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The Bodega: A Neighborhood’s Living Room

From Pasteles to Perrier

For most of us gringos, the heart of the bodega remains concealed behind the Old World patina that obscures its windows full of potato-like roots, hand-lettered no­tices in Spanish, and pictures of saints. It’s an open secret that most of these little Hispanic grocery stores harbor gambling activities (las numeritos), a fact that causes some Hispanics to view the store itself as a social problem. Nonetheless, it’s probably more influential than the church in keeping the community together. The bodega provides, here as in the Caribbean, a meeting place where people can lounge and chat with neighbors — a kind of ex­tension of the family living room. This tradition, and the universal practice of extending credit, popularly called fia’o, ex­emplify a way of life in which neighbors, for better or worse, depend on one another. The bodegero is more a neighbor than a businessman.

On Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, a far cry from its Manhattan namesake, Joe Olavar­ria stands behind the counter of his store, chewing the fat with a middle-aged man who leans against the door frame. Dressed in a navy T-shirt and running shorts, his frequent smile uncovering perfect, white teeth, he looks more like a young tennis pro than a bodega owner. The Arecibo, larger than most bodegas (and free of gambling), testifies to second-generation efficiency: somehow Olavarria has im­posed order on the usual havoc — goods from tins of guava paste to eight-track tapes. It’s hot, and the wobbly ceiling fan seems tired. People are out on the street, and beer and ice creams are going fast.

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“Hey, your change!” Joe calls in Spanish to a frizzy-haired woman with one kid on her arm and another in the stroller.

She turns back. “No, mi amor, compre dos,” she answers, holding up two frozen ices.

“Vamonos, hombre, ya uiene la guagua. (Hurry it up the bus is coming),” com­plains the neckerchiefed guy with two winged red hearts tattooed on one arm, “Alice” emblazoned across them. He scrapes his change off the counter, bump­ing into a young couple as he leaves.

Mira, Joe, okay?” Hardly slowing her pace toward the door, a girl tilts her bag toward him so he can see the potato chips she added to her credit purchase. In full view of his glaring “No Credit ” sign, he reaches to a shelf below the register for a file box and jots something down on a card.

Two sweating adolescents rush in and shove a boxed pair of binoculars toward him.

“Wanna buy these?”

“No thanks.”

Right on their heels, another pair comes in to palm off a carton of “hot” Sanka. “No thanks.” Joe waves them away before they can get a word out.

He rolls his eyes, laughing. “You should see some of the stuff they bring in here. One guy, a junkie, comes in with a loveseat one day. It’s a mess, covered with grease spots, and he’s fighting to get it through the door…”

A skinny nine-year-old girl slides this way and that in the doorway before skid­ding up to the counter.

“When ya gonna wear yuh glasses again?” she asks Joe, who had just taken them off.

“Never.”

“Ya gonna look sick, nevah.” She slams down a quarter for a coconut macaroon.

“Where was ya before the 15th?”

“Friday? I was here.”

“No ya wasn’t.” She skates away on her plastic clogs.

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A tall, hurried-looking black guy comes in, dressed in running shorts over sweatpants. “Change a subway token?” Joe opens the register. No change. The guy’s face erupts in a troubled frown. He passes Mario Flores as he leaves.

Mario Flores comes in, shaking his close-cropped head, scratching his short black beard, spouting off, to the floor and counter it seems. “We Puerto Ricans gotta get together. Puerto Rican youth gotta stop smoking marijuana and supporting enemigos de la revolucion,” he glances up insinuatingly at Olavarria, “who just wan­na make a lot of bucks off their sisters and brothers in the States so they can go back to P.R. and live in style.” He slaps down a small bilingual poster for the block party this Sunday. As Joe looks for tape to put it up with, Flores heads for his store down the street.

Olavarria, who was born in Brooklyn 27 years ago, gave up schoolteaching to run his uncle’s store when the uncle returned to Puerto Rico. With his feet planted firm­ly in both cultures, he enjoys a unique perspective on the bodega’s evolution.

“It used to be a point of honor,” he says, “to pay your bills. Now people aren’t so preoccupied with their reputations. They want to see how much they can get away with.” He still gives credit, but more dis­creetly than his uncle Horatio, whose cus­tomers owed a total of $4000 at the time he left the business.

The culture is changing in style as well as substance, according to Joe.

“A year ago I couldn’t sell one bottle of Perrier — now everyone wants it. People are starting to use heavy cream, sour cream, things you don’t use in Puerto Ri­can food. The young people still eat the Hispanic dishes when they go home to mom, but they’re not going to slave for hours in the kitchen making recao [a complicated, spicy sauce] themselves — they’ll heat at up a can of macaroni and cheese.”

Come Christmas season, it’s different, he says. They want their pernil (pork shoulder) and their plantains to make the traditional pasteles (small, spicy meat cakes). Lazier folks buy their pasteles ready-made by neighborhood women who sell them through the store; good cus­tomers get them as presents, Olavarria says.

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The bodega is a microcosm of a world left behind, a world where people live day­-to-day and social customs attest to strong family ties and Caribbean machismo. In the island, these closet-sized stores are made even friendlier than those here by small bar setups where locals — the men, that is — spend hours playing dominoes while the radio blares jibaro (country) mu­sic. During the World Series, the family TV is brought in so everyone can cheer on their heroes and see how their bets are faring. In Puerto Rico, bodegas keep short­er hours than those in the U.S., which run a hectic seven-day week, 7 a.m. to 10:30 or 11 p.m.

