East Village residents are quick to rhapsodize over Ray’s Candy Store, a narrow fast food joint best known for its Belgian fries, whose 36th year of 24/7 existence may be its last. And they have nothing but nice things to say about proprietor Ray Alvarez, a Turkish immigrant whose catchphrase is “I love you!” and who, they feel, has devoted his life to making theirs better.
He is a neighborhood fixture, and since January he has emerged, inadvertently, as a cause. Caught between high rent and slow business, he is suddenly a symbol for local residents who feel they have seen every quirk of their neighborhood ironed out and turned into a Chase Bank. East Village organizer “Reverend” Billy Talen called Mr. Alvarez ”a line in the sand.” But besides being a symbol, he is a person, one who just wants to keep doing what he has done for so long, even though it’s no longer marketable.
“I paid my rent today!” exclaimed Mr. Alvarez on Tuesday night. His shop is small, cluttered with signs advertising a huge array of products—from soft serve to Obama burgers—many of which he can no longer afford to sell. Hot dogs rotate on a warming tray, glistening under the fluorescent light, and various coolers and ice cream makers combine for an ever-present drone.
This week disaster was staved off by Monday night’s benefit concert at the Theater For the New City organized by some of his longtime patrons. The ostensible draws were the musicians—from Lala Brooks, original singer of Motown girl group the Crystals, to Reverend Billy Talen and his Life After Shopping Gospel Choir—but the biggest words on the bill were “Save Ray.” Buying T-shirts, beer and bottled water, the crowd put around $3,000 toward the cause—a handsome sum but still far from all he needs.
Some in the audience had been visiting the Candy Store for decades, often since childhood, and they spoke of Mr. Alvarez with nostalgia.
“In the human comedy of the East Village,” said Mr. Talen, “Ray was always there with something sweet for a little kid. He was a special teacher of generosity and kindness.”
“He’s one of the things about the neighborhood who I hope will never change,” said Barbara Lee, a local activist.
Councilwoman Rosie Mendez was there as part of her ongoing effort to help Mr. Alvarez start receiving Social Security, a subplot whose villains have been red tape and the former illegal alien’s fear of the courts. “Before this community got trendy,” she said by phone after the fund-raiser, “we had many stores that were here for a very long time, and some of these stores and some of these places—they’re not just about the business but about the person.”
The councilwoman spoke reasonably on Monday; Mr. Talen, as Reverend Billy, was less careful, barking into a megaphone with the staccato delivery of William Shatner. “We’re not afraid!” he said, and the crowd cheered him on. “In this case, we are implacable! Ray will not leave! He has real value for us! We’ll put our bodies on the line for you, because you have always been there for us!”