My childhood in New York City was full of characters. There was the old man at the corner bodega who would only grant us a reprieve from the sweltering summer heat in his air-conditioned store for as long as it took us to finish a popsicle. The couples in Central Park who sometimes chased us when we sprayed them with fresh snow that we launched from branches we pulled back like slingshots. Everyone and everything in the Met. The racks of beautiful clothes and shimmering fabrics that cloaked me as I played pretend in Bergdorf's. The doorman of my best friend's building who always wore flowers in his hat and fed us candy.
And then there were places that had become characters themselves. Places like Gray's Papaya.
I can hardly remember the first time my father took me there. I must have been about three. It doesn't matter really. Gray's became an everlasting part of my life. Gray's has always been there through every phase. Gray's was enduring, never changing, always dependable, forever delicious and conveniently, Gray's was always open.
Early on in my life, my mother had banned processed food, fast food and anything she deemed unhealthy. Obviously, the woman was a monster. My father, the voice of reason, knew that children needed and deserved to eat things that were deep fried, things flavored with lard and grease and smothered in cheese. He knew it was absolutely ridiculous to expect anyone to subsist on things like grilled salmon and steamed organic broccoli. And so we didn't.
Whenever we had an afternoon to ourselves, we always ended up at some place wonderful. My favorite was Gray's. We preferred the Midtown Gray's and then later, the Gray's in Greenwich Village where I would go up to the counter and holler out my order. A charred dog with sauerkraut and mustard and a pina colada. I always ordered a pina colada. They were amazing, fruity and chalky; I sucked them down in one gulp and then demanded a second. You couldn't get them anywhere else. Not McDonalds or any of the countless pizza places my father took me to in secret.
So you can imagine my surprise when we went on vacation to Mexico and on the menu my 4-year-old eyes beheld: A Pina Colada. Was it true? Could it be? I had to find out.
"One pina colada please." The pool waiter was skeptical. He asked if it was for my mother and since I wasn't even sure if I was allowed to order anything, I told him it was. Moments later he returned with the drink. It was beautiful, adorned with fruit and some kind of flower. I had only had one other such fancy drink at the Russian Tea Room on my birthday. I sucked it down immediately.
I don't recall any of what happened next but the legend is that my mother noticed I was drunk. More like plastered. I had to be carried to our room where I began to get violently ill.
An inquisition was assembled. The pool waiter was questioned: Was it a mistake? Did he bring me someone else's order? He told them I ordered it.
Eventually my father was found and confronted to which he was not shocked. "She drinks Pina Coladas all the time." He told them adding "Virgin Pina Coladas." And when my mother demanded to know where I was doing all this Pina Colada drinking, he knew he was caught and had to come to clean:
Despite this, we never stopped going to Gray's. And I never stopped ordering a charred dog with sauerkraut and mustard and a pina colada. Gray's endured through my elementary years, my best friends and I stuffing our faces with it whenever we got the chance. Gray's endured into my teens when my friend Shelly told me about her first encounter with a boner while we stood at the south-facing counter. I always had Gray's when I came home from college. And during visits home as an adult, my father and I always tried to sneak out for a hot dog. I've taken my goddaughter for her first Gray's and my godson for his first. Gray's was the first place I took my current boyfriend when we took our first day trip to my hometown. And just last year, I stopped in for a bite and got caught in a time warp as Whitesnake blared from the speakers and the Gray's crew sang along.
This week, our beloved Gray's in Greenwich officially closed. To think of it shuttered makes me a little sad to say the least. It wasn't that they had the best hot dogs because enough people will tell you they didn't. It was that Gray's was a part of people's lives for a very long time. Gray's was a symbol to some of us, a living, breathing childhood memory that you could visit when you needed to. You could walk in and remember a time when things weren't complicated. And you could share that feeling whenever you brought someone new there. How many times did I stand at the counter with my dad? I don't know. But now that he's gone I found comfort in being able to go somewhere we'd been so many times. Some place that made us happy.
I bid you a warm farewell Gray's and thank you heartily for all the year of memories.