It's been more than a year since Micah Riggs opened his coffee shop at the corner of 35th Street and Broadway, and though few of his neighboring businessmen have spoken to him, or would even recognize him, they hear things.
"He's busy down there," says Kenny, a bartender with dull-black spectacles and a drooping belly. Kenny slides a bottle of Budweiser across the pine at Outabounds, the midtown bar that caters to gay sports fans. "I think one of his guys threw a brick through the window on another guy's shop selling the same stuff."
Down the street, men can be seen sitting on the bench outside Riggs' shop, Coffee Wonk. The tips of cheap cigarettes glow in the gray twilight. In the opposite direction, a competing store's neon sign promises Syn, the latest name for synthetic marijuana. "I might have that backwards," Kenny says, referring to that store. "Maybe they threw something through his window. They get competitive."
Larry Sells also knows about Riggs' shop. The owner of the Uptown Theater, Sells has worked on Broadway for 20 years. "I've never met him, but I've heard about the place," Sells says, sitting at a table inside the Conspiracy Room, which he also owns. "If he's working legitimately, he's good for the block and that's fine."
Another block closer to Westport, News Room owner Kenny McGraw isn't so sure. On a recent afternoon, as he laments the neighborhood's demise, the worst of Broadway is just outside his window. The McDonald's across the street was robbed just this morning, and a man was shot to death in the parking lot a couple of months back. Drug dealers loiter outside the CSL Plasma Center, waiting for fresh donors to come out with cash.
It isn't all bad: Through the same window, McGraw can see the recording studio that Riggs bought this year. Another nearby storefront will soon house a restaurant that Riggs plans to open. But for the moment, McGraw doesn't know about those developments. He only knows how Riggs made enough money to buy those things, and that the cops had enough questions about the enterprise to raid Riggs' shop.
"If he wants to put money in, great, and if he thinks he can help, great," McGraw says. "I've been in Coffee Wonk, and it's an all-right place. But maybe he's just making money off the bad element he says he wants to get rid of, and maybe he's just helping to attract it. We'll just have to wait and see what he does."
Coffee Wonk isn't the most welcoming café. The front window is obscured by the bulging cartoonish letters of the shop's name. Found inside: a counter with plastic-wrapped muffins and a blackboard menu of lattes and mochas. Also, a pool table that looks like it's been around since 9-ball was invented. That's about it.
Riggs, the shop's 28-year-old owner, absentmindedly runs his hand over the top of his skull, where a tangle of shoulder-length hair was recently shaved off. He wears a fading steel-blue T-shirt, the jeans of a house painter and ratty sneakers. When he first opens his mouth, you wonder if there's a second, more interesting conversation running through his head that you're not part of.
As Riggs talks, a man in a leather jacket walks through the door. He waves off the greeting from the cashier and makes for the pool table. Riggs gnaws his lower lip. He doesn't like drug dealers in his shop, but store owners on this stretch of Broadway can't screen their patrons and expect to keep their businesses.