In New York, otherwise nondescript lit­tle stores flaunting layered coats of red or electric blue paint bear names like May­aguez, Borinquen, or Quisqueya, recalling the Caribbean homelands of their owners. Sometimes a sign in Spanish or Spanglish tells people not to hangear in front of their businesses, a warning that seems meant to be, and certainly is, ignored. On warm days, men huddle over makeshift tables, playing dominoes for beer. Inside, the air is sometimes burdened with the smell of stale tobacco. There is the clownish and sometimes tragic drunk who comes in Sun­day afternoon, demanding, “Where’s my petroleo?” to which the storekeeper re­sponds by unearthing a near-empty bottle of rum from behind the counter. Merengue music chucka-toos on the tape player, tempting kids to dance and tease one another, while the store owner’s baseball trophies and favorite saints look down from their poise on a top shelf. Other features reappear, like the ubiquitous Goya products and green bananas — but beyond these, the bodegas reflect the ec­centricities of their individual neighborhoods.

In one section of the South Bronx, a self-taught itinerant painter turned many stores into tropical oases with his finely executed murals. A clerk in Ramos Super Market, at East 184th and Corona, rueful­ly calls attention to a bald brick spot in one of their murals, where vandals partially defaced a haunting, silvery coastal sunset. He says the owner of the store has tried unsuccessfully to find the artist, who had been recently released from prison in Puerto Rico when he did all the work. “No one in the neighborhood even knows his name,” he says, “and just look at that,” he gestures, beaming, with a sweep of his hand, “it’s beautiful.”

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Bodegas in East Harlem are more aus­tere. Business there is transacted briskly through a window in the bullet-proof plastic that envelops everything but the customer. No signs are needed to prohibit loitering; the Plexiglas proclaims the fears and distrust of most store owners. Among customers, it seems to heighten tension as palpable as the hard penny candies that draw kids to the bodegas in other neighborhoods.

Patrolman Roger Casuso has worked in the 25th Precinct for five years. According to him, about 90 per cent of local robberies involve weapons. However, he thinks the bodegas are no more plagued than other businesses, and that the familiar nature of the bodega may even afford them an ad­vantage.

“Sometimes they don’t bother owners who’ve been in the neighborhood for years,” he says, “especially if the owner lives in the neighborhood and the family’s known. But if someone just moves in, say, from Queens, they’re more liable to get hit.”

Elena Vargas and her husband Frank bought the Arroyo Market, at Lexington and 112th, about four months ago, after­ selling their old store near Yonkers, where business was slow. They immediately installed the Plexiglas and now they’re open 24 hours a day, turning a neat profit. A heavy, jet-black-haired woman, she looks like she could give any thief a run for his money.

“We haven’t gotten ripped off yet,” she says in Spanish, “but we’re not taking any chances.”

Rosalie Garcia, a longtime resident of the nearby Johnson Housing Project, says most of the bodegas’ shields have gone up in the last year or so. She still feels at home in the Arroyo Market, despite the changes, mostly because of one clerk she’s known since she was 10. Even when she moved out of the neighborhood for a while, she trav­eled back once a week to her old favorite store.

“Rosie gives me better cuts of meat, because she knows me. And she loves my daughter and my nephew. The kids like to go there because no one follows them around to see if they’re stealing.” She buys almost everything at the bodega, but for fresh Caribbean fruits and vegetables, she goes to the Korean produce markets.

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In Washington Heights–Inwood, a lot of floor space in the front of the stores is taken up by cardboard boxes filled with batatas (fat, red-skinned sweet potatoes), yautias, yucas, and the hundred and one other roots used commonly by French, English, and Spanish-speaking West Indi­ans in their native dishes. In this area, unlike others, most of the stores have large butcher sections. They are thus character­ized by a fishy-meaty smell and the sight of plump red sausages (chorizo) and pig feet nestled against the freezer glass, like large, fleshy bicuspids. On St. Nicholas, storekeepers measure out just the right amounts of fresh peppers and condiments for a single batch of sancocho (stew), pack­aged in little sandwich bags and tied with a twist. The magazine racks, besides the small soap operas in print called novelas, carry magazines on santeria (Cuban voodoo). A shelf in the back stocks an eclectic variety of prayer candles, whose tall jam jar exteriors have been consecrated, in white lettering, to “The Seven African Powers” (Chango, Ogum, Eligua, Orula, Obatala, Yemalla, Ochun), or to St. Anthony, St. Barbara, Our Lady of Altagracia, or, in the case of the “Alleged Money-Drawing Candle,” the god of the num­bers game.

In one store, a Cuban bodegero brags, “We always sell the winning number here.” He stands at the register, sifting through a fistful of oblong betting slips, to see which of his customers “hit” today. A young woman who’s been scrutinizing the dulces (sweets) that cover half the counter, good-naturedly laments her misfortune. She failed to play the number of her hospi­tal room when she delivered her baby two weeks ago.

“I was too tired to bother,” she says in Spanish, “but you should’ve seen my rela­tives — they made out on the room number, the time he was born, the street the hospi­tal was on…”

Those who can’t wait until tomorrow to read the race results in the Daily News start dropping in at their favorite bodega after the number’s been called in, which is around 4 p.m. on the West Side. As a service to their customers, even stores that don’t take bets keep informed through the local bookie.

