Oakleigh’s Eaton Mall seating might be fenced up and tapped off, but the Greek community has more than a 30-year tradition of men meeting at various parts of the suburban shopping centre.

Long before the suburb’s Eaton St became Eaton Mall when it was closed off to cars and developed into Melbourne’s famous Hellenic eatery precinct, Greek male seniors used to meet in the enclosed Oakleigh Central shopping centre, at the top of the present mall.

Neos Kosmos last week reported that on 24 August, authorities either erected metal fences around, or taped off, five areas in the short Eaton Mall to prevent shoppers congregating and breaching stage four COVID-19 restrictions.

This followed social media footage showing a busy Eaton Mall, on the busy shopping day of Saturday that also happened to be the Saturday celebrating the religiously- significant Assumption, on 15 August.

I began my journalism career working for News Ltd’s suburban newspaper empire, Leader Newspaper Group. Twenty-eight years ago to the month, on 5 August, in 1992, I cowrote an article for the Oakleigh-Springvale Times about senior Greek men meeting daily at the plaza benches.

As an Oakleigh resident, I had seen elderly Greek men do it for years. My own father did it. He and others graduated to Eaton Mall when it was later developed.

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The article’s headline was “Talking time at the cafe society” and ran in other Leader mastheads, like the Malvern- Caulfield Progress.

The article was about elderly Greek men who for years came to the shopping centre everyday around 9am to sit on their favourite bench for hours and talk. It became a version of cafe society without any coffee.

The men talked in Greek about feeling “abandoned ” after years of working in factories, including General Motors Holden and Nissan. They talked about feeling isolated and about the “old ways”. They helped each other solve problems.

The men said there were three groups that met in the shopping centre. There was the “west group” which spoke about politics, and their group which was the “intellectual or congressional group”. There was also the “east group” which met outside Coles Supermarket, but they weren’t considered a serious meeting group. They were “waiting for their wives with their trolleys to finish their shopping,” as one man put it.

Incredibly frank, they told me their wives didn’t expect to be invited to sit with them. Besides, they had housework to do and didn’t want to come. Even if they did want to come with them, the men told me, there wasn’t enough room on the benches anyway.

They said they all went home when they got hungry.

The men preferred meeting at the shopping centre benches instead of the smoke-filled “kafeneio” where patrons played cards. They longed for outdoor coffee shops like in Greece, they told me in 1992.

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It would be years before Oakleigh, indeed Australia, embraced outdoor cafes and dining.

Indeed, it was a different Australia 30 years ago, with the Greek men I interviewed seen as a novelty. I remember the then Oakleigh Council surprised to learn its ratepayers were meeting in this way, the plaza being such an important social outlet. I remembered the council was so moved by the story, there was talk they would provide free coffee for them to make their trip more pleasurable.

The offer of free coffee never came, but shortly after the article was published, signs went up outliining that shoppers were only allowed to sit on the benches for a maximum of 30 minutes.

I took the men copies of the newspaper once the article was published. I found them sitting in a coffee shop in the then Eaton St. They all stood up from their seats as I approached them, sat me in the middle of their group and shouted me coffee. They had me holding court.

Much has happened since then.

Oakleigh Council was gobbled up as part of the Kennett Government’s 1993 local government amalgamations designed to create super councils. Oakleigh is now part of Monash Council.

The company I wrote for, now News Corp, announced in May the print closure of its more than 100 local and regional Australian newspapers citing plummeting advertising revenue due to COVID-19. Most papers would instead be available online.

But, the elderly Greek men’s “cafe society”, in Oakleigh, has not been swallowed up by bureaucracy nor disappeared into the internet ether. It’s just resting for a bit, until coronavirus passes. Neos Kosmos has proof.

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A solitary elderly Greek man was spotted last Thursday 3 September, at 12.30pm, sitting on a bench outside Vanilla restaurant with his black mask around his chin, smoking and with COVID-19 social distancing signs on either side of him. He was keeping the bench warm for when his friends return to be with him – after the coronavirus crisis.

An elderly Greek man sits on his own outside Vanilla Restaurant, in Eaton Mall, Oakleigh, last Thursday 3 September, at 12.30pm. Photo: Dora Houpis