Tamara Shopsin’s new book, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal,” is a little like a meal at Shopsin’s, her family’s restaurant. It’s got a bit of everything, in a way that shouldn’t rightly work but does. Antique gumball machines; crossword puzzles; scam artists; perverted supers; foul apartments; fouler mouths; curry mixed into peanut butter; chewing gum stuck in armpits; known celebrities, like John Belushi and Joseph Brodsky, and unknown ones, like Willoughby, a basement-dwelling genius and the de-facto mayor of Morton Street—it’s all thrown into the pot, seasoned salty-sweet with a proprietary blend of so-it-goes nostalgia, and out it comes, delicious.
Tamara is the middle of Kenny and Eve Shopsin’s five kids. (Her twin, Melinda, is older by two minutes.) She grew up in what she, and everyone else, call The Store, the grocery turned café that occupied the corner of Morton and Bedford Streets when Greenwich Village still felt like a village and special customers could be trusted to let themselves in with their own copies of the keys.
The Store had a lot of rules. One was that you couldn’t copy your neighbor’s order, on pain of inciting one of Kenny’s famous rages and being ejected from the premises. Another was that you couldn’t write about the restaurant. Calvin Trillin, a regular, got around that prohibition in 2002, but that was because Kenny had lost his lease after the building was sold and would soon be packing up. For the last decade, Shopsin’s has carried on at the Essex Street Market, on the Lower East Side, in a corner stall the size of a doll’s house and with a menu that is modest by its former standards and extravagant by anyone else’s. Kenny sits in the front, serving as king, raconteur, and bouncer. (Eve died in 2003.) On weekends, Tamara, who works as a graphic designer and illustrator for magazines, including this one, cooks alongside her younger brother Zack. Sometimes, their dad pokes into the kitchen to do his thing. “When the rhythm is good, and my father doesn’t have to pee, the three of us cooking together is the best. I live for it. I’d die for it. I arrange my life around it,” she writes.
“Arbitrary Stupid Goal” breaks the no-writing-about-Shopsin’s rule and then some. It’s the consummate insider’s account, a treasure trove of lore, legend, and anecdote, the closest thing to an official history that The Store is likely to get. There’s the time when Kate, the waitress, poured a Coke on a disobliging customer’s head, and the time when Kenny threw flour in a snooty sanitation inspector’s face. There are also portraits of Kenny the lover, fending off the abusive boyfriend of the fresh-faced woman who lived upstairs (that was Eve), and Kenny the paterfamilias, driving his brood from Manhattan to Dollywood, only to turn around when he discovered that parking cost ten dollars (he took them to spend three hundred bucks on fireworks instead). But Kenny gave the book his blessing. “My dad read it in, like, two days,” Tamara said recently. “He said he gobbled it up: ‘I want more!’ And then, like, a month later he said that he never read it.” She laughed. The only predictable thing about Kenny is that nothing is predictable about Kenny.
It was midafternoon on a Saturday, just after closing. Shopsin, who is thirty-eight but could be mistaken for a preteen boy, wore a green sack skirt, Nike Cortez sneakers, and a baseball cap; a collection of keys hung from a lanyard around her neck. Her preferred mode of transportation, in these subway-addled times, is her electric bike—“it’s like there’s a hand at your back, pushing you”—but it was in the shop, so she set out to show a visitor around the neighborhood on foot. First stop: Economy Candy, a Rivington Street mainstay since 1937, to pick up a few bottles of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup for the egg creams she was planning to make at her book launch. “Economy Candy is no joke,” Shopsin said, on her way to the register, where a collection of life-size jelly rats were on display near a box of chocolate bars whose wrappers were printed with the portrait of the President of the United States.