Farther down St. Nicholas, Dominican bodegas prevail. Sunday afternoon, the numbers posted prominently in every store represent the last two digits of the winning numbers in Santo Domingo’s National Lottery. In one store, a sign in Spanish says, “1000 pesos for el pale in any form.” El pale is a combination of the first two winning numbers. A carbon copy of someone’s betting slip indicates she lost $33 that day, playing $2, $3, and $10 amounts on various combinations.

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The example seems to illustrate His­panic leaders’ complaints that the bodega fosters self-defeating vices in a community already beset with problems. Still, the bodega is not the sole preserve of the numbers game, which thrives in other Hispanic establishments from dry cleaners to botanicas (small shops that sell plants and religious articles). It is also argued by some that if all these businesses were closed, the same people could squander their money legally on the New York State Lottery. Since the illegal betting isn’t exactly clandestine, one suspects local police have bet­ter things to do than bother bookies. A Washington Heights woman who declined to be identified, says, “The cops don’t live in the neighborhood, so they don’t really care. I even heard the cops play.”

The bodega is also criticized for charging higher prices than the supermarket. Clara Galvano lives on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights. “I always go to the A&P,” she says, “or Daitch, seven blocks away, so I won’t have to pay 10 cents or 15 cents more on everything. Their prices are exorbitant.”

Many are drawn to the bodega despite the higher prices, by its sociability and Caribbean products they can’t get elsewhere. “They’re great,” says Emil Vega, of Long Island City, Queens. “You can find anything there — yucas, yautias, news­papers from Santo Domingo.…” Vega, a stocky young man in his twenties, says he goes to three Dominican bodegas in his neighborhood so he can bullshit with the owners about their native country.

The same Washington Heights woman who faulted them for gambling activities, says she distrusts the bodegeros. An at­tractive woman in her fifties, she is proud of having educated her children, one a pharmacist, the other attending law school. She’s lived 20 years in the neighborhood, where, she says, in the beginning, her family was shunned by non-Hispanics. Now that they’ve become accepted, she resents behavior which, she thinks, gives the Hispanic Community a bad name. “They always blame the Puerto Ricans,” she says, “when something bad happens.”

She sees the neighborhood’s deteriora­tion as the fault of another Hispanic group — Cubans, who according to her, “even sell marijuana [in their bodegas]. On every block they have bolita [another word for numbers],” she continues. She feels, how­ever, that all the bodegas are a detriment to the community because, she says, they encourage people on welfare to “spend their checks gambling while their kids go hungry.” Some bodegeros, she says, profit by accepting food stamps for lesser mounts of cash, for their betting customers.

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It’s significant that most of the bodega’s more vehement detractors are middle­-class or upwardly mobile. For many, the little Old World store seems to symbolize poverty and ignorance. Racism causes the same kind of self-hatred among Hispanics as in other minorities who disdain old cus­toms that remind them of the ghetto.

Johnny Torres, founder and president of the Spanish Merchants Association, thinks most bodegas are honestly run and vital to the community. He sits in his spacious office at the Bronx Terminal Market, above Metro Food Wholesalers, one of several organizations he established to serve the bodegeros. He turns this way and that in his swivel chair, watching the partial glass wall for the next interruption. His expensively tailored three-piece suit and gold watch belie the fact that he’d ever gotten his hands dirty selling sooty yucas.

“I found myself the owner of a bodega,” he says, “when after one week, my brother gave up the store I bought him. He couldn’t handle it.” Unable to sell the store, which he’d bought for $9000 cash, Torres had to make a go of it. As a com­mercial interior designer, he was then un­schooled in running groceries and his subsequent difficulties convinced him of the need to help other Hispanic businesses. To that end he set up the Spanish Merchants Association, 70 per cent of whose 1200 members are bodegeros. A $50 membership fee entitles them to attend meetings at which merchandising techniques and business administration are discussed. His cooperative, Metro Food Wholesalers, de­veloped as an alternative to existing food distributors, who, according to him, sold to bodegas at unfair prices. Now doing a $19 million business, Metro owns a 20,000-foot warehouse.

“Many bodegeros,” says Torres, “fail because they don’t know how to admin­ister credit. We show them how to keep up­-to-date records and follow up overdue payments. We teach them to avoid mer­chandising mistakes like putting the Ajax next to the soup.” Association members can hire Torres’s “Technical Assistance Program” to analyze their stores’ trade volume, location, and layout, and then whip the store into a gleaming “Metro Superette.” The fading signs, often embellished with tropical scenes, are replaced with the neat Metro logo, and Muzak is installed to keep ’em moving down the aisles — and out the door. “Having people hanging around obstructs business,” says Torres.

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It may not look much like a bodega, but Aureo Soto is happy with his Superette. Soto runs a store at 1524 Unionport Road in the middle-class Parkchester section of the Bronx. He’s very grateful to Torres, he says, for finding him this new location and helping him make it successful. “He’s done a lot to help the bodegeros,” he adds.

When Torres was asked how he thought his favorite mayoral candidate would help the bodegeros, he explained that Mayor Koch helped a food distributor friend of his, Manolo Fernandez Condal. The mayor facilitated Condal’s purchase of a city building and arranged low-interest city loans for him. “I have lunch with the mayor every two weeks,” added Torres, who recently helped raise funds for the Koch campaign.

