Requiem for a Bodega
My favorite neighborhood bodega burned down this week (well, not literally to the ground, but the place is totaled). I was puttering around in the morning and drinking coffee when I got a whiff of that unmistakable campfire smell, the one that seems cozy and comforting before you remember that there shouldn’t be campfires in old tenement buildings. So I stuck my head out the window, and there was dense smoke pouring over from the next block, the smell becoming less like a pleasant campfire than an essence of noxious melting plastic (and bottles of toxic cleaning products, bags of cat litter, a rainbow of sports drinks, pints of ice cream, thick stacks of lotto tickets, two ATMs…). I turned on the radio, and WNYC reported that it was a three-alarm fire, with some 150 firefighters on the scene. It’s sort of eerie when you can so readily get information about what’s happening practically next door. EV Grieve already had photos.
The fire started in the pizza place next door to the bodega. Along with those two businesses, it took down a beauty salon, the spartan Jackson-Hewitt outpost where I went to have my taxes semi-competently done a month ago, and the still-empty storefront that used to house the video store I rented from almost every day when I first moved here (it closed a year or two ago for fairly obvious reasons). A little further down is a sprawling franchise of the women’s clothing store Rainbow, spilling over with cheap, brightly colored shirts which, now that I think of it, are probably made of incredibly flammable material (as far as I know, they only had smoke damage). Until not too long ago, an old-school hardware store occupied that space (and had, for years), the kind that had everything you could possibly need or imagine, where a man in his late 70′s stood behind the register and counted out tiny screws in his palm when you asked for them. Around the corner, the new bar one door down from the bodega has had at least three other lives in the last six years. Across the street from that, a bar called Drop-off Service took its name from the space’s previous incarnation as a Laundromat (either a tribute to its past life, or a way to avoid prying the lettering saying as much off the front window). It was the first place I washed my clothes when I moved in, right before it closed up shop.
I’ve written before about the particular ways New York produces and processes memories, but there are times when it shows up in starker relief than usual. These few blocks immediately surrounding my apartment have lately seemed to be in near-constant flux; something’s closing or opening every couple of weeks, the storefront grates raised, cleaning supplies lined up on the sidewalk as the new proprietors get it ready for some slightly revised purpose. Everything here exists in layers, and your place in the scheme of things has a lot to do with how aware you are of what you’re standing on top of, and how much you care about seeing old versions of things preserved—or, failing that, at least acknowledged. Your understanding of the recent past shapes your sense of where you fit into the present, like when you start a new job and can’t quite feel at home until some of the people who preceded you leave and are replaced. It’s comforting to know that you’ve witnessed change, even if the changes themselves are unsettling.
A bar being replaced by another bar is one thing, though. Standing across the street from the smoldering ruin of the place where you’ve bought cartons of orange juice and half-and-half (and cat litter and bread and hand-soap and eggs, when you’re too lazy to walk the additional block to the grocery store and deal with the lines…) can make your whole life—or at least these last several years of it—flash before your eyes. After all, the neighborhood convenience store/deli is a pretty intimate place, and we tend to be fiercely loyal to the one we call our own. The guys who kept mine staffed 24 hours a day could tell when I was having a bad day, teased me for always refusing a plastic bag, asked after my boyfriend, smiled and made me change for a twenty even when I wasn’t buying anything. I’m sure they had their own ideas about what their customers’ lives looked like.
The things I bought there over the years are attached to specific memories, and the basic rhythms of everyday: Six-packs of Dogfish Head for only $12, cheaper than anywhere else in the neighborhood. Dark chocolate Reese’s peanut butter cups, when I couldn’t find them anywhere else. The only brand of instant ramen I really like. Drano. The New York Times, when someone swipes our subscription copy. Milano cookies. Overpriced Kraft singles. The hard-to-find flavor of Vitamin Water that I love. Chips. Sugar. Some emergency Immodium, after coming back from Guatemala with food poisoning. Honey. Tissues. Toilet paper. Tulips. Daffodils. Christmas trees being sold on the sidewalk outside, appearing annually in what felt like the definition of dependability. The guy who worked the flower stall outside for awhile and used to throw in a single red rose with whatever else I bought.
And along with the usual stock of things that filled basic needs (however you defined “basic”), they had an amazing inventory of random crap that was there waiting for the right moment. When I was temporarily taking care of a friend’s cat who would not shut up and let me sleep, I went over to the store in sweatpants at 1:30 am, desperate but not really believing they would have the water gun I was hoping to use to squirt water in the yowling animal’s face. Water gun? The guy laughed. They had more than one kind. When I needed boxes to move books into the kitchen while the living room was being re-carpeted, they let me into the back room to check out what they had and let me take as may boxes as I wanted, even tied them up with twine so they’d be easier to get the very short distance home. The store was a constant, a literal cornerstone of an otherwise restless neighborhood.
So last night my boyfriend and I drank two beers from the last six-pack we’ll ever get from the store, and tried to figure out what could—and what will—take its place. There goes the neighborhood.
Photo by Sergey, via EV Grieve
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