The more I traveled the U.S., the more I noticed there was a particular facet of existence in New York I found more special each time I came home and even more special now: the bodega. This corner shop, catch-all of anything you could need at any odd hour of the day, has been to me and countless other New Yorkers the bearer of everything from dishwashing liquid to bananas to ramen noodles to roast beef sandwiches. It is my haven of Swiss and apple grilled cheese on whole wheat bread after an evening of too many (read: one) martinis, when I totter in after 12am, sidle up to the counter, and before I can even say hello the man behind the register says, “You want a grilled cheese, right?” He’s there often, but only asks me that after midnight when I’m wearing a little more makeup and there’s a little more spring in my step than usual.
At first, I only realized how much I had taken bodegas for granted visiting places like San Francisco, where from my friend’s apartment in Inner Sunset it’s at least a 15 minute walk to the nearest grocery store. It was something I had not counted on when preparing to go out one evening as I made the mistake of thinking to myself, “Oh, I’ll just run and get a sandwich at the corner,” without realizing said corner was not only said distance away, but they didn’t even make sandwiches after a certain hour. I found myself trotting along street after street, wondering “Who do I have to fuck to get a quick sandwich in this town?” (knowing full well the massive yet delicious sandwich from Yellow Submarine on Irving Street was much too big for my needs at the moment) and wishing for home sweet Heavenly Market on my actual corner, where I could be in and out in 10 minutes after having walked a matter of feet to get there in the first place.
Similarly, a bodega is not a thing in South Florida, whose suburbs for the most part shut up tighter than a drum after 10pm. You also cannot get a sandwich or an orange juice at any hour on just any corner in L.A., something I became privy to after accidentally eating far too much weed chocolate and being high for 18 hours. But in New York? Take your pick. Reese’s cups? You got it. Seltzer? Right this way. Deodorant? Behind the counter. The bodega becomes a partner in your life in a way, always open, always there in a pinch, and more consistent than the subway. The people behind the counter know orders by faces, recognize dogs, say to me hello sweetie how are you doing even on days when I haven’t spoken to another living soul--which, working from home on my own, is something that happens not infrequently. The bodega also becomes this wacky lens into human life. I remember the woman who came in drunk in camouflage leggings with a tiny fluffy white dog at her feet and asked for two slices of cheese in wax paper, paid for them, then left. I remember the elderly woman who racked up $100 worth of groceries, piling them on the counter bit by bit. Doormen who come through in uniforms and loosen their ties as they get $1.50 cups of coffee. Tweens getting smoothies after school.
I realized how much I had taken my bodega for granted recently, too, but in a different way. It’s normally 24 hours, which has spoiled me in countless ways, mostly as I crave the snacks that are usually not present in my home. The back of my refrigerator is almost always visible, save for two rogue containers of sprinkles I’ve never used and a split of champagne I’m always delighted to see despite not quite knowing how it arrived there. Early on in these pandemic crises, the bodega began closing at 6pm, and when I was still married to my microwave in the first few weeks of this mess and jonesing for a grilled cheese at 10pm, I had nowhere to turn. It was, weirdly, when the bodega, this bastion of consistency, was no longer there, that I began to feel most lonely, when it became most apparent to me the threads of my own life in New York had begun to fray.
Amidst chaos--i.e., the regular state of existence in New York--there is comfort in the known, in the recognizable. It’s the reason we develop favorite haunts in a city that seems to be constantly teeming with newness in the form of stores or restaurants or bars or what have you. The absence of a sanctuary can leave us feeling unmoored. Bodegas are, in their own way, sanctuaries. In the midst of perpetual growth and change, they give us roots. I am grateful to the people who own and run and work in these establishments and have kept them open even though their work right now has great risks of its own. They're an essential part of life in New York, one whose absence is all too easily felt for reasons that go far beyond toilet paper, ice cream, and Tic Tacs.
My bodega has extended its hours to 10pm on the weekend, and a wave of joy coursed through me tonight as I bounded out of my apartment at 9pm into the crisp May air to procure a small jug of milk for a baking recipe. A group of pimply teenage boys in Kappa sweats shook long fuzzy manes at each other as they gestured wildly on the iron bench outside. The bodega door was open to let in the cool breeze and welcomed me inside. Through her mask, the lady behind the counter asked me how are you sweetie and I asked her the same through mine. I thanked her twice for being open, and not because I needed milk.