Bronx councilman Gilberto Gerena­-Valentin praised Torres for his work on behalf of bodegeros, but differs with him as to how the mayor’s doing. “In supporting Koch,” he says, “Torres is going against the grain of the community he defends.” The mayor’s racist policies are best il­lustrated, he believes, by his gradual removal of police from poor areas, where they’re needed. The bodegeros, he points out, are especially vulnerable to theft and assault because of the late hours they keep. “It took six months,” says Valentin, “to get the city to change the lighting system and parking patterns of a part of East 138th Street in the South Bronx that was so dangerous people were afraid to go out after six.”

He believes the needs of the Hispanic community won’t be met until it has political representation. According to Gerena­-Valentin, that’s where he and Johnny Torres disagree. Mentioning that Torres, who came from a wealthy family in Puerto Rico, is now rumored to be a millionaire, he hints that economic factors rule his politics. “Torres says the whole community will benefit if business prospers. He says if Hispanics aren’t elected to office, someone else will do it [protect their interests] for them. That’s why 60 per cent of Puerto Rico is on food stamps,” Gerena-Valentin adds bitterly, “because someone else is doing it for them.”

For anyone who wonders how those people will eat during the Reagan reign, it’s somewhat comforting to think of Hector Vasquez. A short, pot-bellied man with mutton-chop sideburns, he talks excitedly in Spanish about Metro’s new image for his store on Corona Avenue in the South Bronx. Store policies will change as well as the decor, he says. He won’t give credit anymore, except to the church across the street. “People don’t like to pay,” he explains. “But I can’t see people go hungry. If someone needed milk and bread for their kids, I’d just pay for it out of my pocket.” It looks like the next few years the only folks who’ll look out for El Barrio are the ones who always have.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bodega Are the Summer’s Ultimate Brooklyn Band

In 2016, when Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio’s band Bodega Bay broke up, they determined things had to change if they were going to keep making music. The co–lead singers had been in various bands for years, carefully taking notes of what worked and what didn’t. They ultimately compiled a list of twelve commandments — rules to rock by — for Bodega, their newly formed Bushwick/Ridgewood–based post-punk act: 

  • No references to garage rock.
  • No glam rock.
  • Be more democratic.
  • Do not be “stock” or “basic.”
  • No “pizza core” (“an ethos of playing rock music that’s like, ‘We’re drinking light beer, eating pizza, and we’re going to rock’ ”).
  • Every measure of the record has to earn its place, both lyrically and musically.
  • Do not repeat lyrics.
  • No fluff.
  • No distorted power chords or fuzzy chords (“It’ll sound really good but it would just suck up so much of the frequencies of the mix”).
  • No vocal effects allowed.
  • No lyrical platitudes allowed.
  • Every lyric needs a specific context (“Where does this take place?”).

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Hozie, having grown up all over the country, is a bit of a musical nomad and had been playing in loads of what he calls “generic guy rock bands” since moving to New York a decade ago. He met Belfiglio, who grew up in Kingston, New York, in 2013. A year later, she joined Bodega Bay, which Hozie had started with drummer Aiko Masubuchi, and they released their only album, 2015’s Our Brand Could Be Your Life, but grew tired of that group’s glam rock tendencies. They wanted to launch a more serious project, eventually rounding out the lineup with bassist Heather Elle, guitarist Madison Velding-Vandam, and Montana Simone on the stand-up drums.

“This is an older band — we’re all 28 to 33,” Belfiglio explains. “When we got together two years ago, we were all going through our Saturn returns, we were facing what it is we wanted from our own lives as well as from the projects that we’d been in — there was a lot of contention around that. This band is very vocal — everyone is an alpha dog, every member has their own very particular opinions and wants to be heard. That tension was really good in creating rules because we had to fight. We had to make rules about how we had to come to terms with how to make decisions with each person feeling good and feeling heard. It was a really good aspect for pushing us forward with intention.”

That intention makes them likely the most self-serious and motivated band coming up in Brooklyn at the moment — and perhaps the best. But the last rule on the above list, that every lyric needs a specific context, is what separates them the most from their local contemporaries and what has led to their debut album, Endless Scroll (out today via What’s Your Rupture?), sounding like the best account of what life is like in Bushwick in 2018.

Bodega live at Brooklyn Bazaar

“So many Brooklyn bands don’t sound like Brooklyn bands,” Hozie says, noting that they wanted to place the listener in Bushwick specifically. “The third song is all set in my mind in [legendary DIY music venue] Palisades, which is now long since gone.”

That song, “Name Escape,” simultaneously takes the piss out of gentrified Bushwick culture while providing a loving account of its bar and music scene, where a sea of predominantly white bearded men, all trying to stand out, end up looking exactly the same.

Hozie, trying to figure out who the hell he’s run into at Palisades, pseudo-raps through each memory he associates with the mystery man. “I’ve seen him at Palisades closing out tabs,” he begins, adding: “I’ve seen him outside of metros flagging down cabs”; “his pants are much tighter than the last time we met”; “he’s got a pizza-core badge which he bought on the Internet”; “online he’s typing with a pseudonym so even messaging I’m not quite sure it’s him.” In a neighborhood that prides itself on being different and unique, everyone ends up looking the same, complete with leather jackets and skinny jeans.

