In my teens, I saw a movie called “Fools Rush In.” It involved Matthew Perry trying to convince Salma Hayek that they should live in New York. A hot dog stand called “Gray’s Papaya” was his main bargaining chip. He said they made the most delicious franks in the entire world.
I loved Matthew Perry and I loved hot dogs – thus, I loved the idea of Gray’s Papaya. When I moved to New York City in 1998, I discovered, to my delight, that the famous Gray’s was located just a few blocks from my college dorm. It wasn’t a stand after all, but instead a corner shop; decorated in red, yellow, and white with a long line of metal counters opposite the grill and vats of fruit juice. The grill is always piled with tasty roasting franks and buns. The glass doors on both ends of the shop are always open. Signs inside and out boast: “The best damn frank you’ll ever eat!” and “Our franks are better than filet mignon.” They’re not kidding.
From my 1998 diary:
Wilcox and I tried out the hot dogs last night and I was much pleased – enjoying the sauerkraut placed on the frankfurter, even happier that (with a pineapple fruit juice) the entire meal came out to $1.20. Very satisfying. I could certainly go for another juice but will hold off on the hot dog since I don’t want to become addicted.
Talk about your retrograde irony. Nothing could be more addictive to a broke 18 year-old than the prospect of having a delicious snack for $1.20, or a full-on “Recession Special” dinner of 2 hot dogs and a medium drink for $1.75.
The obsession was fast and furious. Gray’s was open 24 hours and having a hot dog at 3 in the morning always made perfect sense. We’d scrape our change from our wallets, cracks in the floorboard, and from under the bunk bed. Within minutes, we’d toast paper cups of Gray’s fruit juice. I always had the Pina Colada. Momo always had the Coconut Champagne.
My fascination with Gray’s has gone far beyond my days as a college Freshman. It’s still my go-to for a quick pick me up, even if the Recession Special now costs $4.50. That’s a little more irony for you.
Momo remains one of my main partners in crime for Gray’s runs, even after all these years. I was with her on the night of The Hot Dog Jacking.
It was late at night. It was before I moved to Japan. We had our Recession Specials. She had her Coconut Champagne; I had my Pina Colada. We happily set our meals down on the shiny metal bar, helping ourselves to a stack of paper napkins. The perfume of the franks and onions was luscious. We might have paused to comment on whichever song was playing on the radio – Gray’s always cranks it to something that pleases our retro music sensibilities – when Momo looked down and noticed that her untouched hot dogs had vanished. We looked around in shock – just past the always open glass doors, a homeless man was lurching away, holding her hot dogs in his hot little hands.
What to do? Cry – “Stop, thief!” while shaking our fists? How dare he – Momo’s hot dogs! Should we have chased him down the street, just for the principle of the thing? Or was it right that we just let him be? He was hungrier than us.
We let it be. What to do but laugh – even if in other circumstances stolen Gray’s hot dogs could be a cause for tears? And who could blame him for stealing her hot dogs, really? They were from Gray’s.