EV Grieve posted yesterday about the closure of Hop Devil Grill, bringing to mind the site's former occupant, Stingy Lulu's, a 1950s-style luncheonette where the waitresses were drag queens.
I was pretty enamored with the place. The first time I ate there, I saved the paper placemat, which had pictures of retro cocktails on it, something I thought was just incredibly cool and so original. When friends came to town, I couldn't wait to take them to Lulu's.
photo: joannaepley's flickr
In the early 1990s (it opened in 1992), Lulu's felt like a neighborhood place. Owner Karacona Cinar said to the New York Post, "We're not even encouraging tourists to come here... We were serving drag queen customers first, and since we're always busy, there's no reason to change our clientele."
That was back when Marlene "Hot Dog" Bailey was running wild outside Odessa, when the sidewalks at night were a thieves' marketplace, and you could still find Merlin holding court at the corner of the Con Ed substation, his blanket covered in paperback books, young people kneeling at his side.
But the neighborhood was already changing.
Maybe Lulu's helped attract further gentrification to the East Village. The New York Times in 1992 hyped the neighborhood to newcomers as a bastion of multicultural funkiness: "In a Manhattan sobered by recession and social ills, those in search of a counterculture life style may find its last vestiges here." (That's what I was searching for.) They included Lulu's as part of the funky novelty.
By 1996, Lulu's owner credited himself with assisting Avenue A in its transformation away from what the Times called a "drug-infested no man's land, a forlorn strip given over to vagrants, anarchists and punks." Said Cinar, "Because of businessmen like me, things are much better."
Back then, the Save Avenue A Society (are you still out there, Ms. Piorkowska?) were fighting the nightclubization and Disneyfication of the East Village, including Stingy Lulu's for operating "a boisterous sidewalk cafe."
Eventually, I stopped going to Lulu's. It was too crowded. I didn't like the clientele. I moved on to other venues. They opened a cocktail lounge with the same name. Then it vanished.
photo: No Idea's flickr
Some questions remain: What was Lulu's--rebel member of the still-anarchic nabe, or Disneyfied sign of the gentrifying times? Was any of it real--that clock, the coffee shop sign, the chrome doors--leftover from a prior tenant? Or was it all a simulation? And what did it mean to love Lulu's in its early days?
I don't still have that placemat, but I do dimly recall Scotch-taping it to the wall of my crappy, overpriced East Village apartment, probably while thinking: "Here I am." Not for nothing, I'm still here.