Joe Sparrow : Gray’s Papaya

Gray’s Papaya, on the corner of 6th Ave and 8th Street in New York City, closed about a year ago today.

When I heard, I let out the kind of deep sigh that only accompanies really disappointing news.

Why did the closure hurt so much? 

I only lived in NYC for a while. They were exhilarating, gawp-inducing, breathless months best illustrated by conjuring up a mental image of Wile E. Coyote putting his fingers into a plug socket.

Two days after I arrived, it was my birthday. The Hype Machine was throwing a huge party in the basement of the W Hotel on Union Square.

The party wasn’t specifically for me, but it might as well have been designed with me in mind: the music was great, the booze was endless and free, the barmaids had (maybe contractually obligated) breasts of comical heft on show, and — shit — I was in NYC.

At that point, everything that I knew about NYC was — honestly — just what I’d gleaned from 1970s movies, 1980s cop shows, and 1990s hip-hop LPs.

At the party, I slurred at my good friend Dev: “I’m in New York! I’m going to be living out my Beastie Boys fantasy!” before tottering out into the dark, stepping onto the wrong Subway train and emerging at 2am from a stairwell into some remote nook of Queens.

I couldn’t have even pointed to Queens on a map at this point, and I suddenly felt very British and exposed. That element of my NYC dream was coming alive after all.

The best thing for me about NYC was not the bullshit Chelsea glamour, or the commodified cool of Williamsburg, or the Top Of The Rock™ bucket-list nonsense, but the visceral sensation of living in a city where crazy money and blue-collar life rubbed shoulders in a frenzy.

Gem and I sought out places where this happened with gusto, firm believers in sampling new locales through food and drink.

So we got stuck in: to Three Decker’s hot breakfasts and warm welcomes; to Harlem’s chatty booze-slushie joints; to the Patriot Bar, where construction workers and city fellas drank two-dollar PBRs; to Spanish Harlem’s lipid-laden chuchifritos; to any by-the-slice pizza joint, anywhere in the damn city.

And Gray’s Papaya.

Gray’s Papaya — a chain of cheerful, primary-coloured places where hotdogs and weird “fruit drinks” are served by surly men in front of endless, context-free sloganeering posters — seemed so quintessentially New York City that when I tip-toed in and slipped out with a solitary hotdog, I wolfed it down, turned around and went back in for another.

And a Papaya drink this time, just in case.

The food was cheap, and tasted cheap in the best possible way. It was — ouch, forgive me — real.

Gray’s Papaya wasn’t for show. In daylight, it might have been co-opted by tourists like me, but when darkness came, it was for drunks looking for a booze-sponge, hungry teenagers who ought to be home, night-shifters heading to work, and stoners.

Anyone who despises prissiness, artifice and faux-grandeur: your people are to be found in Gray’s, and go quickly, because there’s only one left now, on Broadway and 72nd.

The other Gray’s were swept away by the remorseless blunt plough that is money, and the smooth-edged, one-size-fits-none gentrification that accompanies it.

I wonder which tourist will fall giddily in love with a city when they find it full of the same shiny shop-fronts they’ve just flew 3,000 miles from?

Learning about Gray’s closure hit me surprisingly hard: what could possibly be gained by shuttering a place as truly unique and alive as Gray’s Papaya?

Well, the boring/depressing answer is, “a boutique juice bar,” (LOL, what else?) — but the real answer is, “nothing whatsoever.”

The real question is: what do the people busily raking up the cultural landmarks of  working people think is going to happen when they finally shoo the non-wealthy out of the city?

Who’s going to commute into Manhattan to do all the stuff the money-men won’t when there’s nowhere to go for lunch?