`Jimmy Dean' is seduced by lights of Manhattan

Week in the Life ROBERT REA, NEW YORK CITY
Click to follow
ROBERT REA had a life in Amarillo, Texas. He worked as a roofer mostly, and he had a small sideline as a Jimmy Dean lookalike. A few years back, the US Post Office hired him to unveil a Jimmy Dean stamp. Then, three weeks ago, he got a call from an old friend, Raja, an Indian restaurateur he used to work for in Pennsylvania. He hadn't heard from him in five years and now Raja was pleading with him to drop everything and travel to New York where he was opening a restaurant. He needed Robert front of house.

IT IS Tuesday, five days after getting Raja's call. Robert flies tomorrow. His is a typical American story. He has never been to New York and he is nervous. At 37, Robert, originally from California, is about to start a new life. But he hasn't hesitated. The last time he worked for Raja he learnt fluent Hindi and actually came near to entering an arranged marriage in India. Today, he finishes selling his collection of Fifties memorabilia, including all his furniture. That raises $4,000. He is ready to go.

HE ARRIVES at JFK airport early Wednesday afternoon. An Indian man, one of Raja's people, waits at the gate with a sign "Mr Robert". From the airport they travel to an apartment in Queens where Robert is supposed to live with Raja's workers, all from India. "As soon as I saw it, I knew it wasn't going to work. Eight guys in a room 20ft by 20ft, one toilet and no closet space." One of the men takes him for his first look at Manhattan and the restaurant. It will be called the Bukhara Grill and has a prime spot on 49th Street. Robert meets Raja again and they hug. "It was wonderful."

ON THURSDAY, the restaurant is full of builders and Robert has nothing to do. So he explores, taking a subway train to the East Village. In a small cafe, he spots a young couple and asks how hard it would be to find a cheap place to stay in New York. "They just laughed at me.0" But the man directs him to a Ms Lopez, a landlady in Chelsea who had once given him a room. Robert walks to Chelsea, on the West Side, his hopes soaring. Ms Lopez has nothing but suggests trying a Millie on 18th Street. It's late afternoon when Robert finds Millie, an old Hispanic woman with a house that seems handsome from the outside. Yes, she might have a man moving out on Saturday. She tells Robert to come back then.

ALL FRIDAY, Robert is in suspense. At the restaurant, he helps to open 76 crates just arrived from India, filled with cutlery and dinnerware. After work, he returns to Chelsea to wander the neighbourhood. He likes it and makes friends in local bars, among them Lauren, a lounge singer in Judy's Bar on Eighth Avenue. (He has seen her every day since.) Very much worse for wear, Robert has an altercation much later on the subway with the man in the ticket booth, who calls the police. Four officers arrive and one pushes Robert to the floor. It is his first glimpse of the darker side of Gotham City. He gets back to the Queens apartment at 4am, to find that all the Indians have waited up for him with his dinner.

ROBERT GETS to Millie's at midday on Saturday. She invites him up. "At that point, I knew I had the room." It isn't much - a bed, a tiny table and chair, Lino on the floor and plaster clinging to the ceiling. The common bathroom, one on each landing, is not a place to linger, dressed or undressed. But the price is $70 a week. That's a genuine miracle in New York. He takes it, quickly. That night he celebrates, mostly at a trendy new outdoor dance club at Pier 60 on the Hudson river. Robert has been in New York only four days and he is living this new life to the full. He returns to Millie's at 7am on Sunday - and sleeps the entire day.

MONDAY AND Tuesday are jumpy at the restaurant. Opening day is a week away and the builders are behind. Robert persuades the head contractor to hire him at $10 an hour to help to paint the ironwork. Bukhara will be blessed by a swami on Monday. Its fate will be Robert's fate too. Failure does not seem to be in Robert's vocabulary. How long will he stay? "This is my life, man. From now on, it's New York. You know?"

Comments