Seinfeld Lives! (Well, Sort Of)
On the Road
Now that the brouhaha is all over, Jerry's 'real' neighbors say that the show had no effect on them. They're wrong
It's Saturday morning, and a line of coffee-toting regulars spills out the door of Landmark Cleaners onto Broadway. Jerry Seinfeld joins the throng and finds himself in conversation with a beautiful woman. His eyes drop to the dresses slung over her arm and he sees...stains! Fade to the fantasy sequence: Jerry and the woman are dining at a fancy restaurant. She's slobbering all over herself while Jerry--neat to the point of psychosis--watches in horror. Back in the "real" world, the comedian abruptly terminates their conversation. When Jerry reaches the counter, Landmark owner Paul Breitstein advises him to try again next week.
Roslyn Breitstein speaks breathlessly as she describes an imaginary Seinfeld episode taking place at her family's business--a narrow storefront tucked beneath a bright blue awning at 2345 Broadway. Perched cross-legged on the counter, the trim blonde grows increasingly animated as she embellishes her mental script. (Like many uptown businesses, the store still claims a Seinfeld connection: Jerry Stiller, who played George Costanza's father, is a regular.) From the ease with which Breitstein inserts Jerry and his erstwhile gang into daily life at Landmark, she clearly has no trouble viewing her business through a Seinfeldian prism. In that way, she is like many businesspeople on New York's Upper West Side who throughout the show's eight-year run tuned in to Seinfeld every week--scrutinizing, judging, and absorbing how the sitcom portrayed them.
Until Jerry Seinfeld pulled the show's plug, last May, Seinfeld shaped the world's impressions of one patch of New York: two square miles of idiosyncratic stores and brick-and-stone apartment buildings bounded by the green swaths of Central and Riverside parks. By turning a fun-house mirror on the businesspeople of the Upper West Side, whose fictional counterparts figured prominently in Seinfeld, Hollywood stretched those New Yorkers' imaginations into a kind of ironic self-awareness. To talk to the Breitsteins and other merchants in Jerry Seinfeld's old neighborhood (he lived at West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue in the 1980s) is to hear frequent denials that the show ever influenced them at all. Yet, when they're asked what Seinfeld's legacy means to their daily work lives, they share fantasies and musings that betray them.
The Soup Nazi's customers must follow a brutally strict regimen for ordering or be banished. Jerry, George, and Kramer choose the former--the soup is that good. Elaine tries to buck the system and winds up bisqueless.
Gary Greengrass resembles the Soup Nazi of Seinfeldian notoriety in just two respects: he isn't timid when it comes to handling customers, and his product is so good they don't care. The owner of the Barney Greengrass delicatessen (named for his grandfather) at 541 Amsterdam Avenue doesn't apologize when his patrons wait in line an hour for a table. Even those seated in haste may not be able to dine at leisure: "OK, how many coffees? Raise your hands," says the waiter briskly.
It's at moments like these that Greengrass's customers remind him just how Seinfeldian his store is. "People are waiting here 45 minutes and they say, 'You should have been on Seinfeld," says Greengrass. "Seinfeld was part of the language." One day recently, Barney Greengrass (Seinfeld connection: in one episode, Elaine mentioned it by name) was hiding its light under a bushel of scaffolding. But construction didn't stop the weekend brunch crowds from surging into the small restaurant with its motor-cooled cheese case, faux-wood-grain tables, and seen-better-days wallpaper.
Those customers came not only for the restaurant's trademark sturgeon but also for the shtick: a blend of chumminess and cheekiness emblematic of New York. Yes, shtick can sometimes involve an element of good-natured rudeness, Greengrass concedes. But that's because doing business in New York is so expensive. "You have to maximize your space," he says. "You have to maximize your time."
That means that when the restaurant gets crowded, people have to wait and they have to follow the rules. Attempts to pull something--a party of two trying to get a table by pretending to be a party of four, for example--will land the transgressors on his "blacklist." "Once you're caught, you're caught," says Greengrass. "Next time we're definitely not seating you until every soul is here."
Anxious to appease an abusive doorman, Jerry spells him while he runs an errand. The doorman never returns, and somebody steals the lobby couch.
Rick Josephson keeps coming back to that doorman as an example of what wasn't right about Seinfeld. "In Seinfeld you had people like that doorman who are annoying but not threatening," says the owner of Crocodile Computers, at 360 Amsterdam. (No Seinfeld connection, but comedian Steve Martin once bought a cable there.) "In New York there's a lot of unbalanced people. It's dirty and sad."
Sitting in the back of Crocodile, a sales-and-repair shop so disordered it looks as though someone's garage exploded, Josephson talks about the New Yorkers he meets every day. Some are like the Seinfelders--edgy and argumentative, with seemingly endless free time. "One guy came in and argued with us for two hours over $75," says Josephson. "Later a friend of his who's a stockbroker told me the guy is worth $50 million."
A Colorado native, Josephson got his first taste of local weirdness eight years ago, when he rented a storefront on 73rd Street. "I go into the building, and this guy with three teeth starts arguing with me because I don't know who Elizabeth Taylor's second husband is," Josephson recalls. "Then I see someone putting flyers up on lampposts and another guy in a sailor suit following him. Every time the first guy crosses the street, the second guy tears down the flyer he's just put up."
There was also an older woman living in the building who refused to pay for heat. "She had a three-legged dog," says Josephson, adding with a self-consciously Seinfeldian refrain, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
Unable to buy a chocolate babka at Schnitzer's Bakery, Jerry and Elaine settle for a cinnamon one, which they're forced to return after finding a hair in it. Jerry upchucks a black-and-white cookie.
Barry Gluck, owner of the Royale Bake Shop on 72nd Street, has something of a Cheers thing going. (The now-defunct sitcom on NBC was a boon to the Boston bar where it was set.) Every week a busload of diehard Seinfeld fans descends on his shop as part of a tour. Gluck still experiences an uptick in business every time an episode featuring his bakery airs in syndication. (Seinfeld connection: Royale is the inspiration for Schnitzer's.)
Now that the real Jerry Seinfeld has killed off his TV counterpart, he's moving back to the neighborhood, and Gluck aspires to win the comedian as a customer. "I'll send him a babka to welcome him to the community," says Gluck, whose Seinfeldian imagination veers to the pragmatic. Chocolate or cinnamon? "Both," he replies.
Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.