Some say you're not a real New Yorker until something that used to exist – a favorite diner, an independent bookstore – is more real to you than the thing existing in that place now.
It was when Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint closed down that I learned what it means to be from New York. A beloved restaurant on the Upper West Side, Big Nick’s had remained in operation for half a century, even as the neighborhood gradually lost its grit, rents rose and ATM vestibules of national banks replaced family businesses on street corners. In addition to burgers, the lengthy menu advertised a farraginous assortment of food – everything from pizza to veal, ostrich burgers to baklava.
On Thanksgiving, you could order a whole holiday dinner: roast turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce. All locals knew the 1,000-square-foot space, though a tight squeeze, was a great spot for a meal after midnight.
But tonight, walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I find the storefront dark and the door locked. There is a sign in the window that reads, “After 51 years, we have lost our lease after two years of difficult and torturous negotiation.” The building owner has raised the rent from $42,000 a month to more than $60,000.
Alyson Cambridge, a tall elegant opera singer, lives just around the corner. Tonight she shows up with a girlfriend, both slightly inebriated and dressed casually in sweats, planning to satisfy some late-night hunger pangs. When they hear the bad news, Alyson and her friend join in the general lament. It is close to midnight and I am in the midst of an impromptu wake.
Two young men and a girl of college age approach our little group. “That’s so sad, man,” says one of the men after reading the sign. “Fifty-one years.” His male friend gestures incredulously at a magazine shop next door. “How does this place stay open?”