The local references don’t stop there; Endless Scroll’s lyrics see Hozie move out of his apartment on Bogart Street in Bushwick following a breakup; complain about $9 smoothies in Union Square; ride the Staten Island Ferry while mourning a lost friend; hook up at the halfway point of the Williamsburg Bridge; and travel to see Belfiglio’s great-grandparents’ name on Ellis Island — all while staring at their various computer screens and slaving away at their various desk jobs. When on “Bodega Birth,” Endless Scroll’s second track, Belfiglio sings, “This is documentary,” it’s easy to believe her; the album perfectly describes the struggle it takes to live in a gentrifying New York neighborhood in 2018 — the glamour of experiencing this city’s famous landmarks, the monotonous everyday work grind to afford to do so, and the drunken release at closing time at Brooklyn’s various cheap dive bars. When Bodega say, “You can’t knock the hustle,” you know damn well that they’ve worked their asses off to get here.

“I was just trying to write from a much more personal place,” Hozie explains. “I feel like you have a moral responsibility when you write a song or when you’re on a stage to really tell the truth.”

Taking what they call “the route of honesty,” Hozie and Belfiglio leave their lives exposed throughout Endless Scroll’s fourteen tracks. Though they write about their home neighborhood in a remarkably similar way to how Ryan Adams described the East Village in the early 2000s, the two songwriters also explore more intimate topics, including their own relationship origins — the two met by chance at an of Montreal show at Music Hall of Williamsburg in 2013 and began dating three years later — the breakup of Bodega Bay, and the death of Hozie’s mother, who passed away a week before they started recording the album in April 2017.

Produced by Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown, Endless Scroll interrogates the role of technology in their relationship, social lives, and their day jobs. “I fell in love staring at screen/Triple dots I see bouncing/Name lights up/My heart will beat,” the two sing simultaneously on “Bodega Birth,” describing the thrill of seeing each others’ Gchats come through, later adding, “I touch myself while staring at your chat text box,” on “Margot.”

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“We’re always communicating through the internet somehow,” says Belfigio, who spent her days behind a desk as a receptionist at a massage parlor, and later at a post-audio production studio in Union Square; Hozie, meanwhile, worked in the edit lab of the New York Film Academy. “That’s how we got together as a couple,” says Hozie. “We would be talking eight hours a day. That lyric, ‘Stare at computer,’ popped into my head — ‘Wow, that’s my whole life.’ All day from nine to five I’d be staring at my computer. I’d get off, come home, maybe write a song and track a demo staring at a computer. Then I’d be editing a movie staring at a computer. Then time for some rest and relaxation, maybe some porn or Netflix — that’s still staring at a computer. Maybe I’ll listen to an album now — computer. Catch up with an old friend — computer. You literally can’t escape.”

Such is life in 2018; love stories increasingly begin online and are perpetuated through text conversations, Facebook relationship statuses, and Instagram couple photos. Hozie and Belfiglio are hyperaware of this, using the all-encompassing role of technology in our lives not only to describe their own experiences, but also to portray what being a resident in Brooklyn during the Trump era is like for the outside world. Bodega have made their lyrics intensely specific, but in doing so, they’ve created perhaps the first quintessential Bushwick album to date, uniquely relatable to those who live here. It’s no wonder that they’ve become the neighborhood’s favorite band — members of the Mystery Lights, Future Punx, and the aforementioned Parquet Courts frequent their shows, often moshing in the first row.

As they mentioned in the list of rules that were conceived at the start of Bodega, every lyric needs a specific context. Just as Arctic Monkeys introduced the world to Sheffield, England, on their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Bodega have done so with Bushwick, providing the first relatable and comprehensively detailed account of the gritty, pretentious, and perpetually fucked-up neighborhood that’s come to dominate the New York music scene in recent years.

Categories
THE FRONT ARCHIVES Working

Why Are New York’s Doritos Disappearing?

Usually, regardless of the New York City borough, you’re no more than five minutes from three sure things: a turkey sandwich on a roll, a can of soda, and a 1.75-ounce bag of Doritos. It’s a Gotham guarantee, even more reliable in its ubiquity than a Starbucks latte or the immortal bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich.

In last Monday’s New York Post, Josh Kosman reported that the unmistakable crinkly-shiny bags of Frito-Lay products were conspicuously absent from many small grocery stores, newsstands, and bodegas around New York City. Kosman suggested that salary cutbacks affecting the company’s drivers had led to a workforce exodus that, in turn, left our salty-tooth dollars to be spent on other things. Smartfood? Utz? Kettle chips with Himalayan salt and avocado oil? Maybe as a stopgap, but — sensible eaters, close your eyes for this next part — there’s really no long-term replacement for the sacred nacho-cheese Doritos. (In last year’s award-winning Lady Bird, Tracy Letts immortalized the snack with an enunciation of “Doritos” that will not be bested in our lifetimes.) Whether they come in a tiny 1-ounce bag for box lunches, a multipurpose 1.75-ounce or 3.125-ounce bag, or the full-size 15-ounce bag for long car rides or lonely nights spent with a six-pack of Lagunitas Maximus IPA and a pint of AmeriCone Dream (what, just me?), there’s a bag size for every occasion.

PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, makes for a good scapegoat. The company has been struggling in vain to entice investors after flat year-on-year stock performance and exactly-as-expected dividend payouts, and the resulting financial difficulties have trickled down to affect drivers. The company laid off nearly 1 percent of its 110,000 employees last month at the same time it announced a round of thousand-dollar bonuses to other employees. Also, perhaps inspired by new tax breaks, the company’s already long-gestating stock repurchase plan swelled from $12 billion to $15 billion. Yet these moves haven’t translated into tangible results, besides some curiously blank shelf space at your corner bodega.

“That’s happening everywhere, man,” Rob, a delivery driver for a competing beverage distributor, told me as he stocked shelves at a convenience store in Queens. Rob and his partner, Darren, pick up their load in downtown Brooklyn and at the Port Authority piers and make drops around central Queens: Corona, Elmhurst, Maspeth, and Jackson Heights. Their workday officially begins when they start hauling at five in the morning, and ends around two in the afternoon. But when you factor in their commutes, from East New York and Far Rockaway, respectively, their day is much longer than that.

Rob gave me some figures of how a typical driver cobbles together a paycheck: a base salary plus a few pennies for every case delivered. Other drivers I talked to, like Marce in Kew Gardens, who delivers produce for an outfit much smaller than PepsiCo, build their paychecks by relying on overtime earned from sixty- to seventy-hour weeks. In the case of these two guys, dedicated sales teams pre-canvass stores, usually by phone or email, to get a fulfillment agreement. Stores have the privilege of changing their mind at the point of delivery, if the product hasn’t moved fast enough, or if they don’t have enough space.

The chance of canceled orders is something drivers have always had to expect. But, Ron explained, the distributor he works for recently implemented a new commission structure where it takes back almost half of what the drivers earn for each cardboard box unpacked and shelved — a clean doubling of the 22 percent clawback when he signed on. Competition for space in even the most remote drugstores and supermarkets is legendarily cutthroat, even while marketers and manufacturers wage a billion-dollar commerce war across continents. But on the micro level, drivers might correctly feel that they’re the very sandpaper companies use to unstick any irksome nickels and dimes not already being siphoned into deeper pockets upstairs.

At the tactical level, however, delivery drivers may have a clearer big-picture view than executives and company officers. Two PepsiCo drivers — both of whom spoke freely and enthusiastically on the condition of anonymity — confirmed several points outlined in Kosman’s article relating to small operations (newsstands and bodegas) being neglected in many neighborhoods around town. This was the case even after the company rallied to get nonregular drivers, such as managers and dispatchers, to cover blind spots caused when as many as 45 out of 140 fleet drivers quit as a result of the new salary structure.

What was the flash point? The two PepsiCo drivers said it was an abhorrent new contract signed last summer, which both men told me their union did nothing to alleviate or avert. Where pay had previously been a 30 percent salary–70 percent commission split, incentivizing drivers on two fronts (land new accounts, take good care of existing ones), as of July 2017, the split reversed to 80-20 in favor of salary, with new, more difficult metrics required to earn commissions. (Teamsters Local 802, which negotiated the contract, did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.) Not exactly the principle the early-twentieth-century sociologist Vilfredo Pareto had in mind when he created the 80-20 rule.

Both of the PepsiCo haulers I talked to told me that the new model no longer encourages outreach to the city’s smaller operators. Consequently, many owners of small stores and kiosks have found themselves compelled to make cold approaches to drivers, and to offer cash for a box or two of what may be the best-selling snacks and drinks in their inventory.

“Our hands are tied,” one driver said. “Guys who own bodegas might come up to my truck and offer me twenty dollars, thirty dollars for a few boxes of chips, but I can do nothing. It’s not in the system, so when they scan everything back at the base, it looks like theft, and then I get in trouble. I could lose my job.” He explained that it wasn’t so long ago when he would have taken the time to sign up a new account, or restore one that got left behind. But now, it wasn’t worth the effort.

In the end, massive driver attrition is a punishment that keeps on punishing: Somewhere between the transmission-grinding gearshift from 30-70 to 80-20 in the drivers’ salary-commission model, those who remain with PepsiCo have seen their incentives torched. Metro area Duane Reades and Rite Aids may never notice a Frito hiccup (they’re not the clients you want to leave high and dry), but many smaller sellers like the all-night store outside your subway station or the news and sundries kiosk in your midtown high-rise office building might have just been wiped from the margins.

Or if the math is too granular, consider the driver exodus ratio in these terms: You have just opened a large bag of Doritos. I walk over and, with one swipe of my right hand (which, believe me, is a veteran chip scooper-upper), abscond with one-third of the bag’s contents, and vanish. Now imagine that happening to a city of 8 million.

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Bodega Owners Don’t Think New Yorkers Will Shop at a Vending Machine Called ‘Bodega’

Last Wednesday, not long after Fast Company sparked tabloid headlines with its profile of a start-up that hoped to install unstaffed pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms — under the name Bodega — emails started pouring in to Frank Garcia.

