NEW YORK – On a warm Saturday in April, Gerasimos (Jerry) Delakas, clad in a fisherman’s hat and a red and green plaid flannel, sweeps cigarette butts and gum wrappers from the cement surrounding his corner newsstand in Astor Place. Above him hangs a sign with the word “victory” cut out from paper that, in the last few months, has come to replace two-year old “Save Jerry” signs and petitions.
“Victory” for Delakas came in early January, after a three-year long battle with the city to keep his newsstand open. After inheriting the booth from a former employer in 1987, Delakas was never formally registered as the licensee. When he tried to renew his license in 2010, he was denied. The Department of Consumer affairs said Delakas was operating illegally, padlocked his newsstand in December of 2013 and left the case for the next mayor. In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio granted the Greek immigrant his wish. Delakas retrieved his keys, re-opened on January 14 and got his $37,000 fine reduced to $9,000, Delakas says.
Since reopening, business has been slow but steady for Delakas, 64, who says he sells more lottery tickets than newspapers. Between puffs from his Cheyenne cigarette and sips of black coffee from the adjacent Starbucks, Delakas admits that his newsstand didn’t actually reopen until March 10 because of the “mess” inside.
But what he calls a mess – storage boxes, maps for tourists, stacks of regional and local newspapers – is also an archive of his 26 years at the Astor Place newsstand. Inside are magazine clippings in which he is featured, consent and release forms from media outlets that have filmed at his newsstand, and even his Manhattan-bound Greyhound bus ticket from Boston the day he arrived in the States.
“I see the job as like an entertainment, watching a live movie,” Delakas says, who enjoys people-watching from inside his periptero, or newsstand in Greek.
Delakas spent most of his childhood summers picking olives and grapes back home in Cephalonia, Greece, a small island west of Athens. Before immigrating to America, he worked in the country’s whaling industry. What he likes most about New York is that he sees “people opening their arms and their hearts for the needs as a deed.” And Delakas says he is a recipient.
“Over the three-year fight, I was calculating hearts. Know what I mean?” Delakas says with a smile, referring to the thousands of people who liked the “Save Jerry” Facebook page and signed the petition to keep his newsstand open.
Alex Arbuckle, a young Manhattan photographer, founded savejerry.com, the online petition to save Delakas’ newsstand. He says the failure of the Bloomberg administration to value immigrants like Delakas is what first got him involved.
“He’s kind of the classic ideal of the hardworking immigrant chasing the American dream,” Arbuckle says. “He’s at that newsstand seven days a week, and he’s become an indispensable part of the neighborhood.”
In one hour that Saturday afternoon, Delakas gave directions to four strangers looking for Stuyvesant Town, St. Mark’s Place, Joe’s Pub and city bus number eight. The people are everything, he says.
“I watch the world with the frontlines,” Delakas says, forming the shape of a globe with his hands, though he usually listens to the news via his newsstand radio.
He recalls the neighborhood’s change over the years; he reflects on 9/11 and the people who waited in line at his stand for five hours to get the news, and on the blackout during Hurricane Sandy. But Delakas says the proliferation of chain stores on his corner is the biggest change he’s seen.
“It feels like I’m surrounded by these big corporations. Kmart, Walgreens, Starbucks,” Delakas says. “And who is in the middle? The dumb Greek,” he adds with a chuckle.
After he closes shop at 9PM, Delakas heads home in the Upper West Side and to Tom’s Restaurant on 112th St. and Broadway, the diner he has frequented for the past 40 years. At Tom’s, Delakas usually eats the horiatiki salata, or Greek salad, and the Greek traditional baked pasta dish called pastitsio.
“He works very hard, he respects people very hard … he trusts people,” says Panagiotis Papaharalambous, 62, owner of Tom’s Restaurant. “He buys for [his] doorman sometimes Coca Cola, sometimes coffee, it depends.”
Delakas has also been known to give a helping hand outside his newsstand. He says he saved a life 15 years ago when a man was nearly stabbed to death at 4:30 a.m. He also reunited a lost kid with his parents and walked a woman home after strangers followed her.
“What I learned the most was room to do more,” Delakas says.
He hopes to finish cleaning his newsstand in time for summer. For now, Delakas will continue to sell lottery tickets and snacks, help a stranger or two, and keep his neighborhood informed from inside his corner newsstand, the place he calls home.
“I spend more time on this corner than any corner on the earth,” Delakas says.