanese man because he had told her a thousand times, ‘Lebanese men bash their wives.’
It was quite befuddling for me then as I read Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos to find that these two beliefs, these generalisations about the Greek community that made me roll my eyes, were in fact holding true for its characters. The story is largely about business. About perseverance, innovation, profit. And it is most certainly about strong Greek women. Women who make their own decisions. Women who stand up to men.
We meet the main man of the story, Lucky Mallios, in an intimate and domestic moment of incompleteness. He is sitting at his kitchen table stripping dried rigani (oregano) off the stalk – a necessary and old ritual – as Wheel of Fortune plays on the television. The kind of moment where it feels too late to change anything but still, as you perform a banal act, you wonder if it could all come up trumps. It happens to me when I tie shoelaces. In some respects, the scene ends up being an allegory for the whole novel: the blend of the old with the new and the damage that comes with guessing, with hope, adherence. Growing up,my family watched Wheel of Fortune religiously. Mum carving out white zucchini innards as she urged the players on, my sisters and I guessing the words from our various lounge room outposts. I used to wish my mother had a better handle of English so she could go on and win all the prizes.
And in 2002, Lucky has a similar wish. He plans to be a breakout star on the game show and win enough money to reboot his fallen restaurant empire that, in another life of his, was thriving. In that life he even had a wife and you could say that success brought him happiness. But in 2002 Lucky is an ageing man going at it solo. In another life yet, he was an American soldier at the tail end of war, impersonating a famous musician. That was when he had met his wife, Valia. The daughter of a kind of mobster, Achilles, whose life turned so sour that it squeezed the love out of his whole family. Valia is the strong Greek woman in the story, and it is through her support and ambition that Lucky is able to build his restaurant chain first in Sydney and then beyond.
‘We’ll get a hotel that night. Look into it, Lucky.’
‘We’ll pay top dollar. We’ll splash out.’
‘We can stay the whole weekend.’
‘Maybe three days?’
‘The first day we’ll go to the concert. The second day we spend in bed. The third: we’ll visit the stores and buy you a clarinet. I like the thought of you playing music again.’
‘I don’t know, sweetheart. What I’m good at is kitchen work.’
‘Let’s open a restaurant in the city near the harbour.’
The other thing that helped build the business was a guilt-laden cash donation from Ian, who was a friend to Lucky and Valia before he became so bothered by Lucky’s success in love and life that he paid a criminal to burn the original restaurant down. The fire was only meant to do a little damage, but it did end up killing another strong and ambitious Greek woman, Penny, Valia’s younger sister. It turns out the donation is not enough to absolve Ian of his sin and so he jumps in front of a train in London and suicides in plain view of his young daughter, Emily. That all happened in the early seventies. In 2002 the adult Emily is so intrigued by a postcard given to her by Ian, that depicted the façade of one of Lucky’s faraway restaurants, that she pitches a story to the New Yorker to investigate the demise of the restaurant chain. She travels to Sydney in search of a different angle, more information about the fateful day that marked the end of Lucky’s, and in doing so begins to unlock secrets about her own family. The event under investigation is the shooting massacre of innocent people inside Lucky’s last unfranchised restaurant in Stanmore.
Pippos has written an important novel. One that speaks of such precise histories that it may as well be non-fiction. The palpability with which he has created the worlds and periods that the story shuffles through is rich and unnerving. It was impossible for me not to relate at every turn, because so much of it is about the migrant experience and specifically that experience against the backdrop of inner-western Sydney. And what better way to broach the migrant experience than to pay homage to their influence on Australia’s eating habits. As I read, I tried to imagine what we’d all be eating now were it not for the early migrant pioneers who took a punt. It was a bleak thought. When the first eateries were being established, it was American-style food that was being cooked and sold, as was the case at the Café Achillion (the Lucky’s franchise precursor). Lucky Mallios’ batty father-in-law knows that Australians are not ready for Greek food in the 1940s and so he serves burgers to his customers and keftedes to his family. And Lucky, being Greek by heritage and American by citizenship, follows in his father-in-law’s footsteps when he develops his own menu. So important was the Greek contribution to eating out in Australia, that a book titled Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia, was compiled in 2016 to document the phenomenon and the stories behind the businesses. One such story being that of the Café De Luxe in Brewarrina, NSW – one of five long-standing cafés that were set up by Pippos’ grandfather in the 1920s. Almost a century later, the Café De Luxe was completely destroyed by fire.
Greek cafés were part of the process of Americanisation of Australian popular culture during most of the twentieth century – affecting eating and social habits, commercial catering ideas, products, technology, and even cinema, architecture, and music. They also provide insights into the racial and socio-cultural relationships between Greek-Australians and British-Australians.
