Even if you don’t live in New York City, by now you’ve maybe heard the news that some famous New York City hot dog joint—Gray’s Papaya—is gone. Or at the very least, down to one surviving location on the Upper West Side. Part of the reason you’ve heard this is because some of the biggest media outlets in the world are based out of New York City, and anyone cogent enough to string words together for money (granted: a low bar) is probably smart enough to know that Gray’s Papaya is a veritable New York City classic.
And the obvious thing to do here is to invoke Joni Mitchell for her oft-repeated adage about not knowing what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. The refrain—”they paved paradise to put up a parking lot”—is surely appropriate, even if in this instance “paradise” is a hot dog stand and the “parking lot” replacing it is a juice bar (a high-water mark of irony, for sure).
But there’s a far more appropriate song, today, and not just because the Laurel Canyon songstress would probably take a cold-pressed juice over a Gray’s dog. And not just because I’d heard, more than a few times, these lyrics come over the speakers in Milady’s, the Soho bar that served its last drink Sunday night after 70 some-odd years. But because, more than anything, they’re apropos in a specific way:
Lying here in the darkness / Feel the sirens wail
Someone’s going to emergency / Somebody’s going to jail
If you find someone to love in this life you better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always at the door…
In a New York Minute…
Milady’s is gone, Milady’s is gone, long live Milady’s—a Soho institution, and one of New York City’s finest establishments. Given what now surrounds it (chic boutiques, chic dining destinations, chic apartments, etc), the place was a veritable shithole, which made it a de facto oasis. And it’s not that we didn’t know what we had when we had it—we did—but that it was there, and then it was gone. From the top of its low, pocked ceilings down to its water-warped tile, and the linoleum tables between, it was a place of character, which housed character.
Not a place with character nor a place with characters, mind you: A place with “character” is just euphemistic bullshit for someone who wants to call something dilapidated, which it was. A place with “characters” is just the same, a expression meant to slyly convey an unsavory stripe of people—people of antics, drunks both shameful and shameless, people who are more likely than the rest of us to use a pool cue in a fight than at a pool table. Of course, Milady’s had all of those types and more, but again: the place was in Soho (and those extreme elements were still relatively mild compared to an actual, veritable shithole anywhere else in America). The thing about Milady’s, though, isn’t that it spit out people who would use those euphemisms. It just didn’t really care. All the better.
Milady’s was of character and housed character in the same way an august group of old neighbors does: Try as you might, there was no way to make it precious, or to revel in its history, or to make Milady’s cool. It’s not a century-old bar like White Horse or Old Town or Fanelli’s, two of which are tourist traps, and one of which is over-fetishized in glossy magazine pages next to Italian suits and charmless celebrities. Nobody famous died there; nobody famous tended bar or waited tables. And if they did, nobody who went to Milady’s ever knew about it.
The extent that anyone I’d ever talked to knew about Milady’s—even the old timers—is that it’s a bar with an Irish name owned by an Italian guy named Frank. It’s not a place that can be fetishized beyond its practical use: Cheap beers. Cheap well drinks. Chairs that weren’t rocks. Tables, unsteady, but steady enough (and if was that much of a problem, you would just put a stack of napkins under the thing). A bar, barstools. Food, that wasn’t expensive or special or limited to “Bar Food,” either. Football and basketball on corner TVs that they’d turn off if you asked nicely, because it definitely wasn’t a sports bar, but a bar that’d show games.
But that’s it. No sparkle, no shine, no sheen or luster. No celebrities, no mystique, no put-ons or themes.
I ran into people I never expected to run into at Milady’s; a delicate essayist, a slim-necked political flack, a brutish media consultant. Fashion girls who enjoyed the company of real lowlifes (as opposed to the It-Girls and gluehead street writers who went to nearby clubs, instead). More than once, a miserable investment banker or two, pondering their escape from their own money, tie loose around their open collar, hangdog face in hand over a beer (one quit, the other didn’t). More often than not, it was usually late. And it wasn’t the kind of place where you joined the people you ran into, unless you had more of whatever they were doing in the bathroom, of course.
And for a place where one could learn the nightcrawler habits of many people of whom you’d never take for a Milady’s patron (especially at that hour), the food was solid, far more than it needed to be. Nachos were $7.75 and would come out piping hot, on two plates, cheese everywhere, dollops of supermarket sour cream hastily splotched over it. Buffalo wings with sauce that was probably Frank’s Red Hot, but why ask? They were under $10, and great. They even had specials, and while I never ordered them, they were always mentioned with a great deal of pride. I’d seen them ordered. They looked good.
Milady’s wasn’t just the consummate neighborhood bar, but—like so many of the cretins I knew who I ran into there—my first choice of a bar if a no-frills drink was to be had in that neighborhood, and a no-question decision if the conversation that was about to be had involved scheming or mischief, in any regard. The old wood sidings and striping on the widows seem to do something to the cold outside in the winter that reinforced it, when the windows they framed frosted up. This was a safe place of isolation, and maybe safe for sedition. If anything, just decent cover from the elements.
