There was an event earlier this year called “The Taste of the Lower East Side.” Tickets were $195. It sounds like a lot but it’s not enough to buy the time machine needed to get a real taste of the Lower East Side, where $195 could buy the whole restaurant, instead of a taste.
A true taste of the Lower East Side (or any neighborhood worthy of the name) is not measured by bread alone – except at the Kiev, formerly at Second Avenue and 7th Street, especially during the rush at 5 a.m. on Sunday. If a UFO landed on the roof then and space aliens stopped by, the waitresses (all Eastern Bloc immigrants) would have just handed them a menu and pointed at the nearest empty table, if there was one.
Five a.m. was when the Mudd, Berlin, and other clubs released throngs of mohawk-ed punks and glittery drag queens into the pale morning, hungry for mushroom barley soup served with two pillow-y slices of challah on a paper plate. It was also when elderly men in fraying suits and old ladies in shawls would emerge for eggs with kielbasa and challah toast before early Mass at St. Stan’s or St. George’s.
It was breakfast at the cantina in Star Wars. Both groups came together to sit elbow to elbow, chatting quietly among themselves and easing into Sunday morning. Everyone got along without incident…except for one Sunday morning, as my friends and I headed there after a long night. As she passed us on her way out, an elderly lady made the sign of the cross. “You’re outfit isn’t that bad,” my friend Jay told me.
But now it’s getting harder to get a taste — physical or metaphysical — of the neighborhood at any price. New York natives watch with dismay the steady exit of the people and the establishments that anchor a neighborhood, instill civic pride, and offer important services, replaced by expensive little restaurants and people who mispronounce “Houston Street.”
It’s as if there’s some strange, zombie-like virus that affects real estate – infecting vibrant, idiosyncratic, and authentic local people and institutions. It’s trying to evict Dr. Dave, the Albert Schweitzer of the East Village, who sees patients regardless of ability to pay. We don’t need a doctor – we need more soulless little retail stores, the millionth “new concept in dining,” or another luxury high-rise so foreigners can recycle their dirty money. The neighborhood could be renamed “The Laundromat,” but for the insult to Jenny and her establishment.
Jenny’s Laundromat could have been Patient Zero in the outbreak of the Real Estate Zombie Virus. It was a dingy, workaday place with crappy fluorescent lighting, a couple of benches, and yellowing signs warning everyone about putting rubberized garments in the dryers, which apparently only had one setting – Inferno.
Jenny was the robust Latina who ran the Laundromat downstairs from us. Built like a fireplug, she was a natural to be block monitor. Nine months of the year, she sat outside…ratting out every neighborhood kid who crossed against the light, offered what was called “sass,” or talked to that boy your mom warned you against.
No one had ever seen her without her apron full of quarters, jingling the change all day long because she liked the sound. She never let winos or glue sniffers come in to warm up in winter, and she policed the dryers constantly to make sure no one put in any rubberized garments.
Even then, the fire trucks from 2nd Street would pull up periodically, because some woman put a girdle in the dryer and it caught fire. The block would smell like a NASCAR race and Jenny would banish that woman from the Laundromat. That was the only time she took her hands out of her apron pockets; to point at the door and yell, “Go break someone else’s machine!” Then she’d flirt with the firemen. Since no one had ever seen Mr. Jenny anywhere, she may just have let a girdle or two slip by, just to keep things interesting.
Unbelievably, Jenny’s was replaced by a restaurant that had a red velvet rope in front and a bouncer, a job Jenny could have handled with one hand while the other still fingered her change.
Thank goodness Kossar’s Bialys, Yonah Schimmel, Katz’s (so far) and B&H Dairy remain. These holdouts, like all longtime retailers in suddenly hot neighborhoods, bought their buildings decades ago, when “living over the store” was living the dream. Sadly, De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe joined the Dark Side – the building is for sale with the ground floor cafe “Delivered Vacant.” The Stage Deli is hanging on, but every current and former Downtown resident has grown to hate the words “East Village Retail Opportunity.”
But don’t get me started about THAT.