Will Your Bodega Miss You When You’re Gone?
Saying goodbye to your neighborhood safe space.
1:03 PM EST on January 4, 2023
There are plenty of reasons why moving apartments in New York sucks; nobody wants to lease a U-Haul on a damp Tuesday morning, and your friends certainly don't want to haul a couch up a five-story walkup that is surely breaking all sorts of municipal regulations. But as our mid-pandemic lease expiration made the possibility of switching addresses increasingly necessary, there was one heartbreak in particular on my mind: I'd need to break up with yet another bodega guy.
We've never exchanged names. I call him Boss, he calls me Brother. We established this ritual on the first night in my new digs, when he fabricated a roast beef and a chicken cutlet from behind the grill to consecrate a living room that still lacked a dining table. We've seen each other pretty much every day since—mornings and late nights—for paper towels, Diet Coke, and esoteric brands of boutique spiked seltzer. He plied us with libations through the wonderfully punch-drunk summer of 2021, and dove headfirst into the confused cannabis gray market of 2022—armed to the teeth with pre-rolls of questionable origin. Along the way, we became something close to friends, which is a relationship familiar to countless other inhabitants of New York City. Alas, there is no built-in social mechanism for keeping up with a former bodega guy; if we were to move buildings, I would not be traveling back to the old corner for the purpose of breaking bread with my foremost bread-breaker. That has always been the tension in the liaison. It's hard to say goodbye, when you don't know if you're supposed to say goodbye.
"When you're building a relationship with a neighborhood in New York, you have all these links that don't really mean anything. Yes, after you move you'll go back to the neighborhood and go to a bar and see all your friends in an area, but you don't really know what your relationship is like to your bodega guy," says Elena Perito, a 26-year old who recently relocated from Crown Heights to the Upper East Side and is currently stinging from her own bodega divorce. "When I leave I'm going to go through this emotional transformation, but are they even going to know?"
Perito nurtured her bodega-guy kinship much further than I did, which is to say that they are on a first name basis. The two met after she committed a classic New York newcomer blunder; locking herself out of her apartment without her keys — which is an experience I also had on my first afternoon in the city. Perito's phone was dead, and because she was parachuting into Crown Heights on a sublease, she had no way of contacting the super. (If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!) So, like an infinite number of Brooklyn greenhorns before her, Perito burst through the doors of her local bodega, tears streaming down her cheeks, in search of a rescuer. Her bodega guy happily obliged. He invited her behind the counter, lightning cable in tow, and Perito made one of her first friends in the city.
"We chatted, we bonded. And every single time I went in there afterwards he'd be like, 'What's up baby, how are you doing today?'" she says. "I didn't go in there a ton because he didn't have a lot on the shelves. It was one of those bodegas. But we'd buy beer from him a lot. He was a super nice guy."
Perito is speaking to a crucial wrinkle in the bodega-guy dynamic. I have lived in New York for close to seven years now—in order, Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Crown Heights—and at each of those stops I've become a regular at slice shops, laundromats, and cubicle-sized Chinese takeout joints. But strangely, none of those businesses have ever come close to replicating the laconic concord of the corner bodega; I've never exchanged extended warm pleasantries while picking a prescription, and the idea of swapping in a Sal's for a DeAngelo's has rarely panged at my guts. So clearly, something about those 11 p.m. beer runs and cheap ATM fees open us up emotionally, because when Perito told her bodega guy that she was moving uptown, it did feel a bit like a breakup.
"He was like, 'You can't move, how could you be leaving me? This is messed up,'" she continues. "I told him that my sister was still in the area and I'd still be seeing him. He told me I was his favorite customer.… Brooklyn is so much more neighborly than where I live now. It was a big transition and saying goodbye to him was part of that—almost like the last day of high school."
I don't want to get too over my skis here. It needs to be said that bodegas are, definitionally, tiny convenience stores that dot well-trafficked intersections of New York. In that sense they are no different than, say, a 7-11, or a Wawa's, or, hell, an AM-PM—the distinguishing factors, such as they are, can only be perceived among those committed to manifesting the enduring New York mythos, where suddenly a bacon-egg-and-cheese, (a breakfast sandwich that can be reliably found at, yes, a 7-11, Wawa's, or AM-PM,) is blessed with an entirely undeserved dirtbag-aesthete eminence; something that you inexplicably need to be in the know for. Willy Staley—the poet laureate of the post-hipster milieu—coined the term "bodega fetishism" when he analyzed the way young New Yorkers talk about the places they visit to restock on toilet paper in a 2020 essay.
"[They] treat these convenience stores like magical realms, a unique expression of New York’s nonstop bustle and irreducible strangeness," he wrote. "Instead of the ordinary feature of any urban landscape that they are."
Staley is generally right about that. He is also correct in asserting that as so many of the distinguishing vulgarities of New York are blobbed together, the delectable lawlessness of a bodega—the mix-and-match six packs, the inscrutable hours, the imperturbable cats—captures a fading indentation of the city's dangerous splendor. But I tend to find that brand of greybeard-millennial grousing to be tiresome, especially when a far less cynical prism is readily available. Perhaps bodega fetishism is proof that the city is still capable of maintaining a sense of hyper-local community despite the obscene rents, $17 cocktails, and relentless tide of homogenous "new American" gastropubs taking up residence in former check-cashing spots. What a joy it is to possess a softness about moving away from someone that we've never really known. To me, that's the fairytale of New York.
"My bodega saw me in every state of being. All dressed up going out, sick and getting medicine, hungover and getting a sandwich. You let your guard down. It's a place you go to no matter what you're doing," says Annie Shea, a 35-year old social worker who endured a bodega-guy divorce when she moved away from Crown Heights. "You come as you are."
When Shea left the neighborhood, she brought a tray of brownies to her bodega staff. They didn't charge her for her last trip to the counter, as she purchased the miscellany of daily subsistence one final time. When her lease was officially up, the bodega owner's son offered to help load the boxes, packed tight in a truck on its way to a much more spacious one-bedroom.
"It was bittersweet. I've gone back and said hi and buy something when I'm around again," she says. "But it's not the same. We aren't on the same level as we were before."
I wanted to see if I had any hope of replicating what Shea had. My girlfriend and I have decided to eat the rent hike and stick around in our apartment for at least the next 12 months. That means the schematics of my bodega runs won't be changing, at least for now.
The lease renewal seemed like a great time to balm the insecurities that have been rattling around in my head since I moved to New York City, so on the weekend before Christmas, I ferried a couple of beers to the register and mustered one of the neediest questions I've ever asked another human being: Does my bodega notice when his regulars move away? Hell, does he miss them? "Of course, but they always come back to visit," he replied, warmly, before making me reassure him that we wouldn't be leaving anytime soon. Neither of us had much more to add as I tapped my card on the scanner. It is always short and sweet at a bodega, no matter what you're there for.
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