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The Prince of Pop

Downtown restaurant manager Tim Moore served the stars, then became one himself—an intimate to thousands whose kindness was repaid in murder.

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Tim Moore  

On May 2, a day after Tim Moore’s battered body was discovered in the basement of a Fourth Avenue restaurant called Pop, a tearful crowd of his friends, employees, and customers gathered outside. By dusk, gawkers and celebrity-hunting photographers had joined the scene, now bathed in the glow of TV klieg lights. Somewhere in the distance a boom box played old Madonna songs. Watching from the sidelines, one of Moore’s friends had an unsettling pang of nostalgia. “It’s just like Tabac,” he said, referring to the perennially packed restaurant that Moore, 50, had run more than a decade ago. It was, he said, a not-unfitting wake for a man who always loved being at the center of the action.

Though he’d receive the kind of send-off that the city usually reserves for celebrities and politicians, Tim Moore was neither. He was a restaurant manager, a title that vastly understates his position in New York’s downtown firmament. By the transient standards of the restaurant business, longevity alone qualified him as something of an icon. “Over the years, he came to know just about everyone, and everyone knew him,” says T. J. Reynolds, a longtime friend and manager at Pop. A slight, balding man with kind, smart eyes, Moore presided for nearly two decades over a succession of the city’s most exclusive restaurants—from Cafe Tabac to Mariel Hemingway’s Sam’s to the Lemon off Union Square. For the past five years, he had been at Pop. Pop Burger, a high-style fast-food offshoot, opened under his watch in the meatpacking district last fall.

In the days following his death, the Pop stoop where Moore used to sneak cigarettes was transformed into a virtual shrine. On May 5, almost 1,000 people packed Grace Church for his memorial, including a busboy who flew in from France and a customer who came from Cambodia. To the disappointment of the paparazzi, few boldface names were in attendance. Just his shell-shocked parents from Georgia, his countless protégés, and hundreds and hundreds of his friends.

I fell into the latter category, I suppose, though the full measure of his impact on my life did not reveal itself until his death. Our friendship took place entirely within the borders of his restaurant. But when I learned of his murder in the paper, I was filled with a profound loss I still find difficult to explain. I had met Tim only a couple of years earlier, while I was preparing to launch a magazine from my living room. Pop, two blocks away, became my makeshift cafeteria. Tim would hug me when I came in, gossip about mutual acquaintances, and ply me with drinks when I looked dejected. If I was late to a black-tie event and struggling with my bow tie, he would fix me up. “You know, darling,” he’d drawl, “they’re doing wonderful things with clip-ons these days.”

“My first reservation was from Madonna,” Moore liked to say. “And everything went downhill from there.”

After his death, it was tempting to think of our bond as unique; Tim had that effect on people—dozens claimed him as a best friend. But there was something about our relationship that was not dissimilar from the thousands of relationships that develop in any crowded city, where some of our most lasting bonds are born of commerce and comfort. They’re the kind of relationships we have with our doormen, or our hairdressers, or the manager at our favorite restaurant. Relationships that stretch out for years—even decades—and are remarkable for their predictability and cheerful reassurance. In a vast, lonely city powered by ambition and artifice, we all crave nothing less than people who will actually make us feel at home. Moore had a way of making everyone feel at home, which is why his death left so many adrift.

What was striking about his memorial was the range of people it attracted: society matrons and strippers, club kids and cops. Moore was one of New York’s connectors, joining some of the city’s disparate worlds. But he was done in by one of his own. By the time of the memorial, Lerome Hilson, Pop’s 28-year-old night porter, had already been arrested. Though Hilson’s name was never invoked at the services, it was hard not to see him as Tim’s dark converse, as random in his petty resentments as Moore was in his small kindnesses.

In the next few days, the tabloids would serve up new details about Moore, a man I realized I knew little about, but who knew so much about me. As it turned out, he had been married for six years, a fact that surprised even some of his close friends. His wife, Lana Martin, had met him at Tabac, and moved into his austere walk-up near Avenue D when she was down on her luck. Moore made her promise that she wouldn’t stay more than three months, but, as Martin says, “things just developed, you know?” His deeply religious family in Georgia learned of their daughter-in-law’s existence only when Martin called to tell them of Tim’s death. When his parents traveled to the city for the first time in 50 years for the service, “they were shocked by how many people had come,” says Martin. “His mother said, ‘I never realized my son was a celebrity. I thought he just worked in a restaurant.’ ”

When he was growing up, his parents recalled, he was obsessed with New York City. After college, he moved here with vague plans to make a life in theater. Instead, he found a life in restaurants. His career never really took off until Cafe Tabac. Founded in 1992 by an entrepreneurial former model named Roy Liebenthal, the East 9th Street restaurant quickly became the white-hot nexus of East Village grunge and supermodel chic. But despite a nightly crush of celebrities from Bono to Donald Trump, it got off to a shaky start. “None of us knew what the fuck we were doing,” says Liebenthal. “And then, one day, in walks Tim.”


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