Ramon "Ray" Alvarez sells good greasy food at Ray's Candy Store: French fries, "Obama coffee," egg creams, ice cream, and smoothies. He greets the regulars with a "Hey brother!" and "Hallelujah!"
He has been on Avenue A in New York City for 35 years now---long enough to see the neighborhood change and more Wall Street guys move in with odd requests for cognac and other things Ray doesn't sell. Also long enough to see regulations get so onerous that he's struggling to stay in business, but long enough to build a group of loyal customers working to save his store instead of seeing it leave.
You never know what the health inspectors will look for or what they'll find, Ray said, but they will find something. "Some come with a microscope looking for a germ anywhere," he said. One inspector told him if there's a hole under the door, mice can come in. "But my door is always open," he protests. "The mice can fly in, jump in!" The store is 109 years old, he points out, and "There's some dirt you can't clean."
The health inspector shut Ray's down last time, slapping him with 60 violations. But a group of his regulars---some squatters who live in an abandoned building---decided not to let it happen. They come there every night, and Ray gives them French fries, iced coffee, and ice cream: "Sometimes they have money. Sometimes they don't have money. If they have money they give me everything they have." This time 20 of them repaid him by swarming his store one night and fixing everything: installing new floors and shelves, giving him a used refrigerator, patching the holes, fixing his electricity, and adjusting his refrigerator temperature.
He got through the next health inspection with just one violation: His granddaughters who work for him need a food-handling license. But he also has a letter from the health department saying he has to pay an $8,000 fine. He paid $2,500 but couldn't afford the rest, so they're also levying a $400 penalty. If he fails the next two inspections, they'll shut him down. "It's a kind of robbery," he says seriously. He nods to the Tompkins Square Park outside his door: "I'll be homeless right out there in the park. Maybe collect cans."
But when I ask to buy some ice cream right before I leave, he gives it to me free.