Garcia has represented thousands of bodega owners as chair of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. (He recently became chair of the National Association of Latino State Chambers.) In his interview with Fast Company, he offered harsh words for the Silicon Valley–backed start-up: “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,” he told the publication. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Then the messages came, arriving through the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce’s website. “People were angry,” Garcia tells the Voice. “They’re wondering, ‘How can I help?,’ ‘Do you need money?’ ‘Do you need a lawyer?’ Someone emailed me just to say that when they’re coming home late at night, ‘the bodega knows my name, will make me a sandwich, and make sure I get home all right.’ ”

A Bodega, unlike a bodega, promises to offer customized, nonperishable items in five-foot-wide pantry boxes. A phone app will allow users to unlock the box, and surveillance cameras will register what they’ve picked up, automatically charging their credit cards. Imagine a pantry filled with power bars and Gatorades in a gym, or popcorn, tampons, and makeup remover in a sorority house. This month, the San Francisco–based founders opened 50 Bodega locations on the West Coast, with plans for more than 1,000 locations across the country by 2018.

With the increasing anxiety over keeping small businesses afloat, the Bodega start-up hit a very sensitive nerve. Bodega co-founder Paul McDonald referred the Voice to this statement on Fast Company’s profile, admitting that “the reaction that we got…certainly wasn’t what we expected,” and insisting that “challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.” (Fast Company’s headline, “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete,” wasn’t helpful in that regard; neither was McDonald’s statement to the publication that with his product, “centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”)

McDonald’s company notes that actual bodegas offer thousands of items, whereas they’ll provide only eight square feet of retail shelf space to hold fewer than a hundred nonperishable items, but no fresh food.

It’s a concept that led the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development to dub the concept “Brodega.” (The company’s choice of a “bodega cat” as its logo has come in for particular criticism; Garcia has suggested the possibility of a lawsuit to force a logo change, but declined to go into specifics.) Quenia Abreu, president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce, who also works with bodega owners, says, “We’re honored they wanted to use the name, but if they try to trademark it…we would fight for that, definitely.”

The history of New York’s beloved corner stores starts with the first generation of arrivals from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and ’50s. Latinx-owned bodegas expanded across the city, many as the sole shopping outlet in neighborhoods underserved by retail and grocers. Ramón Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, says there are roughly 14,000 bodegas across the city today, with an increasing number owned by Arab Americans.

For most New York bodega owners, app-driven vending machines are less of a threat than soaring rents, according to Murphy. “That’s the biggest concern on the brain,” he says. “Every time you see a bodega close, there’s only one reason. It’s the rent. Bodegas don’t close for anything…except for a rent problem.” Garcia estimates five to six Hispanic businesses close a day throughout New York, thanks to rising commercial rents caused by widespread gentrification.

While the city has laws protecting affordable housing, there’s nothing similar to stop landlords from drastically increasing rent on mom-and-pop storefronts. (In 2015, one longtime Boerum Hill bodega facing a rent increase from $4,000 to $10,000 plastered “Artisanal Rent Hike Price Sale” signs on its window, advertising Dickson’s Farms Condoms for $24.97.) The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill that would require landlords to offer multiyear leases and submit to binding arbitration, has been around since the 1980s, and is currently sponsored by a majority of councilmembers. Yet it’s remained stalled, with real estate lobbyists questioning its constitutionality.

Lena Afridi, policy coordinator for equitable economic development for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, says that “the language exists when we’re talking about housing and gentrification…but it doesn’t really exist concerning small businesses.” ANHD began small-business anti-displacement work last year, and helped pass the city’s first commercial tenant anti-harassment legislation. The Bodega drama, she says, “was a moment where people — who have seen all these changes in their neighborhood — understood that the bodega is something that’s crucial and part of New Yorkers’ lives. It elicited an immediate response that doesn’t often come from threats to other small businesses.”

It’s too early to tell whether the idea will take off; a Business Insider article found that in many of the San Francisco locations Bodega was supposedly tested in, the cases were nowhere to be found, though employees at one location with a confirmed Bodega said they were glad to have it since shopping options were few near their office.

That may play out differently in New York, where actual bodegas are more prevalent than most places in the country. Still, in a competitive real estate market where property developers test a rotation of amenities to woo tenants, Bodega will likely make an appearance by 2018 in a new rental or condo development. (It’s also worth mentioning that Eater editor Helen Rosner has questioned the logistics of stocking customized items in Bodegas across the country, which she calls “an intensely complex logistical apparatus.”)

“It’s a vending machine! Can you buy a gallon of  milk in there?” asks Abreu. “People like to go into bodegas, people want to have a conversation, they want to have an interaction.”

Murphy echoes the sentiment. “We know, especially in a low-income community, we’re part of the community, we’re working to help the community,” he says. “No machine can do that.”

 

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The Strangest Sandwiches in the City Come From Sunny & Annie’s

The deli sandwiches from my neighborhood bodega are reserved for particular times of day: 4 a.m., when I’m stumbling home drunk, or around midday after a big night out when I’m stocking up on water and Advil and don’t have the willpower to wait for a more decent meal to soak up the hangover.

Sunny and Annie’s is not in my neighborhood–it’s in the Lower East Side. But it’s still a bodega, and so I was skeptical. I quickly learned, though, that this bodega offers some strange things from its deli counter, a menu of sideshow freak sandos with head-scratching names, quirky misspellings, and a slight political bent.

A rainbow of neon construction paper, each sheet scrawled with a different sandwich description, is taped to the glass of the deli case, and it can be a hazard to pause and read: You’ll be forced to contend with shoppers squeezing by to grab sundries off the narrow aisle’s shelves. But if you can secure a good position, you’ll notice some absurd descriptions amid the classics, all served on 10-inch hoagie buns.