This perhaps applies a little more to Achilles, but essentially, the Greeks, with the milkshakes, soda fountains and themed décor of their cafés, were not only offering an alternative to British cuisine, but also a slice of the American dream – to their customers by way of dining experience – but mostly for themselves, a way to make money, to prosper. And when Lucky begins franchising his restaurants to Greeks and Australians alike, he is aware of the financial possibilities for his franchisees but also lives with the angst of those not faring too well.
…in Queanbeyan, Helen Kalasoudas couldn’t break even; down in Mildura, Jim Melemenis got himself into trouble with the Italians; Mick Papacostas and his brothers were playing too much dice in Camperdown…
One only need visit the roving Knafeh Bakery or wait in line at one of the Frango branches to see the legacy of the Greek café wonder. So yes, maybe Greeks are business-minded, lucrative, but that is something to be grateful for seeing how well they laid the groundwork for migrants to come. I often feel proud when I visit these kinds of establishments, as though I never expected migrants to be so successful. That’s probably just an indication of my inferiority complex but, funnily enough, it is Aussie Shirley and Sam who swoop in on Lucky’s deteriorating company with all their smarts and make him an offer he can’t refuse.
One of the most important, if not the most important, characters in Lucky’s is Achilles or as he later came to be known, Mad Achilles. Through all the rage and terror he unleashed, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, to empathise with his absolute displacement and dissatisfaction. Achilles is a man at the end of his tether because he doesn’t possess the language or tools to comprehend his experience. Achilles is a mascot to all migrant men who lacked the option of releasing their bravado, their masculinity, because they were too busy trying to be someone and to feed their families. I am the first to wax lyrical about my own ‘migrant’ experience and I was born in Sydney and have lived quite a white privileged adjacent life. Achilles, and all the real-life men like him who came to Australia from their little villages, had to deal with real problems, real racism, new landscapes, a complete severing of ties to their birthplaces. Maybe the tough and angry exterior they built to cope with it all is what made them more Greek, more Lebanese – what made them come up with these beliefs about each other. And I am not excusing Achilles for oppressing the women in his life, or for his violent outbursts, but I think it is important to acknowledge the truths of the men he represents. In the end, Mad Achilles is a feeble old man, macerated by his harsh life, and during a sort of glimmer of hope that comes too late, he stuffs up and dies.
Then he swam to the centre of the river, into a gnarl of moving debris, which he couldn’t see, which netted him, pulled him gasping under the water.
Downstream seven miles, the shipmate on a wool barge discovered Achilles’ corpse tangled in the exposed roots of a lilly pilly tree.
The scene is one of mortifying significance. I really had to stop for a long while and breathe and consider just how exceptional the migrant experience is. That this pained man who was never understood and perhaps never even understood himself, would leave his birthplace, never fit in to his adopted country, and then all alone, be strangled by its harsh wilderness, seemed unfair. And yet, so many migrants have met similar fates. When, like Achilles, my parents’ bodies are put in the soil at Rookwood Cemetery, I hope that that their journey down under would have been worth it.
I lied earlier when I said my father had never engaged in business. Like Achilles and Lucky, he ran a shop, a corner store, across the road from Marrickville High School for a very short period in the eighties. The shop is now a supplement store. It is run by another third culture kid and I buy my protein powder there. So bad were my father’s profits that he would charge the sweltering students five cents for a cup of water in summer. In the end my disheartened parents were forced to shut it down. My father’s cousin on the other hand has run one of the busiest mixed businesses in Auburn for over forty years. He is rich, and so are his sons, but they are snooty. Something my sisters and I will never be. I guess that’s just the way the wheel of fortune spins. Another thing my father had in common with Mad Achilles was that he too had a club (more like a stick really) to keep us in line, although his was fashioned from the mulberry tree in the yard and not the olive. He never struck us with it, but we knew it existed and that was enough.
The sign above the counter at Café Achillion, the one later inherited by the Lucky’s branch in Stanmore read: OUR MOTTO: CLEANLINESS AND CIVILITY. It could very well have been the motto of my childhood home. Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia documents similar mottos, one being ‘FOR A BETTER SERVICE.’ It irks me that there was a moment when migrants felt the need to advertise these attributes, as if they were hyperconscious of appearing too savage. I wonder if that moment has passed. And it irks me that the ambitious Penny and the undiminishing Valia had no choice but to operate underneath such a banner. These post-reading flourishes are a testament to powerful and well-crafted literature. I thought of Valia the other day when I was ordering a kebab from Sultan’s Table in Enmore. The one stocky woman who works there among the crew of men was alternating between bossing them around and laughing raucously at their jokes. My heart swelled, and I had that feeling that everything was going to come up trumps.