Long live the bodega

Posted: May 8, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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New Yorkers, like everyone, enjoy their local quirks, and bodegas are a great source of quirk, from their cats to their strangely worded, handwritten credit policies. But most bodegas are really the same where it counts: Each sells the same assortment of junk food and toiletries… If 7-Eleven can stock those things reliably and cheaply, its total deficiency in the quirk department probably isn’t going to make it any less of a threat to the city’s bodegueros.
-New York Magazine

Everyone in New York City lives near a bodega, but we actually live with one. Or at least directly above one. We share the same Broadway address, in fact. The bodega was there long before we arrived in upper Manhattan and has survived three or four – or is it five or six? – ownership changes. But it’s the type of place where every day of business feels like it could be the last day of business. The gates come down each night around midnight and you never quite know if they’ll rise again the next morning.

It’s not the only bodega that lives on the edge.

In the most recent New York Magazine, Willy Staley writes about 7-Eleven’s efforts to take over the city, an interesting story that also includes the delightful line, “While the company is still talented at making food cylindrical in a way God never intended, and Buffalo-ing things that the Lord might never think to Buffalo, it has also introduced fruit and yogurt cups, salads, and other healthier items.”

I’m not anti 7-Eleven. I love the damn place. Every morning before work, my co-worker, who has recently again been blessed with a car — saving us from the clogged morning subway and the dreaded New Jersey Transit buses that are controlled by drivers who have yet to learn how to properly brake — stops at a Jersey 7-Eleven and I load up on a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew and either a glazed donut or a sausage biscuit. The guys behind the counter know us and like us and we like to think missed us when we didn’t have a car or access to the store during the long winter months. And the New York Magazine story also details how the company wants to, when it can, help mom & pop owners who have their own stores. Franchise fees normally run as high as $400,000, but folks that own their own space can get one for $25,000.

But it’s still not a bodega and it’s not all about quirkiness.

The day I got married, I waited in Central Park with a few friends and family, who were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the future Mrs. Fury. The minutes passed and Louise still hadn’t arrived, and my dad probably stopped wondering what we were going to do for the ceremony if it rained and started wondering if there actually would be a ceremony. Finally the car service pulled up with Louise, her mom and my sister and everything went off fine. Only later did I hear the full story. The car service Louise had called earlier in the week failed to send a vehicle. Stuck at 215th Street, Louise panicked, wondering how she was going to make it 100 blocks south for what would be — I like to think — the happiest day of her life. No car. And with her South African mom and my Minnesotan sister being the only people near her — two people who knew nothing about the city or how to get around it — Louise searched for alternate transportation.

Enter Ali. Ali owned the store below our building. We had only lived in the building for a few weeks but we had already become big fans of Ali and his brother Rocky, who co-owned the bodega. And they liked us. Ali was in his 40s, hailed from Palestine and was funny, loud, sarcastic, biting, weary and occasionally bitter. He was known as the Ice Man, which sounds like the name given to a mafia hitman but had a more literal meaning in this case, as Ali made most of his money by selling ice out of the store. And now, on that late Sunday afternoon in 2004, he offered his services to Louise. He said he would drive Louise and the other gals down to Central Park in the store van. It was a thoughtful gesture, potentially game-saving. But not an ideal situation. The van was white and old and quite used and hauled food and carpets and boxes and ice and was the type of van that you’d normally only think about if you saw it on a local broadcast as the anchor said, “Be on the lookout for this white van…” I guess the plan called for Louise — in her wedding dress — to sit up front while my mother-in-law and sister found space in the back, perhaps lodged next to 10 boxes of cereal.

Thankfully for all involved the driver from the car service eventually appeared, apologetic. Louise made it to Central Park and the wedding went off without a problem and Ali went back to peddling his ice and belittling his customers.

A few years later I was in the store when Ali asked if I could help with a legal situation. He had been pulled over in Virginia but was adamant that he wasn’t going to pay the fine. Over the years Ali made a point of fighting every parking ticket the city of New York gave him — he enjoyed making them do extra work, was the reason — and he apparently planned on bringing this legal strategy south. He admitted to me — his pseudo lawyer, although I’m not sure if customer-owner confidentiality would fly — that he had been speeding. Yes, the police nabbed him. But maybe I could write a letter to the judge — as Ali — saying he had been speeding down to see a sick family member. I agreed to do it and wrote a one-page letter, trying to write as Ali. I’d never ghost-written for a bodega owner before but I like to think I captured Ali’s voice, filling the note with apologies and a dash of humor.

It didn’t work and Ali paid his fine.

A few years later he sold the store and now works as a livery cab driver. Louise recently saw the other brother, Rocky, who invited us to a family barbecue. Ali would be there, he said, and that was really the only selling point we needed.

We’ve never had the same relationship with the current bodega owner – meaning I haven’t skirted the laws of Virginia in order to help him out – but still pop in occasionally, although we usually visit the store around the corner. For a few months, the bodega beneath our apartment inexplicably had a blood-pressure machine in the store that customers could use for a small fee. Right there near the door, strap yourself in. No trained professional nearby, no explanation of what the numbers you’d see would mean. But maybe you’re walking down Broadway and feel a little light-headed and instead of making an appointment with your doctor you stop in to the bodega for a bag of potato chips and a blood-pressure reading. If it’s dangerously high — or if the store owner tells you it’s dangerously high — maybe you pass on the chips. It disappeared after a few weeks. There was no explanation for its appearance and when it went away, though the city’s health organizations — or perhaps Big Blood Pressure – probably shut the whole operation down.

Is 7-Eleven going to offer that type of health service to customers? Would a 7-Eleven owner drive a bride-to-be to her destiny? Would I write a get-out-of-jail letter for a guy behind the counter at a 7-Eleven?

Bodegas aren’t just a place to pick up cheap toilet paper, an occasional sandwich and The Daily News. Some are definitely better than others. Some are cleaner than others. Some smell better than others. Some have fresher products on the shelves. Some have more ice. But they’re all a part of New York City. And life just wouldn’t be the same without them.

  1. Terry Vandrovec says:

    This is the quintessential Fury story. He’s one of those rare people who, for instance, gets asked to ghostwrite a letter for a bodega owner. I love that. Always an unusual adventure on deck.

    • shawnfury says:

      “Quintessential Fury story,” said TV. I like it. Going to be a blurb on my next book. And this one was easy to remember, since it was just a few years ago.

      I should note one other reason I don’t go to the one below us as much is the owner — very nice man — takes forever to give your change and talks through the whole process. Also will use like all nickels to give you 95 cents.

  2. Rich Jensen says:

    I spent a long weekend in Manhattan once, and thoroughly enjoyed visiting the corner bodega and ordering a coffee just like the locals. At least, once I figured out how to order it. The first time, I had the guy behind me laughing as I tried to order a regular coffee—with no cream or sugar.

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