By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was filing suit against 27 out-of-state gun dealers. He called the gun sellers a "scourge on our society," and claimed that they were illegally selling weapons that kept ending up on the streets of New York.
Most of the dealers Bloomberg sued quietly settled their cases, agreeing to allow the city to place monitors in their stores to oversee transactions. Others shut down their operations or had their cases tossed out of court. But one man, Jay Wallace, owner of a 12,000-square-foot firearms supermarket outside Atlanta, decided he was willing to pay any price to keep New York from sending someone to monitor his store.
So he borrowed $700,000 and moved to New York—a city he'd never been to before.
In May, Wallace, his wife, and three grown sons rented an apartment in Brooklyn, determined to wage war against the city's lawsuit right from the belly of the beast itself.
And then two strange things happened.
First, on June 2, the very morning that his case was to be heard in court, Wallace threw in the towel, convinced that he wouldn't get a fair trial from a judge he considered too biased.
And second, even more surprisingly, by the time he decided not to show up in court, Wallace—a gun-loving, rock-ribbed, Second Amendment–quoting Georgian—had fallen in love with the city he'd vowed to fight to his "last breath."
He's even thinking of moving here permanently.
"When you sneeze on the street, five New Yorkers say 'Bless you'!" Wallace says, wearing a satisfied smile. To his surprise, none of the negative things he'd heard about the city conformed to reality.
On a blazing Sunday afternoon, he's distractedly picking at a chicken sandwich at the Smoke Joint, a Southern-style barbecue place in trendy Fort Greene. The 51-year-old is wearing a green plastic "Save Our Troops" bracelet and an NYPD baseball cap, a gift from a sympathetic police officer who'd contacted him after reading about the case in the news. The cop had even driven the Wallaces out to Long Beach the day before.
Wallace's wife Cecilia, a blonde in a bright-pink top and wearing a silver necklace with a cross, eats barbecue pork at his side. After three years of obsessing over the lawsuit, the couple would soon be heading back to Georgia, having given up their day in court. But at least they'd always have New York.
Wallace betrays the easy confidence of a successful man convinced of the rightness of his cause. The pawnshop he opened in 1979 turned into one of the largest independently owned firearms dealerships in Georgia. Active in local affairs, he's also a volunteer fireman and sheriff's deputy in the town of Acworth, population 17,000.
Now that the Wallaces are no longer preparing for trial, they've had time for some sightseeing: Times Square, Central Park, Broadway shows, two pilgrimages to Ground Zero. But Wallace wanted more than a tourist's perspective; he wanted to experience the city the way the locals live it. And he found that some of the best spots were right in Brooklyn. At Red Bamboo, a vegetarian restaurant, Wallace sampled fake meat in the form of "chicken" Parmesan. He also tried soy milk: "I came here, and I noticed New York had a lot of soy milk. I'd never had it before, but I tried it—first the sweetened kind. It was good!"
Even the nursing staff at the hospital on DeKalb Avenue, where Wallace spent Memorial Day weekend because of chest pain, proved to be some of the loveliest health-care professionals he'd met. (He's composing a thank-you letter to the hospital director. As a small-business owner, he says, he knows the value of a customer's kind word.) And despite being somewhat "mustardy," the barbecue sauce at the Smoke Joint deserves an A, he points out.
Wallace is so impressed, he says he could actually consider living here one day. Not that some things don't need improvement. He and Cecilia are worried about the destruction of the old Coney Island—where they'd eaten a Nathan's hot dog—and about the taxi drivers who can't afford the price of gas. Mostly, Wallace finds it unfortunate that such a wonderful city is suffering under a despot-in-chief for a mayor, one who is turning New York into a playground for the rich. "Living here, I know how New Yorkers feel—overtaxed!" Wallace exclaims, half-furious, half-smiling. But nothing seems to detract from his down-to-earth Southern charm.
When Wallace speaks of the mayor, his nostrils flare with anger. But he doesn't feel that way about other New Yorkers, who, he says, he doesn't "blame for what Bloomberg has done . . . I'm telling you, if someone had told me I was going to be sued by the mayor of New York, I wouldn't have believed it. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't lived through it myself."
As the afternoon wears on, the restaurant owner comes over to the table with a basket of locally grown organic strawberries to pass around. Taking one, Cecilia—Wallace's high-school sweetheart, and the daughter of a Birmingham grocer— remarks that the local businesses in Fort Greene remind her of the South before it came to be dominated by chain stores.