South Africa

PERSONAL ESSAY

Here’s to you, dear Vasco – when they saved you, they stopped this barfly’s history from slipping away

Here’s to you, dear Vasco – when they saved you, they stopped this barfly’s history from slipping away
The Portuguese menu at the Vasco is the orginal from 1972. Photo: SUPPLIED

The Vasco da Gama Taverna in Green Point turns 50 this year. Herman Lategan started going there at its inception in 1972, making him the barfly who has zoomed around the longest.

It was hot. I was eight. My father’s face was covered with sweat. He was already pissed.

He parked his red Anglia 105e outside a new pub in the backstreets of Green Point. Before we got out, he held onto the steering wheel. Slouching, his face pressed against it.

Earlier, he was trying to show off and sped. In Vredehoek he drove over a dog, it yelped and it died. He was an animal man; he was gutted. So was I. That is why I remember that day. It was 1972. I was eight. 

Sammy was wearing his usual safari suit and his hair was shiny and black. Brylcreem did the trick. He wore light leather-toned Bata Toughees and his socks were pulled right up to his knees.

The interior of the Vasco looks exactly the same as it did 50 years ago. (Photo: Supplied)

He saw himself as a ladies’ man and wore Aviator Sunglasses. Hanging from the corner of his mouth was a Gunston plain, and another cigarette behind his left ear. Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Shadows formed the soundtrack to his life.

He walked with a swagger. Sammy was one of Cape Town’s best second-hand car salesmen, but his love for drink and women would often leave him jobless, hunting for the next female, or rejected. He was a classic barfly; Charles Bukowski could have been a drinking buddy. 

We climbed out of the car. He needed another drink. Sam the man opened the swivelled door and made an entrance. He had seen enough John Wayne movies to know how to open the door of a pub. With self-confidence.  

Sammy showed me where to sit, in a corner. There were other young boys too. We sat drinking Coca-Colas and ate messy Prego Rolls. To be in a tavern at our age was of course illegal, but they served food and we were sort of out of sight. 

We sat on little red round bar stools and the manne were seated with their drinks and elbows resting on a yellow Formica-covered bar counter. Underneath the counter were little mosaic tiles. Opened yellow glass-stained windows allowed a breeze in. 

All these features are still there, 50 years later. The interior has been updated, but the look remains. The windows are the original ones, so are the tiles. Not much on the menu has changed; they still serve Tripe and Beans, Peri-Peri chicken, Portuguese Sardines and Beef Trinchado. 

The food aromas: garlic, onions, fish, steak, chicken, spices. 

My little spot in the corner is still there. Over the decades I often thought of that original bunch of drinkers standing there, laughing, and talking at the top of their voices, telling dirty jokes.

In the early years of its existence, the Vasco was like all other pubs in most “white” areas. I remember an off-sales bottle store next door, with a sign saying: “Non-Whites”. As apartheid laws during the late eighties slowly thawed, thank heavens that changed.

Women were not allowed in until 2000, in line with Calvinistic, paternalistic conservatism, which outraged me as I grew older. The language in the bar was foul and full of cussing. Back in the day, separate Ladies’ Barsgenerally had a more civilised mood. Never mind us young boys. I am certain that is where I picked up the habit of no filters and a dirty mouth that even shocks me.

The place attracted mechanics, sailors, fishermen, railway workers and, of course, many second-hand car salesmen. The latter, like journalists, were known for their hard drinking.

My father worked for Carsons, which sold Peugeots. He lost his jobs often and it was at the Vasco where he would find someone who would offer him a new opportunity. There was, among many others, Stanley Porter Motors, which sold Mercedes-Benzes — and then the whole of Voortrekker Road, filled with car dealerships. Work was plentiful, it was sustaining it that was a problem. 

One character who stands out is a man called Spikkels Moore. He was a large man with a jolly laugh and a belly that shook after he told a joke. Spikkels had a carwash business just behind the Vasco, called the Vehicle Cleaning Centre.

Some days they have specials. Their Tripe and Beans have remained a favourite for five decades. (Photo: Supplied)

While having a brandy and Coke, you could have your car cleaned. Spikkels, who died 18 years ago at 71, has a son Michael. He is also in his late fifties. Like me, he remembers the Vasco, or the Portuguese Embassy as it became known, since he was 14. 

The conversations often centred on fishing and, of course, as the alcohol flowed, these stories became more outrageous — and the fish larger and bigger. 

There was a man who regularly got so smashed, his family had to fetch him and carry him to their car. Nobody took notice.

Over the years I continued going to the Vasco, ageing along with many of the regulars, some of whom have departed. The original Portuguese barmen are all dead. They used to serve you while smoking cigarettes, one ciggie after the other.

One famous barman was a man called Jorge. He had a kind heart, but if you complained about the food, he would explode, grab the plate and throw it away. 

The writer Herman Lategan, is a long-standing patron of Vasco Da Gama. (Photo: Supplied)

The original owners, Mr Camaro and Mr Tello, as they were called, are also gone. New owners came and went and at one stage the Vasco seemed like a graveyard. Quiet.

Nobody went any more, it had its time. Young people wanted to party in funky, modern surroundings. Some older customers were at the crematorium, where smoke gets in your eyes.

I took it hard. My history was slipping away. My dad was also dead; the Vasco offered me a bond with him. Poor old Sammy, he died at 47, drink in hand, choking on a piece of steak. What a way to go, doing what you liked the most. He was fresh out of jail for fraud and phoned me the day before to tell me we should meet at the Vasco.

How I remembered the good times there as a little boy, later as a teenager, then an adult and now also slowly sliding towards Maitland and beyond.

Then the day came when it was announced that the Vasco was going to be knocked down. I was paralysed with grief.

Enter the businessman Bryn Ressel, a guy who loves the place like I do. It was his dream to take his son to the Vasco when he turned 18. (Unlike us unruly lot whose fathers took us there when we were kids.) 

He saved the Vasco, bought the building and the business. He tackled the rundown interior and kept its original look.

Outside became available for out-of-doors dining and drinking. He bought two extra sections right opposite the Vasco. The one is called the Vatican, for civil meetings, and in the Castle Bar you can watch horse racing. 

Upstairs he renovated some old offices and it is called the Sailors’ Bar for private functions. He installed large TV screens for sporting matches. 

The front-of-house staff are hip and soon, with the help of his sleeping partners, he managed to revive it into a thriving new vibe. Younger people came and the old-timers are ecstatic. 

James Small often used to pop in, so did Graeme Smith and Siya Kolisi. I know nothing about rugby (true story), so one day I was reading someone’s palm, as one does. He went oeee and ahhh, everything I said was so true.

The taverna is a popular venue for sports stars. Here is Siya Kolisi and celebrated waitress, Gwen Ramjee. (Photo: Supplied)

I made it all up, of course, it is something I do when I get pissed. When he left, a waiter asked me how I knew this guy? Well, I did not. I had just met him.

It turned out it was the rugby player James Dalton. I had no clue who that was, but okay, now I know. 

Looking back, I am thrilled to see the old girl still going, alive, kicking her heels. I am even happier when I am seated at the counter and see my eight-year-old self lounging in the corner sipping a Coke.

But best of all is when I sit on my late father’s old seat and it feels as if we are having a drink and some steaks together. The lunch we missed out on. 

Cheers to another 50 years dear, dear Vasco da Gama. DM 

Herman Lategan is a freelance journalist; previously with House and Leisure, Cape Style, e.tv and Fine Music Radio.

 

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