Volume 79, Number 34 | January 27 - February 2, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

From left, L.E.S. Slacktivist John Penley and brothers Ethan and Matthew Laird at last Saturday night’s Save Ray rally.

Bucks and benefit to Brûlée burlesque, Ray feels the love

By Lincoln Anderson

In what some are calling the “East Village version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” customers and friends of Ray Alvarez — the two are really one and the same — have pitched in to help him start paying off his back rent, giving him and his store another lease on life.

Two young women who grew up in the neighborhood and have been eating Alvarez’s food since they were tots set up a PayPal account for him, raising $1,000. A benefit concert is also planned at Sidewalk Cafe on Feb. 6. Other customers have kicked in donations, with many paying extra for their Belgian fries and coffees. 

Monday night, friends even hired a stripper named Crème Brûlée — “like the dessert,” she said — to do a dance on Alvarez’s worn, blue counter top — well, that one was just for fun, since it was his 77th birthday. 

Brûlée bumped and grinded to the Hank Williams song “Hey good-lookin’, what you got cookin’?” — fitting for the undisputed Belgian fries king of Avenue A.

On Monday, Alvarez paid his managing agent the $3,500 he owed for his December rent. And his super paid the $650 rent Alvarez owed for December for the apartment he lives in upstairs in the same building his candy store is in at Avenue A and Seventh St. 

A couple of weeks ago, the managing agent, Barbara Chupa, threatened to padlock and chain the place closed if he didn’t pay all his back rent.

After the burlesque show, Alvarez — his trademark baseball cap and shoulders covered with multicolored glitter from the party — gave an update on his precarious situation.

“I paid $3,500, thanks to New York,” he told a reporter. “It saved my skin. It was all donation money. January rent I still have to pay — I have five more days to pay. Then comes February — I don’t know what I’m going to do.” 

“Happy birthday!” someone shouted out to Alvarez, as people kept ordering things — a chamomile tea “straight up,” a hot fudge sundae. ... 

“I love you! I love you!” Alvarez called back.

“This girl Lilly, she gave me $1,000,” Alvarez marveled, referring to Lilly O’Donnell, who is running the PayPal account with her best friend, Haley Dillon. “That girl, I remember her when she was — with her mama — maybe six months old. .... She’s so concerned. She would save me at any price.”

The rest of the $3,500 came from other customers’ contributions, Alvarez said, patting his pants pockets, to indicate how customers had been filling them. People are buying things with big bills — and telling Alvarez to keep all the change.

“I just bought a $20 cup of coffee,” noted Matt Metzgar, a former squatter, on Saturday night.

O’Donnell, who lives on Avenue A, is a student at The New School and a waitress at Sidewalk Cafe. In addition to running the PayPal account, she and Dillon are heading up the Save Ray’s! Facebook group and also tweeting the latest Ray news updates on Twitter.

“We both grew up in the neighborhood and have been going to Ray’s for egg creams and cheese fries since we were in strollers,” O’Donnell told The Villager in a message from Facebook. “The $1,000 was raised mostly through the PayPal, plus a few cash contributions. Leah Milstein, another Avenue A resident, is organizing the benefit show on Feb. 6. I organized the benefit show at Otto’s Shrunken Head this past July that raised almost $400 for Ray; we’re hoping to far surpass that next week.”

Alvarez said The Villager’s Jan. 13 editorial, “Save our Ray,” also made a difference.
“It helped a lot — financially,” he noted, saying it noticeably drove business to his store. Five days after The Villager editorial came out, a New York Times article also helped publicize Alvarez’s situation.

O’Donnell said they are now going to start “phase two — working on long-term solutions as well as temporary fixes” for Alvarez. For example, Chupa has warned Alvarez that he needs a better fire-protection system around his deep fryers. 

As for the striptease, Ilya Shinkar, who found Crème Brûlée on Avenue A the night before and got her to do the performance, said, “I just think it’s festive — and silly.” A running tradition, it was Alvarez’s fourth annual burlesque birthday party.

Two nights before, there had been another outpouring of support for Alvarez, as a raucous protest/street party filled the sidewalk in front of his store.

As veteran East Village activists called out to passersby to “Save Ray’s!” and buy some Belgian fries to help him out,  two young Ray fans kept a steady beat with a tambourine and shaker stick.

Asked what they usually get at Ray’s Candy Store, Matthew Laird, 8, said, “We maybe get ice cream... .”

