Sullivan Street News

by

03/30/2005

158 sullivan st ny 10012

Neighborhood: SoHo

 

I sent a valentine to Richie but the mailman brought it back. I have sent valentines to Richie every year since 1985, but I knew this day eventually would come: the valentine would be there, but Richie would be gone.

Richie ran the news and candy shop on Sullivan Street in SoHo, just a few steps south of Houston. That had been his dream as a boy, he told me once: to own a candy store. But Richie’s store sold more than candy: He sold newspapers and magazines and Stove-Top stuffing mix and soup; he sold cigarettes and Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and kept the coffee fresh all day, and he made the meanest, old fashioned chocolate egg cream in New York

Things were good for Richie when I moved into the neighborhood; he’d expanded the shop to be so big he couldn’t even fill it all. He bought an ice cream freezer, and a colr TV and VCR he mounted on a corner wall, and hung pin-up posters among the baseball ones so you hardly even noticed they were there. He had two college kids who helped him out on weekends, and they hung out there with their buddies when off-duty watching videos and ordering pizza from across the street. The whole neighborhood was Italian, spilled over from Littly Italy, with Arturo’s Pizzeria on the other side of Houston Street, Joe’s Fresh Mozzarella shop next door and St. Anthony’s Church across the street. Those who lived there had lived there, it seemed, forever; some were third generation on the block, with Mafia connections from some relative or another, and there were an awful lot of funerals at St. Anthony’s.

Richie’s store was where I bought my New York Times each morning, stopping in to pay for it on my way to the gym and picking it up on my way back (lest he run out of them in the time between, which occasionally happened). He would have just been another congenial storekeeper with a moustache except for the day he lent me money and wouldn’t take a check.

In those days, banks held deposited funds for days before allowing you to draw on them, which often meant being money-rich and still cash-poor. It was Friday and I was out of cat food. “Would you cash a ten dollar check?” I asked him.

He looked at me in his flannel shirt and lay five stubby fingers on his belly. “What am I going to do,” he said, “with a check?”

I wrote it anyway. He put it in his safe and handed me a worn ten-dollar bill.

“You need more?”

I did not need more. And Monday I returned with ten dollars cash and he returned my check.

Such kindnesses are always rare in a big city. In David Dinkins’ New York of the mid-80s, when crime was up and niceness down, it was practically unheard-of.

That year, I made Richie a valentine and he hung it on the wall behind the counter, in a frame.

I did the same the next year, and the next. He framed them all.

And when I left New York and moved across the ocean to the Netherlands, he saw me off with an American flag, a Pittsburgh Pirates tee-shirt and a hug. And I still sent him valentines.

The economy got better. The old Italians started dying faster and as real estate prices went up throughout the neighborhood, the younger generation all got married and moved away. Riche cut his space in half, subletting the rest to a vintage furniture shop with Corbu chairs and Fiestaware. Still, somehow, he sent his kids to college: to Cornell, if I recall correctly, and to Cooper Union. “No more candy stores,” he said. And a yuppie who had lived down the block but had since moved to Park Avenue came by while I was visiting one day and ordered one of Richie’s egg creams. “I come downtown once a week for this,” he told me, laughing. “You don’t get this anywhere else.”

The shop grew smaller and Rich grew bigger, his belly so large he barely fit behind the counter. I visited him when I could. Sometimes in Amsterdam I dreamed he’d moved here, too, and was running a shop near the city center. I’d waken disappointed, and confused.

You could see the Twin Towers from Richie’s place like your own reflection in the morning. When they got hit, he was among the first people I thought about: was he fit enough to withstand this kind of shock? He was far enough uptown not to have had to run from the collapse, but far enough downtown to have felt it.

And then the neighborhood emptied out.

I never went back to Sullivan Street after that. I was too afraid I’d find the store shuttered, or worse, not there at all.

Perhaps I should have, after all. I could have had an egg cream: thick, just like in the olden days, and sweet.

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