“There are roughly three New Yorks,” E.B. White once wrote. “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.”

For White, that last New York, “the city of final destination, the city that is a goal,” was the greatest of all. The illustrator, graphic designer, cook, writer, and born-and-bred New Yorker Tamara Shopsin quotes this passage—drawn from White’s essay Here is New York—in her new memoir, Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Her book, among many other things, traces its author’s unconventional childhood, growing up in a one-bedroom apartment on Morton Street with four siblings and her parents, Kenny and Eve Shopsin, the eccentric proprietors of their eponymous, legendarily idiosyncratic West Village grocery-store-turned-eatery. (If you’re wondering about logistics, Shopsin writes that she slept in a bookshelf.)

Their business, Shopsin’s, or for those in the know, “The Store,” was housed for roughly three decades in a storefront on the corner of Bedford and Morton. In 2002, forced out by rapidly rising rents, Shopsin’s moved a couple blocks over to Carmine Street; then, a few years later, the restaurant moved again to its current home in Essex Market on the Lower East Side. Eve passed away in the mid-aughts. Kenny, The Store’s burly, famously bellicose chef, still mans the kitchen with his son Zack.

White’s essay, writes Shopsin in her memoir, is “written with so much love and grace its words become fact.” Still, she quibbles with his conclusion. “The third New Yorker, the non-native, takes a thing for granted too,” she asserts. “The third New Yorker knows they can live somewhere else. They have done it once, deep down if need be they can do it again.”

In person, she elaborates. “E.B. White went back to Maine!” Shopsin exclaims, “I’m just saying!” We’re sitting in a booth in the Waverly Restaurant, a shabby diner on Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place with a menu nearly as rambling as that of The Store (the latter is “thirty five years long,” Shopsin writes, with hundreds of items dreamed up by her father, dishes as disparate as Mac and Cheese French Toast Sandwich and African Green Curry). At Waverly, the clientele on a hot Thursday afternoon is largely geriatric. The restaurant is retro, but not ironic; it doesn’t trade on its kitsch. It’s also one of the few establishments mentioned in Shopsin’s book that still exists, a living reminder that the scrappy, village-y Village of her childhood is all but gone. As Miranda July puts it in a blurb on Arbitrary Stupid Goal’s cover: “This book captures not just a lost New York but a whole lost way of life.”

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“Whatever the opposite of helicopter parents, that’s what my parents were,” Shopsin remarks. Her childhood was refreshingly free-range; the Shopsin kids soaked up the magic of The Store—the only rule was don’t touch the meat slicer—bounced around the neighborhood, and consorted with its many characters. “Things the rest of the country found odd or disgraceful were welcomed with open arms in the Village,” she writes. “It became a symphony of oddities, and acted as a magnet for the country’s fringe people.” One of the main subjects of this book—in some ways its reason for being—is the Ur-fringe person: a local building superintendent/musician/golden-hearted con man named Willoughby who became something of a mentor to Shopsin’s father, and something of a grandfather to the author. Born in St. Louis, Willy belonged to White’s third New York; “He was,” Shopsin writes, “the reason Morton street felt safe and warm.” She chronicles his exploits (many of them sexual), his decline, and his eventual, somewhat mysterious, demise in the book.

Shopsin’s in its original location on Morton street.

Courtesy of Tamara Shopsin

Now in her mid-thirties, Shopsin is small and childlike in the way she presents herself. She has a helmet of short dark hair, streaked with the occasional strand of gray, and she’s wearing a flouncy skirt, saddle shoes, and a red Nike T-shirt printed with a repeat of tiny sneakers. She’s eating an English muffin and drinking an orange juice. “This orange juice is really good,” she says. It’s a throwback order: In the book she describes coming to Waverly Restaurant for fresh-squeezed orange juice as a kid in the 1980s on “walk nights,” solo expeditions that each Shopsin sibling would take with their dad. These were an opportunity for one-on-one time, and also occasion for Kenny to impart his somewhat nihilistic philosophies. The book’s title refers to one such theory, which he described for the camera in the 2005 documentary I Like Killing Flies: “The way that I choose to function is to pick an arbitrary stupid goal, become totally involved with it, and pursue it with vigor,” Kenny explained. “And what happens to you in that pursuit is your life.” The goal might be stupid, in other words, but pursuing it is not. It’s how you inject meaning into an otherwise meaningless existence.

