The Prince of Pop

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.”

Then 37 and newly unemployed, Moore had responded, along with a hundred others, to an open call for waiters. Liebenthal picked him from a line of model types that stretched around the block. In a few months he was promoted to manager. Liebenthal was the gregarious front man with the big ideas, Moore the laid-back consigliere who kept things running smoothly behind the scenes. “My first reservation was from Madonna,” Moore liked to say. “And everything went downhill from there.” At the height of Tabac’s popularity, 200 people called in for reservations each day. Accommodating their fragile egos and special requests required Kissinger-like diplomacy. But Moore threw himself into the task. “Tim made himself into an expert on Manhattan society,” says Roy Pietrinferni, a former manager at Tabac. “He knew everything about their last project, who they were dating, and what they liked to eat. Someone would waltz in whom nobody recognized and Tim would say, ‘Oh, that’s Wink Martindale. Now please get him immediately out of this room.’ ”

Though most of his boldface friends disappeared after Tabac did, David Lee Roth, Naomi Campbell, and Ivana Trump remained close with him until the end. So did Bridget Hall, who frequented Tabac with her mother when she was 16. “Tim worried that she wasn’t doing enough kid stuff,” says Pietrinferni. “So he’d take her to Great Adventure and watch her ride the flume. He was playful, the antithesis of the bitchy manager.” Pietrinferni remembers posing for photos with Moore in Tabac’s office, as they romped around in Barbra Streisand’s monogrammed mink.

By 1997, Tabac had fizzled, and Liebenthal and his lieutenant departed for Pop. Their celebrity fans followed, but then moved on. Undaunted, Moore cultivated the restaurant’s regulars, a mismatched assortment of college students, club kids, and neighborhood folks that he’d jokingly refer to as “my misbegotten family.” Moore was endlessly fascinated by the neighborhood’s eccentricities. “I’ve been around the block, honey,” he once giggled to Reynolds, “but I’ve never seen nothing like this. I’ll sit here on my stoop, and it’s like a freak parade every day!”

“People loved the restaurant because they loved Tim,” says Reynolds. Tim repaid their affection in kind. When a longtime patron fell seriously ill, he held her hand in intensive care. His largesse extended to the staff. By the time of his death, Pop’s staff had ballooned to 75 people, most of them in their twenties, who regarded Moore more as a mentor than as a boss. “He was incredibly attached to these kids,” says Liebenthal. “He lectured them about their health and their boyfriends.” In return, the staff teasingly called him “Grandma.” “We knew that he’d always be there for us,” says Reynolds. “And suddenly he wasn’t.”

On the day he was murdered, Moore started off as he would on any Saturday. He awoke at 7:30 and set off to Pop to quickly check the evening’s receipts. He arrived shortly after 9:30 a.m. and headed downstairs to his office, where he ran into the night porter, who came in after dawn to clean the restaurant. Alternately surly and eager to please, Lerome Hilson had been paroled last March after serving eight years on robbery charges, though no one at the restaurant knew of his record. It’s unclear why their argument began, but it would end in Moore’s death. Hilson grabbed a fire extinguisher and bashed in his skull. Then he took $1,000 from an open safe, washed his hands, and left a bloody trail of footprints all the way out to the street.

Liebenthal was expecting Moore at Pop Burger by 10 a.m. When his punctual manager failed to arrive by 10:30, he grew anxious. A sous-chef and an assistant were dispatched to Pop, where they found Moore’s office door slightly ajar. When they tried to open it, they hit Moore in the head.

Hilson took the subway to his apartment in the Bronx, and returned in a new set of clothes to find Pop filled with cops. Informed of Moore’s death, he collapsed into loud sobs, but Liebenthal, for one, was unconvinced. “I knew as soon as I saw him that he did it,” he says. “I told the cops to keep him away from me.” Hilson had been hired by Moore six months before through the Bowery Mission, which procures jobs for parolees and homeless people. “The fact is, it’s a horrible job,” says Reynolds. “There’s not a lot of people who want to clean up shit at seven in the morning. When he came in, he seemed thrilled, but he didn’t stay thrilled for long.”

A few months after his arrival, Hilson demanded a raise. Moore at first refused, then grudgingly gave in. Hilson, however, remained embittered. He began complaining to other employees that Moore had cut his hours. By then the manager had come to suspect the porter’s involvement in a rash of petty vandalism. Someone had dumped Worcestershire sauce all over the circuit breakers, and put Krazy Glue in Liebenthal’s office lock. The troubles culminated a week before the murder in the theft of a chef’s laptop. Alarmed, Moore called in the cops. “They told him that 99 percent of the time with crimes like this it’s the night porter,” says Reynolds. Moore resolved to fire Hilson the following Monday. On Saturday, he was killed.

A few weeks before his death, I had visited him at Pop. He was in a rare sour mood. Earlier that evening a waiter had fought with an irate customer, a slightly soused prosecutor. Moore soothed tempers, but the incident left him distressed. He was growing bored, he said, with Manhattan: “It’s all these rich, unhappy people now. Nobody knows how to have fun.” When he went out these days, he preferred to explore the Latin discothèques of Queens. Martin says they talked of leaving the city to open a bed-and-breakfast in Belize. “Pop was doing great; they were talking about franchises. Tim thought we’d finally have a little money and make a life away from here,” she says. “Unfortunately, he never got a chance to live for himself.”

The Prince of Pop