For close to 50 years, Ray Alvarez has been working the night shift. Alvarez left the Iranian Navy and immigrated to New York City in the 1960s, finding work as a dishwasher and busboy around the East Village. He opened his own dessert shop, the snacks and sugary treats emporium Ray's Candy Store, on the corner of Avenue A and 7th Street in 1974.
The store is open 24 hours, and most days, Alvarez works until 3 or 4 a.m. in the morning. He then heads upstairs to his apartment in the same building, only to return to the shop around 8 or 9 a.m. to take deliveries. It can be exhausting, but he’s grateful for the opportunity to run his own business in his adopted city, and he's never felt unsafe in his neighborhood.
That changed last week when the 90-year-old Alvarez was attacked and beaten outside the store on Jan. 31, in what police are calling an attempted robbery. Alvarez told Gothamist this was the first time since he opened the store that he's experienced any serious violence there.
"I went outside to have fresh air about 3 a.m. in the morning," he said, during an interview at his store on Monday. "These two guys came with a package of soda, they wanted to sell me soda. And I said no thank you, I don't want it. And one guy told his friend, 'Hold this, I'm gonna kill this bastard.'"
Alvarez says one of the men took out an object he described as a belt with a heavy rock attached to one end, and started hitting him in the face.
"He swung and hit me in the head, and I went down on the sidewalk and I was bleeding," Alvarez said. "I was shocked."
Despite the incident, nothing has changed his feelings about the area. Alvarez loved the East Village when he first opened the shop in the '70s, and he says he loves it just the same today.
"I still love America," he said. "I love New York. People are very nice. One in a thousand is bad."
Alvarez suffered bleeding, a black eye and facial wounds. He says he declined to be taken to the hospital that night, but went to be examined later in the week. He has three broken bones in his face, and his jaw is dislocated. He doesn't require surgery, but can't eat solid food for at least a month. It will take longer than that for his facial wounds to fully heal.
Police confirm that they have since arrested Luis Peroza, 39, and charged him with assault for the incident. A second suspect, Gerald Barth, 55, was also taken into custody, according to the New York Post. They report that both men allegedly attacked other people in the area near Ray's that night.
Alvarez says he was initially reluctant to call the cops, but his neighbors convinced him to do so when they saw his injuries.
"I told them, I just wanna lay down,” he said. “And I thought, I'm going to sleep and I'm not going to wake up. But I couldn't sleep, [and at] 7 o'clock, I came back down here to my store, opened up. I had an ice cream delivery."
Stella Soltowska has been working on-and-off at Ray's since 1977. She says nothing like this has happened in the 45 years she's been there. "I was really very worried,” she said. “It was very scary."
Soltowska says there's been a parade of locals stopping by to check on Alvarez in the days since the attack.
"For a couple days, everyone was lining up in the street, they wanted to see him," she said. "People [are] coming to check on him, they bring flowers, they bring soup, they give him money, also. They feel very sorry and very worried about him. They're happy if he's a little better."
Soltowska said that despite his upbeat demeanor, Alvarez needs to rest more.
"He cannot talk too much, it causes a lot of pain,” she said. “If you ask him, he won't say he's in a lot of pain. I make the soup bowls for him, blend it, because he drinks with a straw. Otherwise, he cannot chew."
In the middle of an otherwise rapidly changing neighborhood, Ray's Candy Store remains a decidedly old-school NYC joint. While most of the local businesses have turned over dozens of times since Ray's opened, with new smoke shops and restaurants replacing old school bars and bodegas, Ray's has remained frozen in time, serving up the fried Oreos, beignets and egg creams that regulars love.
Alvarez says he's watched as the neighborhood has become "very modern and sterilized."
"They're all polished, and charge $13 for a hamburger, and people buy it," he said, laughing.
As for the future of his store, Alvarez adds that he plans to "keep going until my last day. I am 90 now, I'm going to be 100, then I retire or die."