Six weeks ago, Ray’s Candy Store owner Ray Alvarez had emergency heart surgery to replace two valves and have a pacemaker inserted. He spent two weeks in hospital and two weeks in rehab. On Wednesday, the 82-year-old was back at the store as if nothing had happened, leaning over the counter as he tried to figure out if he should call in his usual order of ice cream even though his freezers seemed no longer to have power.
Ever the businessman, Alvarez wrote down what he needed, black marker quivering slightly in his right hand. New York City is in the middle of a heat wave, after all, with temperatures climbing to the mid-nineties — ideal weather for the soft-serve ice cream purveyor. As we chatted, two people came in asking for egg creams topped with scoops of vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
Alvarez, who had been in the shop all night, was disregarding doctor’s orders that he stay in bed. For someone Alvarez’s age, the recovery time following heart valve surgery can stretch to three or four months.
“I’m not at 100 percent yet,” Alvarez tells the Village Voice. “It’s been very slow, very slow, because I haven’t given a chance for my body to heal. My doctor doesn’t want that. He wants me in bed.”
As E.V. Grieve reported, Alvarez had put a sign in the store window, at 113 Avenue A, that the shop would no longer be open 24 hours — it’s now going to be open only from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. However, Alvarez tells the Voice that while he did put the sign in the window, he decided against closing for half the day.
“Yes, I put up a sign that said I would be open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., but it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “Because people always want something. There was always somebody there who wants something, and I didn’t get any sleep.
“Now I want to sleep, a guy walks in and he wants a book of matches; another guy wants water,” Alvarez adds.
You see, Alvarez hasn’t slept. He’s been in the shop all night, and also all day. He intended to sleep early this morning after working a late shift at the shop, but instead of heading upstairs to his apartment, to sleep on an actual mattress, he laid a gray blanket on the black-and-white tiled floor behind the counter.
It’s in the narrow spot at the front of the shop, underneath the order-in window, between a shelf packed with bottles of vanilla syrup and a large sink with three compartments. A soda machine that he uses to make egg creams sits right above the sink, emitting a lazy electric hum.
“I left the window open to see if people wanted something,” Alvarez says as he jots a grocery list on a brown paper bag. “I’m greedy.”
Alvarez has owned the tiny shop in the East Village, across from Tompkins Square Park, since 1974, and it has stood there through the tumultuous Eighties and early Nineties, when crime rates were high. It was there during the riots in the park in 1988 and throughout the upheaval of the real estate market witnessed over the past decade. It was threatened with eviction in 2009 because of high rents. And in 2011, the Department of Health ordered the shop closed (Alvarez opened it back up and promptly received a $2,000 fine for violating the order). Hurricane Sandy knocked the shop out for a few days in 2012, but it was open again as soon as the power came back.
It’s been a neighborhood staple for years, and the community has rallied around it, especially in tough times. There’s no denying that the East Village has undergone tremendous change, but Alvarez says he’ll stick around longer — if he can find good help.
“As long as it takes,” he says. He wouldn’t say any more. He adds that if he could find reliable help, he would be able to get some time off to recover — but he’s had bad experiences with people he has hired over the years.
“I’ve tried everybody except Jesus Christ,” he says.
The one person he entrusted his shop to was a volunteer teacher who wouldn’t take any money from him. All the other hires, Alvarez says, stole from the shop or gave away food for free, although another neighborhood friend named Stella worked at the shop years ago and has returned to help out recently.
For now, Alvarez hopes to strike some kind of balance between making money and letting his body recover, so he says he might tinker with a schedule that allows him to sleep during the day and stay open later at night, when he sees most of his customers.