Mr. Alvarez stood, nervous, and addressed the crowd: “Hello, thank you very much. Thanks for the business. You’re part of my family and I am part of you.”
AT 77 YEARS OLD, he moves about easily, fixing huge tubs of French fries, milk shakes, and what is widely acknowledged to be the best egg cream in Manhattan. He seldom leaves the store, and breaks up long shifts with cat naps in his apartment upstairs. (“I just had another dream about Sophia Loren,” he said Tuesday, and looked happy to have seen her.)
He has been around since the dirty old days of Alphabet City, when “things were bad, and rent was cheap,” and his was one of the only open storefronts on Tompkins Square. Urban blight proved good for business, and Mr. Alvarez was rewarded for being bold enough to never close.
Robert Arihood, who has chronicled the saga on his blog Neither More Nor Less, called the shop “a little Switzerland.”
“The hookers all came there,” he said, “the drug dealers, the narcotics cops, the fire fighters, doctors, professors, Allen Ginsberg. … Everybody, standing around drinking egg creams and milkshakes.”
But the neighborhood has softened around Mr. Alvarez, and the pioneer has become a relic. Many of his most fervent supporters can no longer afford to live in the East Village, and few new arrivals want to hang out in an old shop with no chairs and no brunch special. “Those guys, they don’t drink beers,” said Mr. Alvarez. “They don’t eat hot dogs. They just don’t come here.”
Of the shop’s small staff, several are volunteers, including the local teenagers who have organized a weekly late-night delivery service. Led by Emily Allen and Arianna Gil, they take orders online at Ray’s Delivery Project and make deliveries by bicycle. Ms. Gil said that most of their trips are carrying “massive orders of Belgian fries” to the N.Y.U. dorms on Third Avenue.
Along with ConEd bills, health inspector fines and the mounting costs of repairing aging ice cream equipment, the fries are the biggest problem. To insure the property, the building owner needs Ray’s to be outfitted with a new sprinkler system and a chimney running from the fry vat to the roof.
“It’s $20,000,” explained Mr. Alvarez. “And that would put me at bankruptcy. If I don’t sell fries, that would also bankrupt me. I don’t know what to do.” He’s thinking about selling fresh juice or crepes—he’s been watching YouTube videos to learn how to make them—but new equipment costs money he doesn’t have.
“His business may well fail,” said Mr. Arihood. “There’s no reason to believe it’s not going to. The landlord isn’t trying to throw him out. They simply want their money monthly. They could have always gotten a lot more out of this property. They could get $7,000 [a month] for this place.”
Although healthy, Mr. Alvarez is not as tough as he once was, when he and his friends sat in the Horseshoe Bar on Avenue B, getting free beer in exchange for hanging out, bats at their sides, in case of trouble. Although his landlord wants him to take on a partner, Ray persists alone. The store will not be here forever.
“I think if Ray stopped working, that’s when he’d check out,” said Alayaye Salahuddeen at Monday’s benefit. “That’s why it’s important to keep this going. We’re not talking about a store, we’re talking about a life.”
This week, the hot dogs are still rotating, and the owner is cheerful. “Maybe the worst is over,” he said. “A few months ago, I was gonna quit, take a Greyhound bus and run. But this homeless guy, he said ‘No man, we’ve got it bad, we’re going to fight back, we don’t let them win. So you stay and fight back.’ I said alright, I stay.
“A lot of good things happen here. Nothing bad. Nothing bad happens here.”