“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.”