R.I.P. Kenny Shopsin

R.I.P. Kenny Shopsin

Kenny Shopsin died on Sunday. His restaurant, Shopsin’s General Store, started as a Bedford Street market — run with his wife — in 1973. It soon morphed into a restaurant that later moved to Carmine Street and finally to a stall in the Essex Street Market, where it remains today run by his son and daughter.  While the food was delicious and eccentric, the draw was really Kenny and his family.  He had started the market and by extension the restaurant because he loved interacting with people and wanted to work somewhere where he could have his family with him.  It is important to note that while he loved interacting with people, his establishment was not some sort of den of hippie warmth.  Kenny was opinionated, loud, angry, aggressive, funny as all hell and simply did not censor himself in any way, shape or form.  To enter into his restaurant was to engage and Kenny,  famously, had rules of engagement and often (and loudly) kicked people out or banned them for eternity for breaking said rules.

I came late to the world of Kenny Shopsin.  The Essex Street Market was close to my record store on Forsyth Street and my sister Vicki was a long-time friend / customer of Kenny’s.  I liked that Kenny made an Orange Julius and I liked his über bubbly and cheesy enchiladas; my sister always ordered Matzoh Brei.  Kenny was Kenny and his irreverence, his cursing and his curiosity was infectious.  Drugs. Sex.  His wish to have sex with my sister.  All were covered.  He also understood kids, understood how to play with them and relate to them and was great to my son when I’d bring him along.  My wife found him hilarious because the experience — the profanity, the familiarity, the banter, the rudeness —  was so far removed from Tokyo and so uniquely Jewish New York.

My favorite memory of Kenny happened at a time where I was facing the reality that the very things that I loved about New York were disappearing. Small businesses, shops and long-time residents were suffering under rent increases; an influx of out-of-town, transient and supremely entitled college students and young professionals had arrived to take everyone’s place without even passing interest in the culture they were destroying.  An “artisanal pencil shop” had opened next to me and  I was feeling as if a python was wrapped around my head slowly squeezing me to death: When I walked into Shopsin’s, Kenny was sitting on a chair by the entrance.  His son Zack, was taking orders and cooking.  The Shopsin’s menu is (as my friend Kenan from Chances With Wolves recently put it) one of the all time weird and wonderful New York City artifacts.  It runs to about 900 dishes and is divided into numerous catagories and sub-catagories that are unique to Shopsin’s.  There’s the basic cheeseburger and then there are originals like “Blisters on My Sisters” and “Sluttycakes”. I got my Orange Julius and Cheezy Enchilada. At the same time, two young women came in and were loud.  They did not seem like Shopsin’s regulars and I had a bad feeling for them.  When Zack came over to take their order, the first young women asked for the banana-walnut pancakes, but asked if they could be made without the walnuts.  For the few regulars in the restaurant (it is a tiny space only 6 or so tables), there was a collective intake of breath.  Substitutions, the need to make oneself feel special, was an absolute Shopsin’s no-no. If you could not find what you wanted within 900 listed possibilities, then maybe Shopsin’s wasn’t for you.   In a soft voice, I heard Kenny say “Get them the fuck out.”  Zack ignored him and politely said that they didn’t do substitutions and asked if she were allergic to walnuts.  She said she was. Kenny (a little louder): “Throw them the fuck out”.  Zack, relieved and still polite, said that they should leave as the kitchen was cross-contaminated with nuts and they could not be responsible for her allergy. “GET THEM THE FUCK OUT!”

Perhaps no one had ever suggested that this girl could not have what she wanted at all times because she somehow could not hear Kenny. The tension at this point was causing the cheese to congeal on my enchilada.  The young woman smiled a smile that contained no warmth and no love.  “Well.” She said. “I am not like allergic to dust.  I am just allergic to chunks of nuts.”

At this point Kenny flew off of his chair and screamed “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY RESTAURANT!”  The two women could not believe what was happening.  They looked at Zack and said “What the hell?  Are you serious?”  Zack nodded.  They prepared to start bitching when Kenny limped over to their table. His unkempt hair, his stained apron, his belly in opposition to everything that they projected.  “You are either allergic to nuts or you are not.” He said.  “If you aren’t allergic to nuts, then you are a liar.  Either way, I don’t want you in my fucking restaurant so leave now or I will call the cops and have you thrown out on your asses.”

For me it was a triumphant moment.  It was the old, interesting, funny, middle-class New York standing up and telling this new, entitled New York that it didn’t yet own everything, and not everything was going to work out for them because they wanted it to.  I could have cried.

Rest well Kenny.

2 Replies to “R.I.P. Kenny Shopsin”

  1. The example about the girl being allergic to nuts is ridiculous. What if she really is allergic, or what if she simply doesn’t like nuts why be rude and kick her out. I respect everything you said, but the example you give is insane. It doesn’t support your argument and doesn’t present Kenny in a good light. I wish I knew about that restaurant when Kenny was alive, I will go check it out anyway, sounds interesting.

    Respectfully,
    Igor

    1. I’m confused. I didn’t make an argument. The point was clear. If she had a nut allergy, then she shouldn’t eat there because the kitchen was contaminated with nuts. If she didn’t have a nut allergy, then she was a liar. Kenny didn’t like liars and he didn’t want to be responsible for someone getting sick so therefore he didn’t want her in his place of business. I do not think that shows him in a bad light.

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