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Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a scrapbook of a memoir, littered with Shopsin’s illustrations and her husband and frequent collaborator Jason Fulford’s photography, a labyrinth of memories, bits of family lore, scraps of trivial knowledge, interludes about Shopsin and Fulford’s travels, cameos from The Store’s many notable customers: Jeff Goldblum, John Belushi, Joseph Brodsky. It’s one of those meandering, difficult-to-pin-down books that’s all the more charming for being so stubbornly resistant to genre or traditional expectations of narrative. It reads at times like an amusement park ride through Shopsin’s neural pathways, ricocheting from association to association, bounded only by some never-clarified sense of internal logic. “I think I really wanted to create a texture that also felt like New York,” she describes. “Where you’re overstimulated, and also some of it feels dirty and random and not perfect. I wanted an arbitrariness to it.”

The chaos is actually quite clever. One reviewer called the book a “patchwork quilt.” At a launch party earlier this week, a bookseller referred to it as a “mosaic.” I think of it, rather, as a crossword puzzle: Each section another clue to the broader theme of the Arbitrary Stupid Goal.

Kenny Shopsin was, for a time, a writer of crossword puzzles, and one of these—“Food for Thought”—appears in the book, alongside a brief biography of pioneering New York Times puzzle editor Margaret Farrar (who was married to one of the founders of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Shopsin’s publisher—just one example of the many ways the strands of this book weave together). Margaret Farrar was a stickler for the rules of crossword writing (rules, to be clear, that she invented). “We’ll never please everybody, but we’re expected to hold the fort on the rules—otherwise chaos may ensue,” she wrote in a letter to Kenny, rejecting an early draft of “Food for Thought.” Later, when Shopsin began running his restaurant, he too became known for his rules, and for his total intolerance of those customers who broke them. “Some were common sense,” writes his daughter. “No outside beverages, everyone has to eat. Some were common sense to my dad: no copying the order next to you, don’t ask for the best thing on the menu, no parties larger than four, no allergies, no assholes.”

“I love puzzles,” Shopsin admits when I propose my crossword theory of her book. In her illustration work (she’s a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times), “I’m just trying to give people a puzzle to do, that will give them a tiny bit of satisfaction." In her books, too, she leaves copious white space, with that same notion of giving readers “a place to fill in. I really believe in not connecting the dots,” she goes on. “It also helps me leave out the boring stuff. It’s like: we’ll just jump over here!”

Crossword puzzles are integral to the origin story of Arbitrary Stupid Goal, which Shopsin discusses only after I repeatedly ask (it’s part of a family-wide allergy to PR; for more on that read Calvin Trillin’s iconic New Yorker piece about The Store). Back to E.B. White: In 2012, Shopsin and Fulford moved to San Francisco so that Shopsin could accept a fellowship with Code for America. (“I’m very computer-y and technical.”) It was also an experiment in whether they could make their life on the West Coast.

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Three thousand miles from home, missing New York and The Store, Shopsin would call her dad to do crossword puzzles over the phone. Kenny “was starting to do some old-man things. Telling stories twice. Forgetting things I’d told him. Needing Zack to help him do the shopping for The Store. It brought back these memories of taking care of Willoughby. Memories I hadn’t thought of since Willy was alive. And I realized I didn’t know anything about Willy, and that the only person who did was my dad and that I better ask him and quick or I would never know.”

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

Shopsin and Fulford eventually left San Francisco. “There’s things I love about it,” she says, “but it’s too small and it’s not New York.” They now live in a small apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Shopsin both loves her new neighborhood—“the park is totally goose bumps–inducing magic”—and wishes she could live closer to The Store, where she still works the brunch shift most weekends. She gets in and out of the city on an electric bike, and steers well clear of the triangle around Morton Street. Getting too close clearly pains her.

