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More News from Bleecker Street

May 18, 2008

People tell me they like to know what’s going on on Bleecker Street. It’s an international icon, after all. Bob Dylan hung out in the neighborhood. One of those songs from the 60s, when we were convinced peace and love would save the world, was titled just that: “Bleecker Street.”

I’ve told you about Zito’s Bakery and Charlie Zito and Angelo Caiazzo, and about Zito’s closing and the storefront being rented to a chocolate company that was bought by Hershey’s, who obviously doesn’t care about a boarded up storefront on Bleecker Street because it’s now been vacant for four years. I’ve told you about the fashionistas creeping in from the west, the Cynthia Rowley and Ralph Lauren stores. There used to be a store called Condomania on Bleecker near West 10th Street that sold condoms – what, you thought it was a real estate office? It closed too, around the time New York City started handing out free condoms.

There’s been a whole rash of nail salons in the last few years. There’s one at the corner of Bleecker and Christopher, and one near the corner of Bleecker and Jones, next to Matt Umanov’s guitar store, where my friend Steve Earle gets his guitars worked on. The nail salons always place the drying machines in the windows, so the women sitting there with hot air blowing on their nails have to look at all the people walking by looking back in at them. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, but a lot of them dry one hand at a time and hold a cell phone with the other. They’re probably talking about all the weirdies on the street. If they’re not talking, they usually look bored.

Of course the nail salons also offer pedicures. I wish they’d put the foot basins in the windows, because if anybody looks more uncomfortable being watched than women drying their nails, it’s people having their toes worked on. Not that there’s anything wrong with pedicures. I’ve had a few myself and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t want to get one with people on the sidewalk watching.

The vintage toy store closed, the one between Jones and Seventh Avenue next to the Indian restaurant called the Gandhi Cafe that is run by Bangladeshis. This is a sad thing. I don’t even know the name, but anybody who has ever walked by will remember it. It had a beautiful old carousel horse in the window. I didn’t know the man who ran it, either. He was a thin, neat little man, who wore his clothes just so and walked with a clipped stride. He had red hair graying at the temples and he wasn’t young. I’d see him in the morning sometimes coming to open up, step-step-step, hands scissoring at his sides. When our nephew was a little boy, we bought him toy soldiers from the store. The soldiers wore the uniforms of countries that fought wars that only historians remember. Our nephew never played with them. He would look at them and wrap them up again to preserve them as investments.

The store closed suddenly. Not overnight, but one day there was a For Rent sign in the window and a week or so later, or so it seemed, there was another sign saying the display cases were for sale. There was never a Going Out of Business sale for the goods themselves, only the display cases, unlike Rocco’s clothing store a couple of doors away toward Seventh Avenue, which is always Going Out of Business. Then one day the window was empty and the store was closed.

I don’t know what’s going to replace the toy store. Another antique toy store would be too much to hope for. Probably another yogurt shop. Yogurt and ice cream are big on the Bleecker Street these days. The space at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine across from Our Lady of Pompeii just reopened as an ice cream – no, excuse me, a gelato -- shop. Gelato is more exotic than ice cream and therefore more expensive, even though it’s the exact same thing. But tourists who come to New York don’t want the same stuff they can buy at home, so gelato has replaced ice cream. Even the Haagen Dazs store on Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue is now called L’Arte del Gelato.

Cones is still an ice cream store. It’s on Bleecker near Morton between John’s Pizza and the Green Village Korean market. For my money, Cones has the best ice cream, gelato, or whatever you want to call it, anywhere. A guy from Argentina runs it and makes the ice cream in the basement. My favorite is the mint chocolate chip.

Here’s more sad news. Or maybe not. Julio Zito died. Julio was the youngest of the brothers who ran Zito’s Bakery after their father, who founded the business in 1924, retired. A. Zito & Sons, read the sign in the window. The founder’s name was Anthony, and Charlie told me he cultivated a long nail on one his pinkies – this was before the nail salons on Bleecker Street – to cut the butcher paper he used to wrap the customers’ bread. Charlie died before the bakery closed in 2004. Jimmy, the oldest, had a nose that looked like a raspberry and watery eyes and smoked until the day he died. He used to sit at a table in the back of the store and keep Angelo Caiazzo company when Angelo wasn’t being tormented by Julio and Charlie out in front. Julio – he was really Julius -- and his son Anthony used to deliver bread to the restaurants they did business with. Anthony, who is named after his grandfather and has a degree in marine biology, ran the store before it closed, a victim of low-carb diets and a changing neighborhood that kept losing its Italians to the suburbs.

After Zito’s closed, Julio and his wife Elaine stayed in the neighborhood; they lived upstairs in an apartment whose entrance was on Cornelia Street over what used to be the Murray’s Cheese Store before it moved to the other side of Bleecker. It got harder and harder for Julio to get up and down the stairs. Actually, Anthony told me he got up the stairs okay, but he suffered vertigo and had trouble going down. He liked to go down to Atlantic City, but that pretty much ground to a halt in the last year or so. He had fallen and broken something. Falling down. That's what does it every time, puts a functioning older person on the slippery slope. But Julio was recovering in a rehabilitation center, fighting his way through a mild case of pneumonia. A few weekends ago he came out for a family visit. Anthony and Elaine took him back to the center and the next morning at 3 o’clock Anthony got a call saying his father had died in his sleep. That’s why it might not have been so sad.

That leaves Elaine. I saw her passing on the street the other day. She’s a woman with extraordinary dignity. Her gray hair was pulled back in a knot and she knew just where she was going. She’s got one less person to take care of now, but I kind of feel she needs to take care of the entire neighborhood.

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