The Ex-Villagers | One Last Egg Cream Before a New Life in L.A.

Screen shot 2012-06-06 at 11.55.32 AMLaurie Gwen Shapiro Gita Reddy.

The Ex-Villagers: They loved the East Village and they left it. A couple of days ago, actress Gita Reddy grabbed a hot dog and an egg cream at Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A, and during one last walk around, shared her memories of twenty years in the neighborhood.

Now that I’m leaving for Los Angeles I keep running into random people I haven’t seen in ages. When I hadn’t slept for 48 hours, and had just done a big part of my move, I put on lipstick and concealer to look like a coherent human being and I ran into Arjun Bhasin, a hot costume designer in Mumbai (he’s working on “Life of Pi”) who I knew when he was a fellow student back in Cinema Studies at NYU. He looked me up and down and declared, “Gita Reddy, you are aging well!”

It’s a little embarrassing to realize the students who live here now give me the same dismissive looks I once gave the old-timers when I moved here as a student. But I’m proud to leave as a true old-timer myself. It even feels vaguely cool to have lived here longer than them.

I’ve lived in the same apartment the whole time, with so many roommates over the years: Debbie, Jennifer, Erin, then that Brazilian male flight attendant, Rina, then Daniel, Leah and most recently Sabrina, a middle school teacher I’ve been rooming with for over two years.

gita reddy 6Laurie Gwen Shapiro Gita Reddy in 1991.

Seventh Street between First and Avenue A was always a relatively safe block, even back when the East Village was dicier. People thought the neighborhood was gentrified when I got here in 1991, but who could have imagined how it is now? This is the foodie block, with the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, Porchetta, Luke’s Lobster and People’s Pops. Butter Lane had just opened up when I walked in to find my old boss, Maria Baugh, looking up from a bowl of frosting. I’d freelanced for her when I was a beauty reporter at In Style magazine just after 9/11. “Now I work in cupcakes,” said the proud owner as she loaded me up with a few.

I’d lived here about 10 years when I had occasion to go to the big Catholic church on the block, St. Stanislaus. My dad’s family is Indian, but my mom is Filipino, very Catholic, and during a Christmas visit she talked me into going to midnight mass, as it was happening right next door. The service was all in Polish and I haven’t been a practicing Catholic in eons, but it was curiously comforting.

At the First Avenue end of the block stands The Bodega. No other name to me, just The Bodega. I was looking through its outside stalls, with the piles of potatoes and purple onions, when my cousin tracked me down to tell me my father had suddenly died of a heart attack. When I heard those nonsensical words, I became suddenly aware of the fluorescent buzz and glow of the stall’s light, which seemed very far away and almost alien. That moment comes back to me for a split second when I walk by here almost every day.

Before Saifee Hardware came to the southwest corner of Seventh and First, there was a small gay bar called the Tunnel. Soon after I moved here, I summoned my nerve to go to a bar for a quick drink by myself for the first time, and figured an all-male cruise bar was a safe bet. I ended up talking with a biker dude as we both mocked a musical clip playing on the TV, and we had such great rapport he gave me a kiss on the cheek as he left. I almost cried with relief and was so thrilled that my solo adventure worked out so well, that I could go places on my own.

gita reddy 2 Neighborhood spirit.

On my 40th birthday I took myself out to brunch at Café Mogador, where I’ve probably eaten with every member of my family and every important person to me for over 20 years. I was walking down St. Marks when I saw coming right towards me – no, could it be? – Bjork! I’m a huge fan, and immediately decided this had some huge cosmic significance. Bjork and I ended up arriving at the door in such a simultaneous manner that the hostess said, “Table for two?” I probably started to hyperventilate, but Bjork just looked minorly annoyed and walked over to her party. A friend spotted me and called me over, saving me from stalking Bjork from across the room over my poached eggs.

Abraço, one block over from my block, is the most recent addition to my solo routine, and makes the best espresso in the city. They also play great tunes, feed you amazing snacks, and introduce their regulars to each other: in all my years here, it’s the first neighborhood place I’ve felt truly comfortable as a regular. I wish it was open right now so I could said goodbye to the staff, but now I guess I’ll have to wait until I’m a visitor.

The northwest corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place is probably the most important psychic anchor for me in the East Village. I never went into the Gap that used to be on the ground floor, but it was all anyone was talking about in 1991. Clearly, it meant the end of civilization as it existed, a real mark of change in beloved bohemia.

gita reddy 5Laurie Gwen Shapiro At Ray’s Candy Store.

On the second floor over the scandalous Gap was Kim’s Video, the go-to place for film geeks in the VHS days, with fading posters for obscure films peeking out its windows. Several of my fellow grad students at NYU Cinema Studies worked there, and one of them even talked Mr. Kim (a legendary figure in both video and dry cleaning), into letting him arrange the gay male porn section by director.

In the windowless basement under the Gap was the bookshop of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, their first location before they moved to Koreatown. I used to meet here every Sunday afternoon with an offshoot of the Workshop, an Asian-American writing and performance group called Peeling, and I still miss the rigor of the creative workshops we’d lead for each other, and the writing and performing we’d do every week, without fail. We’d perform around the city, and sometimes up and down the East Coast to excited college students.

Today I don’t miss being enveloped by all the identity politics work we did, but hey, it was the 90s! And groups like us were some of the only ways to hear and see Asian American voices and faces in performance. I wish I could say things have seriously changed. They have and they haven’t. So many of us from those days are still around in different ways, doing our part. Whether you end up in health care, social services, or continuing in performing and the arts, like me, I guess you just take your politics with you.

Why move to L.A.? Mainly because it’s just time. I have to laugh when people say, “Your ethnicity is really hot right now!”, but, well, if that helps me get more work, awesome. After long patches of feeling invisible, I’m happy to move to L.A. during a time when I may be useful to the industry. In 2012, I don’t have to rent obscure VHS tapes anymore just to see faces that look like mine on the screen.

gita reddy 3Laurie Gwen Shapiro Gita Reddy with discarded belongings.

I think of my arts-loving father and wish I could tell him more about Mindy Kaling, whose “Matt & Ben” I told him about when I miraculously had the prescience to see it at the Fringe Festival on the Lower East Side before it was a hit at PS122. I’d say, “So Dad, she has a new TV show this season, yay! And is in fact not the only brown writer or performer to have one!” He would have completely loved that.

Earlier today I brought my kitchen cabinet and counter down to the sidewalk. What made it great was the top offered more counter space, which no one ever has enough of. Now it’s lying on a pile of discarded stuff, in the same spot I picked it up from when I got here. Is there anything more East Village than that?

As told to Laurie Gwen Shapiro.