Remembering Gray’s Papaya: or, Why It’s Sometimes Ok to Feel Nostalgia for Old New York

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Where were you when the news broke late yesterday afternoon that the 8th Street location of Gray’s Papaya was closing? Oh, you’re not sure you remember? You don’t know when it happened exactly? Well, do you remember hearing an escalating wail emanating from a building in DUMBO as I found out that the 8th Street Gray’s Papaya was closing? Probably you do, because I was really loud—really loud. And I’m still not quite over it. The 72nd Street Gray’s (still open, and the last remaining outpost of the storied New York chain) might have been the hot dog spot of my childhood, the place where I learned that ketchup should never be on hot dogs, the place where I learned that, yes, papaya smells like unwashed feet, but also that it’s nature’s own revitalizer, and who doesn’t want to be revitalized? Nobody. Nobody doesn’t want to be revitalized.

But it was the 8th Street Gray’s that has stayed with me more permanently, because it was there that I would walk late into the night, drunk or high or drunk and high, in that specific sort of state where I couldn’t really tell if I was in my body anymore, where I couldn’t even really tell if I had a body anymore, or if what I thought was my body belonged to me at all. Mostly, I mean, my cheekbones really hurt. But I would take that first bite and the delicate, dry crumbs of the bun would melt in my mouth before I heard the snap of the hot dog’s skin under my teeth. I think I heard that snap. I can hear it now anyway. And the papaya drink was always sweet and creamy and maybe a little salty and damn if it didn’t revitalize me, and reconnect me into my body so quickly that I even forgot what it was like not to be in it and vowed never to leave it again, or at least not for a little while. Back then, as long as I wasn’t splurging on American Spirits, cigarettes could be found for only $1.90 and I would dig around in the piles of clothes under my bed, looking for nickels and dimes to buy a pack, because all my actual dollars had gone to things that were maybe, probably worse for me than cigarettes. Even when I found enough change for my Camels, I’d keep looking for more, hoping that I’d find enough to also go to Gray’s. I had to eat, you know?

And there were the times that Poe the security guard in my dorm (he also worked security at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and promised to let me and my friends in at night, but we never took him up on it because we weren’t stupid, or at least, we weren’t that stupid, or maybe we were and we should have gone after all)  would see us leaving late, late at night and ask us to bring him back a pineapple drink and  hot dogs—four with ketchup and onions and I’d try to talk him out of the ketchup but I wouldn’t try very hard—and one night my friend Z. and I were walking back from Gray’s and it started to snow and Z. was carrying a paper bag with the hot dogs and the pineapple drink and he looked at me with super-dilated pupils even though the only light was from street lamps and asked me very seriously as if he couldn’t see any of it himself, “Is it snowing very hard?” And I looked up at the white flakes drifting down in the black night and said, “No. It’s not.” And Z. said, “Then why are my pants soaking wet?” And we both looked down and the cup with the pineapple drink had broken and the drink had soaked through the paper bag and onto his pants and then the whole bag broke and the hot dogs came rolling out and down onto the sidewalk but it didn’t matter because they were individually wrapped because Gray’s was the best and so we picked each hot dog up and brought them to Poe and then went into room 429 and chain-smoked till the morning.

And now Gray’s is gone. Just before the end of the year, Jeremiah Moss posted a master list of longtime New York businesses that had closed under Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. For those of us who have lived in New York for a long time, perusing the list was not unlike looking through a high school yearbook, only finding out that practically everyone had died. Of particular note, for me anyway, was the closing of the century-old New York Doll Hospital where I had many a porcelain doll painstakingly fixed, so that only I could even find the almost-invisible, fine lines which covered up the split skulls that were the result of seeing if my dolls could successfully parachute off my bunk bed, like so many members of the French resistance, going behind enemy lines aka my brother’s side of the room. But as I looked at this list and mourned the loss of the Doll Hospital and Life Cafe (the year+ that I lived across the street, I probably ate my weight in Life’s brown rice and black beans smothered in cheese and salsa) and Odessa and so many other places that made up my childhood and early adulthood, I caught myself wondering if I was just indulging in the sort of narcissistic nostalgia that serves no other purpose than to boost the self-worth of the person reminiscing, making him or her feel special for having known what a place or time was like in a way that few others did. But no, the kind of nostalgia that develops around a place like Gray’s Papaya or Odessa or any number of the places on Moss’s list isn’t the same sort of insipid memorializing of the 90s that has been so prevalent recently, nor is it the same thing as fondly remembering “the good old days” of New York without recognizing that many things (notably the crime rate) have improved in the last few decades. No, wistfully remembering the small businesses that made up the fabric of this city and gave it a character and a sensibility that Pinkberry and Chipotle never ever will isn’t about being stuck in the past. It’s about lamenting the sad state of the present, where whole swaths of diverse neighborhoods have been corporatized by chains, and worrying about the future, when it seems like it won’t just be small businesses that will be priced out of the city forever, but also residents. So pardon me for now, but I’d like to spend a few more minutes thinking about carrying a papaya drink in the snow, before each storm was part of a polar vortex, and before all juice in this city cost $10 a pop. I’m thinking about a time that was just 15 years ago, but really, it seems like another world.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. A summer staple at my 1960s family barbeques was the annual hot dog competition not in competitive eating but who made the best hot dog in NYC.

    Fierce loyalty and intense competition broke out between Nediks and Nathans fans ,deli devotees who preferred Hebrew National and those who swore by Sabretts.Loyalists to Grays Papaya formed an unlikely alliance with their East Side rival Papaya King both of whom thought it blasphemous to wash down a frank with anything but papaya juice.

    • @Sally: A lovely story and one that speaks volumes about the ephemeral nature of places and personalites in New York. It also argues in favor of my argument that there is no New York, only one’s New York. I was not saddened by the closing of Gray’s Papaya, although I was broken-hearted when Leo’s Franks closed in 1997.

      I would walked 30 blocks from my house, to enjoy a two perfectly grilled Hebrew National hot dogs, or as Leo called them “tubesteaks.”

      Leo sold frankfurters for 56 years. The loss of Leo’s left a hole in my New York, while the closing of Grays Papaya—a few blocks north of my house and so, I stopped there on occasion—is just the closing of another store. Square footage yielding its space to feed or refresh new generation of New Yorkers.

      The Store had a good run—I think 41 years. That’s a lifetime in the City.