The last time I went to Milady’s was in early December. I was having a low-grade panic attack and spiraling; I’m sure some of it was work-related, on a Sunday, no less. My girlfriend and I went to Milady’s and watched a football game. I had a plate of nachos and two Bud Lights. She got wings. It was perfect—clearly the only reasonable cure. It was so often that place.
I passed by Milady’s on Sunday, for a few moments when the sun was cutting through a windy, cold day. Out front was a guy in his late 20s, with a generations-thick New York accent. I hadn’t heard the news, and I was speechless, as he explained:
“Yeah man, it’s like an Irish fhuckin funeral in there. People are bringin’ their own beers in from the bodega. My ma’s like, ‘You’re in your 20s, you’re fine, I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do with myself now. There are people in there who’ve worked there for 20 years.” I asked him if he knew what was going where Milady’s sat that day. He didn’t, but he said it with the resignation of someone who hated that question because of how absolutely useless it was: What’s it matter?
We already know what’s going to be there: Something that isn’t Milady’s, that someone paid money to replace, that someone will want to make money from. Old hat. Milady’s is kaput, and what more is there to say? I didn’t go inside on Sunday, to the bar’s funeral, not because I didn’t belong there—who that would’ve shown up didn’t belong there?—but because that’s not how I wanted to remember it.
– – –
Like Gray’s Papaya, the news of Milady’s closure is upsetting, sure. It’s a relic from a past life of a born-again city whose most ostensibly unsavory elements were long ago expunged by dictatorial plutocrats and police states. The charms of those elements—the old Times Square versus the new Times Square, for example—are arguable. The charms of Gray’s Papaya, however, are not.
It’s an all-hours joint that managed to survive in one of the most expensive zip codes in America long after everything around it of its era had capitulated to people who couldn’t see anything so great about it that it outmatched whatever petty pocket lining they got in exchange for selling it out. Even if this isn’t a case of the free market facilitating someone doing something because they can, at the end of the day, it facilitates people doing things because they want to. And those people acting on their desires are continuing to systematically strip away the great places and things of New York, in front of our eyes. This has been happening in perpetuity, since before cobblestone roads were cobbled—only now, it gets more ink, because the things some people in the tattered remains of New York City’s middle class find precious are being pushed out, and lucky for you, we work on the Internet, in media jobs, and can broadcast our bitching as quickly as we can type it.
But too little, too late. We’ve historically never done anything when the little guy got pushed out, and this is our continued comeuppance. And the comeuppance goes far beyond a bar, or a hot dog joint, or a pharmacy, but into the core of what made New York City a great place to be to begin with.
New York City’s expired reputation as the city of “make it here, make it anywhere” wasn’t just ubiquitous because living in this city is a daily exercise in endurance, but because the great effort of living here begets the great rewards of living here, no matter how much of a pain in the ass they are to come around to. And those great things? The best culture, the best conversation, the best food, the best park, the best parties, the best jobs: They were here. Now, it’s a city where those best efforts are playing penny ante to whoever has the best (read: the most) money. Them’s the breaks. De Blasio’s New York is supposed to change that, but it’s at best an idyllic delay of the inevitable forces that replace the institutions we love with bank branches and luxury lofts and Duane Reades.
Gray’s meant something to people on a symbolic level as much as on a practical one. Milady’s was a place you either loved or you didn’t, and its closure only symbolizes so much to so many people. But unlike Gray’s, it’s not so much depressing because of what it symbolizes than it is depressing because it’s gone. That said, the inevitability of its shuttering now makes Milady’s distinct—and more than just a bar, or even the last great neighborhood bar in SoHo—in one way, come to think of it: That the end of the place, no matter how unremarked it went by most people, somehow took this long to come.
– – –
The good news, if there’s any to be had, is that “New York Minute” is the apropos song for all of this: At the beginning of 2014, we’ve got our signposts, our cautionary tales. Not that the Greenwich Village Gray’s Papaya wasn’t meaningful, but it always seemed like a more fitting upright sore thumb on the Upper West Side, the classic outpost, a funky outlier among a stodgy semi-suburban landscape. And with it, we have our warning beacon: There’s only one left. And in De Blasio’s New York, we’re supposed to have hope, right? We’re supposed to heed warnings. It feels like this one reverberated, loud and clear: Gray’s Papaya is something we love, and need, and an existence we must tend to. Not too critically, of course. Far greater problems plague this city right now than a hot dog stand’s fate.
But we live here for a reason. Why not escape to somewhere cheaper, or at least less of a pain in the ass to live in, if we can’t have something so quintessentially New York as two incredible hot dogs and an admittedly weird drink for under five bucks, at any minute on any day of any week? It might just be a hot dog stand. But it’s also, if anything, a brief, brilliant respite for the tired, hungry, and restless. And most days, who among us isn’t?
This morning I passed by Milady’s, again. On the doorstep was a lit candle:
And on the front door, a note:
Long live Milady’s, gone in a New York Minute.