We steer clear too, paying the check and heading north toward Eighth Street, a frequent walk night route. We’re hunting for remnants of old New York. “It’s like the Wonka factory kind of feeling when I think of Eighth Street when I was eight or ten,” Shopsin says. “We have to properly inspect it.” First we swing by Jefferson Market on Sixth Avenue, a library carved out of a former women’s prison, where Shopsin informs me, Mae West once spent some time. The building is an official NYC Cooling Center, and Shopsin assesses the air conditioning: “Perfect. Not too much, not too little.”

Then we stroll across Eighth Street, heading east from Sixth Avenue. Gray’s Papaya, the supposedly recession-proof hotdog joint is gone, replaced by a Liquiteria juice bar. “They didn’t need to be recession-proof,” Shopsin remarks. “They needed to be extreme-wealth-proof. “ A few storefronts down, the salon Eve was, she suspects, once the location of a Postermat where she bought a gigantic Everlasting Gobstopper. “I ate that thing for months,” she admits. “It was a project.” She can’t quite tell where Azuma, a Japanese imports store, was; it’s where she once went for double-sided origami paper. “If I’m at rest,” she says, “I’ll still make you a butterfly.” (Give her a napkin, and she might fold it into a decent representation of an erect penis and balls; a Shopsin’s customer once showed her, and there are instructions on how to replicate the trick in the book.)

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Across the street, the New York Studio School, housed in the original Whitney Museum of Art building, beckons, but we’re told we can’t take a tour without finding eight more people to join us. Shopsin surprises me by saying she’s a fan of the new Whitney. “I think I was like, this is such a bad idea, and then in actuality, I was like: Nice work, Whitney! I was wrong and you were right.” We hang a right down Fifth Avenue and enter Washington Square Park. “The fountain was never working,” she tells me. “And there were always street performers in there, like the most amazing jugglers, comedy performances. They can’t be as good as I’m remembering, because they would have been superstars.” We wander over to what Shopsin calls “the humps,” a playground swarming with kids, built on top of undulating mounds in the southwest corner of the square. Now the mounds are carpeted in astroturf. In her childhood, Shopsin remembers, they were asphalt, and surrounded by what she calls "pirate-ship birds’ nest towers”—platforms about three stories high that you could climb. “I can’t believe nobody every plummeted."

Below the park, on Bleecker Street, there’s Porto Rico Coffee—“It’s amazing”—and below that, on Houston, Raffetto’s, for “the best Spinach ravioli.” Then we’re back on Sixth Avenue, where the gate to a sliver of a garden—usually locked to the public—is unexpectedly ajar. “I’ve never seen this open in my life,” she says, excited. Near the garden there’s a series of empty storefronts with For Lease signs in the window. The waste agitates Shopsin. She counts the storefronts: “One, two, three, four. It’s crazy. Too much rent!” she declares. “See, they’re going to eat their own foot. That’s what’s happening to all of Manhattan.”

In the acknowledgements section of her book, Shopsin writes: “It is the nature of New York City to change, but not this fast, not this lopsided toward the wealthy and Goliath.” At her book launch in Brooklyn a few days after we met, Fulford presented a slideshow of images from his wife’s life and career. One photo showed the author—or else her identical twin sister Minda; neither seemed to know—as a very young girl, hanging from a stoplight just outside The Store. “The first time I knew how deep New York City goes through your blood system,” Fulford remarked tenderly, “was the first time I heard you refer to the sidewalk as ‘the floor.’ ” The crowd laughed. Another slide showed the cover of a book of photographs of New York that the New York Times commissioned from the photographer Robert Frank. The title read: “New York is _____.”

“New York is?” asked Fulford. Shopsin, embarrassed, dropped her shaggy head into her hands and shook it. Then she popped back up, and quietly finished the sentence.

“Amazing.”