Thursday, December 25, 2008

Papaya King and Gray's Papaya

PL here ...

I first became impressed with Papaya King - to the point of thinking it served the best non-alcoholic drink in town - back in the late 1960s, when I was writing the songs that would become Twice Upon a Rhyme with Ed Fox over at his place on York Avenue and East 85th Street in New York. Papaya King was on the corner of East 86th Street and 3rd Avenue, and its "papaya drink," advertised in hilarious, garish signs as being a cure for whatever ailed you, was just delicious. It contained some kind of papaya juice, and probably a little pineapple, orange, and who knows what else, in a frothy mix that tasted out of this world, if you drank it right after you bought it. If you brought some home and drank it the next day, it just tasted run-of-the-mill good.

The signage, in addition to the elan vital claims for helping your digestion, was also not to be believed. FDR was said to have come up with the idea of the New Deal after drinking a papaya from Papaya King - which had opened (as Hawaiian Tropical Fruits) in 1932, so the timing was right - and even Lyndon Johnson's endorsement was on the wall, which, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, was not too persuasive. And if Presidents current and past were not enough, the Beatles were said to have visited Papaya King in 1965 before their appearance on Ed Sullivan, plus a sign proclaimed that Papaya King's hot dog was "Tastier than Filet Mignon."

The place made such an impression on me that I had Jeff Harris, the time traveler in my 1997 novella Loose Ends, buy two papaya drinks at Papaya King, and muse that there was nothing like it in his century. (He wouldn't have been able to take any drinks to go with him to the future, because, as I mentioned above, they don't travel all that well. Though, come to think of it, maybe instantly through time, they would.)

By the late 1990s, I had conveyed the lore of the papaya drink to my wife and our kids, but we tended to be on West more than East Side of New York, which brought us to Gray's Papaya on 72nd Street and Broadway. Gray's Papaya had started as a copy of Papaya King in 1972, and by the 1990s it was certainly giving Papaya King a run for its money.

Debates still froth about which has the better papaya drink. I'm reasonably sure that Gray's tastes a tiny bit more marvelous at first, but Papaya King's sits a little better a few minutes later. But I could have it reversed, and everyone who has tried papayas at both has their own opinions. The signage at Gray's certainly is not as wild as at Papaya King's, but Gray's does have its endorsement of Barack Obama in March 2008 going for it - though it hasn't yet claimed that that's where Obama got his idea for the New New Deal.

Gray's does have a winning sensitivity to economic hard times and the need they engender for cheap, tasty lunches - and dinners - and has been offering its "Recession Special" of two hot dogs and a papaya for years. It's now up to $4.45, still a good deal, but was recently $3.50, and with so many millionaires now out of work, one hopes Gray's sees the light and lowers its price to at least its previous level. The store recently has seemed to be perpetually under reconstruction, but that's a venerable New York City tradition - see the Bruckner Expressway, not to mention the Second Avenue subway, which actually was never constructed in the first place.

If you've never had a papaya drink - at either Papaya King or Gray's - trust me, you'll love it, but, again, drink it right away for best effect. The only drink that ever came close is Orange Julius - "a devilishly good drink" - but that's another story...

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