The delicatessen is a staple of the average New Yorker’s life. It has many names: deli, the corner store, the bodega. You’ll find them on every corner uptown, run mostly by Yemenese or Turkish men (who likely live in the building above said bodega). Most are run down and kinda sketchy looking. However, with the influx of upper middle class white families to the Upper West Side and beyond, most are being renovated under the power of gentrification. The downtown bodegas (usually called delis in those parts) are a bit fancier. They’re likely owned by an old Russian family, but they’ll hire a Mexican family to work the inside. They’re full of fancy beverages like Hubert’s Lemonade for $3 a bottle and card much more heavily when pimpled teenagers come in trying to snag a Four Loko or Marlboro Red’s.
My mother grew up in Newark, New Jersey. She had a very “urban” experience growing up. She refers to her experiences “on the block” very fondly, saying they prepared her for a lot in life. If she could survive a coke bust and FBI raid on her neighbor’s home, she could survive private school (Pingry) and college (Cornell). However, my upbringing was far more sheltered than her’s. I moved to New York City when I was ten years old in the middle of fifth grade. Before then, I lived exclusively in the suburban hellhole that is central Jersey. My experience of culture was limited to the Jersey Shore in the summer and Atlantic City arcades on weekends. I took Spanish for all of elementary school and couldn’t understand a word. Between Catholic school and public school, The Bodega on West 106th & Amsterdam Avenue is where I have to say I learned true culture and language.
My first Bodega experience was going on a run to buy eggs for my mom. It was overwhelming in many ways. Before then, I was used to driving out to the grocery store for big hauls of whatever we needed. That being said, I never went alone. I never went alone anywhere. I was eleven. Where the hell could I go alone? The Bodega. Mama, bless her soul, gave me $5 and told me to hurry up if I wanted to eat dinner, before rushing me out of the door. It was my first taste of freedom! Did every eleven year old in New York City just walk down the streets all alone to buy things? It was wild.
Once in the Bodega, I met the first of many different Bodega classic characters: the vaguely homeless man who’s always holding the door open for people. He’s always showered and always clothed, but he is also always inside the Bodega, so his status is unclear. He’ll carry your bags if you need and won’t ask for anything in return. He’ll probably buy a pack of Skittles with the accumulative change he gets as a makeshift tip. He knows everyone that comes in and out of the Bodega. He’s always conversing with the man at the counter, laughing about something in Arabic, and asking the Sandwich Man™ to spot him one. (The Sandwich Man™ is almost always Mexican and will always put mayonnaise on your sandwich, even if you don’t ask or say you don’t want it). He was the first to notice how lost I was. He called me little dove when I asked him where the eggs were and even walked me back to my apartment. He didn’t carry anything, but I gave him a bit of my change anyway and made sure to remember to say hi to him whenever I walked around the neighborhood. (He would later tell me I’m too “suburban friendly” but not to force change and that I’d establish some New York spunk later on).
He was my first New York friend. It’s weird labeling a man whose name I still don’t know, after moving twice in six years, as an old friend, but he was. He was my tour guide of the Bodega. He showed me how to get the cold beverages from the back of the fridge and introduced me to the Dominican lady down the street that cut and blew out hair for $25. He taught me how to navigate the most important destination in the Big Apple. I didn’t need Times Square if I had Arizona Iced Teas for a dollar and two bags of Doritos for another one. Especially when I could bargain for ten cents off and use him as my backup. He would teach me Spanish phrases that I needed to get around or Arabic phrases just to know.
The vaguely homeless man initiated me into New York society at the ripe, young age of eleven years old and I’ll forever be in debt to him.