“Hot fudge sundae,” added his brother, Ethan Laird, 6.

“And yesterday we got a root beer float,” Matthew recalled.

As for how long they’ve been eating Alvarez’s treats, Matthew said, “Since we were born — since we were allowed to eat ice cream.”

But their relationship with Alvarez is about more than just the food.

“We think of him as a friend,” Matthew said.

“And Ray sort of thinks the same,” Ethan chimed in.

“We’re his friends,” said Matthew.

Alvarez said he loves the Laird kids, who he asks to “sing like birds, and sing like cats or dogs” for him.

They live around the corner with their parents, Gail and Joshua Laird, who both work for the Parks Department. Gail said she really appreciates Alvarez’s friendly greetings in the morning. 

“He always comes to the window and says, ‘My hero!’ — because he knows I have the kids, and it’s 6:30 a.m.,” she said. “You can’t buy that. I go to work with a smile on my face.” Of Alvarez’s store, she said, “It’s like decent, honest, unpretentious — and that’s hard to find these days.

“We have our little, rent-controlled apartment, so we can stay,” she noted, adding that there is, sadly, no commercial rent control to protect small merchants like Alvarez. 

“I used to be able to do everything on this one block,” she recalled. “The baker, the butcher — gone. Those were valuable businesses doing well, but it was simply the rent. There needs to be some acknowledgement of successful, long-standing businesses.”

Alvarez’s rent has been $3,500 since 1982, when it was raised from $800. At that time, the landlord tried to force him out, but the community again rallied behind him, doing a petition drive.

“The landlord wanted me out. I had 5,000 signatures: You say, ‘Go,’ and they say, ‘Stay,’” Alvarez recalled of the ’82 standoff. “Five thousand to one.” Alvarez stayed, but at the higher rent.

Then, after thwarting another attempt by the landlord to get him out 10 years ago, he was put on a month-to-month lease. That came back to hurt him after 9/11, he said, because without a real lease he couldn’t qualify for small-business relief funds. 

Making matters worse, Alvarez has been unable to get Social Security payments because of confusion over his ID: A former Turkish Navy officer who jumped ship in Florida, his real name is Asghar Ghahraman, and a Social Security spokesperson said the agency has to be sure of Alvarez’s identity. 

But right now, business has really been way off in the current recession, and it’s always tougher for Alvarez in the winter.

A woman who answered the phone at Chupa’s office Tuesday, said Chupa wouldn’t be in, and that no one else could comment on Alvarez’s rent situation.

Bill Di Paola, executive director of Time’s Up!, the environmental and cycling-advocacy group, said Ray’s place serves another purpose, as a sort of informal East Village news bureau.

“You can always find community people standing in front of Ray’s — especially a lot of reporters,” he noted. “It seems to be a source of information.”

A big part of that information exchange is Alvarez himself.

“Ray loves to talk,” said Karl Rosenstein, the East Village’s resident Trotskyite. “If he knows you like politics, he’ll talk to you about politics. Ray’s the friendliest guy in the neighborhood.”

In addition to being friendly, Alvarez has been a friend in times of need for many, helping them out when they needed it. People noted all the free cups of coffee and hot dogs Alvarez has given away over the years.

Joan Koveleskie, a “25-year customer” of Alvarez’s, said, “When I needed a job at age 15, he gave me work cleaning out the basement. And he had no intention of cleaning out the basement; he just wanted to help me.”

Danny Gonzalez, 29, a former gang member who grew up on Avenue D, said Alvarez counseled him 10 years ago when he was homeless and hanging out in Tompkins Square Park and drinking.

“Ray always tried to steer me in the right direction,” he said. “He would give me something to eat.” As for why he was at Saturday night’s rally, Gonzalez, who is studying to be a counselor, said, “I just came out here to do what I needed to do.”

Josh Laird, father of Ray superfans Matthew and Ethan, summed it up well when he said: “This is like an urban version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ All the people who’ve benefited from Ray’s service will come back and help him out.”

The “Day of Ray!” benefit will be held at Sidewalk Cafe, Sixth St. and Avenue A, Sat., Feb. 6, from noon to 6 p.m., and will feature neighborhood musicians, comedians, poets and other performers. There will be a $5 donation entrance fee at the door, and no drink minimum. Fifteen percent of sales made from the show will go toward helping out Alvarez. For those who want to perform at the benefit or help out, contact Leah at boyslikebarbies@gmail.com .


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