Shopsin crossed Houston Street and turned up Avenue A, dodged the Essex Card Shop (“stationery stores are like quicksand for me”), and ducked into Mast Books, to lovingly flip through a trio of monographs on circles, squares, and triangles by the Italian designer Bruno Munari. “He’s, like, the person I look up to the most,” she said. Then it was uptown to a coffee shop on Ninth Street, where she downed her cortado in the amount of time it takes most people to lift a cup to their lips. Four siblings means too much competition to linger over food and drink; Shopsin cooks fast and eats faster, though her husband, the photographer Jason Fulford, has occasionally tried to get her to slow down. “Jason is from Atlanta, and so there are these tricks he tries to teach me that he learned in charm school. Like, put your knife down in between bites.” Shopsin widened her eyes skeptically. “First of all, knife! Like, I don’t need a knife and fork.”
Growing up, Shopsin’s world had clear boundaries: the Carmine Street municipal pool to the south; P.S. 3, between Christopher and Grove, to the north. Anywhere above Fourteenth Street was uptown, foreign territory that was breached only on rare occasions. “When there were Christmas windows, my parents would, like, take us at 2 a.m. to go see them, ’cause there were no lines. We were a family of Salvation Army buyers. I didn’t even know what these things were.” The Store was Shopsin’s home in more ways than one. In her twenties, she lived in a rent-stabilized apartment above it, an arrangement that came to an end after a bitter legal battle with the building’s new landlords. Shopsin lives in Sunset Park now, and avoids the West Village. She estimates that she hasn’t set foot on Morton Street in a good ten years. The neighborhood feels unrecognizably bland, awash in homogenous wealth.
Sometimes, though, her old haunts come to her. On East Eleventh Street, Shopsin stopped into Casey’s Rubber Stamps, formerly of lower Sixth Avenue, a basement den filled floor to ceiling with stamps for all tastes: hearts, violins, water bugs, a condom smoking a cigarette. The rubber gave off a pungent, fishy smell as Shopsin hunted for a black ink pad to use with the stamps that she had designed for her book signings: one of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, and one of bowling pins, to put below it.
“This rubber-stamp business is not like it used to be,” John Casey, the proprietor, a fleshy Irishman with the face of Paul Revere, said as he rang her up. “I used to have a dozen suppliers. I’m down to three, and they don’t care as much as they used to.” The company that sells him his ink doesn’t make pads; the company that makes pads has no interest in ink. Such is life, running a small business in New York. “What can you do?” Casey said, sticking out his tongue. “That’s the way it goes.”
New Yorkers have an uneasy relationship to change. Mourning the loss of old city habitats is as quintessential a part of the New York experience as pizza by the slice and the twenty-four-hour diner, that endangered species. At the same time, we have new places to go, and we like to get to them in a hurry. We want our future, but not at the cost of our past, and it’s that delicate balance that seems increasingly off. “It’s the same problem Casko’s friend Andy had with his nuts,” Shopsin writes, in her book. “New York is too hot for its sperm to live. Young, scrappy pilgrims and the fringe cannot survive. New York is becoming sterile.” As for what happened with Andy and his nuts, you’ll have to consult the book.
But “Arbitrary Stupid Goal” doesn’t wallow, and it doesn’t sulk. It is full of the spry, witty spirit of the old Village, the neighborhood’s magical realness. Writing the book was therapeutic for Shopsin. It helped her make some peace with her loss. “I try to stay upbeat and positive,” she said. “I just feel, like, New York has so much, and even though it’s hemorrhaging small businesses and things it’s still totally the best city.” She paused. “But it’s definitely terrible.” The Essex Market is one good thing, though, a functioning, friendly polity in cheerful miniature. And The Store still exists, even if it’s not the same. There had been a heartening incident just that morning. A woman had violated Kenny’s one-child policy: one kid per customer, no exceptions. Luke, Shopsin’s waiter, spotted her in line and told her to leave. The woman sat down at a table. Kenny called market security. The woman held her ground. Security called the cops. The woman left. Some customers might find that appalling. Those customers are wrong.
This content was originally posted on The New Yorker.