“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.” – Albert Camus
As the coronavirus pandemic wrapped its spiky tentacles around New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the shutdown of the city that doesn’t sleep. “What?” I cried at the television. “Don Jony’s bodega will still be open, right? What about El Primo? He certainly won’t close. Espinal will continue to serve its Dominican fare, comforting and piping hot, correct?” Any New Yorker will understand the urgency of this because bodegas are the beating heart of this city. It’s family; the collective. They can’t shut down. Not now.
With bright red and yellow awnings and sun-faded pictures of food that never existed inside, the bodega is a New York City institution. If you are not on a first-name basis with your local bodega owner (who probably knows all your secrets anyway) and the semi-feral bodega cat — who answers to El Gato — sleeping on top of a pile of packets of Takis, you are not a real New Yorker. Not in my book.
In Spanish, bodega means “storeroom” or “wine cellar.” For New Yorkers, bodegas are our kitchens and living rooms. Their owners are our abuelas, our favorite aunts, that friend from home ready with advice (even if you don’t want it) about life, love, and the universe. You go to the bodega to get some milk, but you walk out with rice, beans, homemade lemonade, empanadas in a brown paper bag to sop up the grease, and some guava cookies. As well as a bottle of Mistolin Raspberry or Apple, bars of Hispano soap and Alcoholado Superior 70.
After Cuomo’s announcement, I put my mask and gloves on and went outside — telling my family I was just going to walk the dog. I needed to make sure that the three bodegas I have in a protective triangle around me would be open during Armageddon in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This was as crucial as knowing where the trenches are.
“I am very scared,” Don Jony Parra, 54, said. “I am afraid people will not come and buy and I will have to close.”
“No,” I said. “Don’t worry. You are our oasis now, our safe passage to things getting back to whatever normal will be, after this. And no, Don Jony, you should not be watching the daily briefings by President Donald Trump. Turn it off,” I said, as I grabbed an armful of bodega candles and left.
At 1071 Deli, Guaro Munoz, 56, better known as El Primo, expressed the same fear.
”Mira lo vacía que están las calles,” he said. Look how empty the streets are. “There is no one out there, look!” It was the first time I had ever seen El Primo worried in the almost 10 years I have known him. His usual conversations, in between listening to the horse races, are about his prowess with women (as I roll my eyes) and news of Santo Domingo. “Are you staying open?” I ask. “Hasta lo último,” he answers. Until the end. Thank God for that.
Now to see about Espinal Deli, known for its amazing Dominican buffet and killer mangú — boiled plantains mashed with lots of butter. The place was packed, with lines outside, because the owners were practicing social distancing. “No vas a cerrar,” I shout to the owner from the street. “No, mi’ja, aquí vamos a estar. No te preocupes.” No, dear, we will be here, don’t worry. I went home feeling much better.
According to the Bodega and Small Business Association of New York, the city’s 16,000 bodegas will stay open to provide essential services during the pandemic. “We will work for our community. Our clients need us. The Governor of New York needs us. We want to serve,” the group’s founder, Fransisco Marte, told the New York Post.
“All we have right now is our community. Big businesses are not really going to help us. Big airlines are not going to help us. Our government is not helping us. The people that are actually helping us are the small communities in which we live. The bodega amplifies that,” said Cristina Henriquez, 30, who lives in Brooklyn.
“They are the embodiment of small businesses, which is where we should be putting all our resources now,” she said.
New York bodegas have different owners now —mostly Dominican and Yemeni —but it is still closely associated with that first generation of entrepreneurs from Puerto Rico, among the hundreds of thousands who left the Caribbean behind for Manhattan after World War II ended. The Puerto Rican community grew from 60,000 in 1940 to 600,000 in 1960. That meant more bodegas owned and run by Puerto Rican families who usually named their shops after places on their beloved island. Nostalgia is the perfume of bodega culture.
“The first bodega I remember going to in the 1970s, on the corner of Bronx Park South and Crotona Parkway (now Poppy’s Deli), was a treasure box of Puerto Rican culture, where you’d find malanga and coconuts before you’d spot an apple in narrow, cluttered aisles,” Charlie Vazquez, Puerto Rican author, and editor, wrote in an article about growing up in the Bronx. (Mr. Vazquez is the author of Fantasmas: Puerto Rican Tales of the Dead, which is available online.)
“Colorful pictures of Jesus Christ and saints lingered in Roman glory behind Plexiglas during this gritty era, when New York City served as the perfect backdrop for crime noir spectacles like The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, two of my favorites,” Vazquez wrote.
“You will more likely hear Arabic devotional music or Dominican bachatas in Bronx bodegas nowadays, but the ghosts of those past, where Puerto Rican New Yorkers as myself used to shop with grandparents and parents, are still there if you listen,” he said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) explained recently what a bodega is to a New Yorker in the Desus & Mero show on Showtime: “The bodega, it’s more than a grocery store, it’s the circle of life.” With her laced up Timbas on, her first order of business was to go and get a bodega favorite: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich en un rolo.
Right now, I know what I would want to be. A bodega cat, safe among a grand mountain of Takis. Yet, I will rest easy knowing that Don Jony will be open tomorrow and that not all is lost.
(PD: After I filed this story, I went to buy some food for my dog at El Primo’s. “Buy everything now,” he said. “I am closing tomorrow and don’t know when we will open again. We are losing money and my family doesn’t want me to be exposed to the virus here.” I say goodbye without an embrace and walk home in the pouring rain, hoping this will soon be over. I get home — cold and wet — and Trump is on the television. I turn it off.)