When living on the Lower East Side years ago, I remember feeling a bit frightened if I was out on the streets after midnight. I haven't felt that sensation in some time, unless you count the creeping dread I experience when I encounter hoards of cackling young night owls roaming Orchard Street.
But you can't erase the power of a dark, dingy street that easily. I found that out the other night, when, needing food after a late night drink, I ventured into Rocket Joe's Pizza on Delancey. I'd never been before, though I'd often puzzled over the curious name of the place. I ordered a slice. A tallish man with the severe face or a Serbian apparatchik and a thatch of steel-gray hair shoved a piece of pie in the oven. "Are you Rocket Joe?" I asked. "Yeah," he said. "Actually, it's Billy Joe," and he lifted up his shift to reveal a large belt buckle that read "Billy" in large letters.
The slice was surprisingly good, crisp and tasty. This made me want to take in the dive more carefully. There was plenty to take in. Men, obviously up to no good, came in and out to use the bathroom. A strange man outside the window, wearing a New York Housing Authority baseball cap, was being pressed for advice on some weighty matter. What's a Housing guy doing at Rocket Joe's at midnight, I wondered. Next to me, a vagrant woman with few teeth was heartily enjoying her dish of baked ziti. Baked ziti at midnight. "Everything here is good," she told me is barely decipherable English.
Put simply: tourists would not feel at ease in Joe Rocket's in the wee hours. The vibe took me back 15 years, and it felt all right.