The inexplicably named 2013, for instance, stacks three kinds of cheese, dried cranberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers, avocado, arugula, onion, green chile sauce, and pesto between two halves of a roll, a senseless amalgamation of produce and green sauce that I’m still trying to understand. Of course I had to order it.

The first thing I noticed about the $8 sandwich was its weight, which was probably around two pounds. Mozzarella, cheddar, and provolone cheese account for a fair amount of the heft; pairing those with avocado, cantaloupe, and cranberry creates a flavor profile akin to the one-two punch of a slice of cheddar with apple pie. The raw onion and green chili sauce add a spicy note, but the earthy, nutty pesto sauce is a weird addition. I still haven’t figured out what any of this has to do with 2013, by the way. And the sandwich is unrelated to the 2011–a mix of hummus, avocado, and other veggies–as well as the 2012, made with tuna.

The 2013 after a night in the fridge.
The 2013 after a night in the fridge.

I will never order this sandwich again, but that’s not because I found it revolting–despite its roughshod construction, it actually tasted a lot better than I expected. There are simply so many other weird sandwiches at Sunny and Annie’s, it’s not worth revisiting the same one.

Like the bodega’s claim, the P.H.O. Real sandwich, which puts some essential pho ingredients–beef, cilantro, bean sprouts, basil, and Sriracha sauce–on a hoagie to form the mother of all banh mi. Another winner is the kimchi bulgolgi sandwich, which blends the spicy pickled cabbage with roast beef, fried onions, and avocado.

And then there are the politically charged meals: The bodega’s democratic sandwich selections include the “John carry” (their spelling, not mine), which campaigns on a platform of lemon chicken, chipotle peppers, mozzarella, avocado, cilantro, tomato, and onion. Republicans can chow down on the Bush sandwich, which amalgamates teriyaki chicken, roasted seaweed, hot peppers, avocado, cucumber, onions, fresh mozzarella, and ranch dressing (because he’s a goddamn American, obviously). And our soon-to-be-ousted mayor has his legacy enshrined in the “Mr. Bloom burga,” which gives you a choice of curry chicken salad or lemon chicken with avocado, seafood salad, jalapeño sauce, cilantro, watercress, spinach, cucumber, tomato, and onion.

Not sure I’ll ever try that last one, though: I’m not terribly interested in putting something named after Bloomberg in my mouth (sorry, Mike, it was the seafood salad that put me off).

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Bob Marley Wants You to CHILL!

Legal (except in New Jersey schools) tranquilizers?

Peeking out from among the Malta cans and bottles of kola champagne and ginger beer in bodega refrigerator cases in neighborhoods like Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, and Clinton Hill, beverages bearing a likeness of Wailers lead singer (and prodigious pothead) Bob Marley have been appearing. (And what college student doesn’t have his dreads-framed visage plastered somewhere in the dorm room?) That likeness has been pressed into service in Bob Marley-branded beverages, alliteratively called Marley’s Mellow Mood. FitR picked up a couple on Church Avenue, on an evening when squad cars went screaming by, heading into East Flatbush. We certainly needed some nerve-calming.

It’s almost a trend: beverages intended to counter energy drinks, filled with substances reputed to make you chill instead of get up and yell. The Marley’s Mellow Moods we spotted were a Peach, Raspberry, and Passion Fruit Ice Tea and a Citrus Soda, but the website also lists Mocha, Green Tea with Honey, and Berry flavors. Each beverage “reduces stress and relieves tension” according to the blurb on the container.

The back of the receptacle claims the star’s “persona rights” for Fifty-Six Hope Road Music, Ltd., a company owned by Marley’s heirs that has been engaged in an epic struggle for rights to the singer’s music. Clearly, they have no reverence for his posthumous reputation.

The citrus soda flaunts the same color as Mountain Dew (piss yellow?), and tastes mildly tart, but ultimately not especially flavorful. No particular “citrus” is identifiable. Inevitably, we mixed it with the Haitian rum Babancourt–a neighborhood favorite–despite advice to not drink it with alcohol printed on the can. It tasted much better. And then we really chilled.

We suffered no ill effects. However, the Associated Press reports that several New Jersey students became ill after drinking the beverage in December, and it was henceforth banned from the schools.

Not much to look at, but when mixed with rum, magic happens.

Is Bob Marley rolling over in his grave?

Check out the namesake Bob Marley song, “Mellow Mood,” after the jump.

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There’s a Loosie Shooter Loose in the Bronx

On Sunday morning, a Yemeni immigrant was shot in broad daylight on his first day working at a bodega in the Bronx. He’s in stable condition, sustaining an injury where he was shot in the hip. But the reason? The customer wanted to use his credit card to buy a loosie — a single cigarette sold out of the pack — and the unidentified worker denied him to do so (because a loosie is usually only 50 cents or so; nowhere near any credit card minimum.)

In the video shown above, released by the NYPD and uploaded to YouTube by Gothamist, the assailant is seen arguing at an unseen figure, and he gets physical for a second or two. Then, hours later, he returns, hood on and gun in hand, to seek vengeance on the worker.

With the release of this footage, the cops are hoping that residents nearby are able to spot out the suspect. He has been listed as a 30-year-old African American, 5′ 9″, and around 165 pounds or so.

Readers, be on the lookout as well for two reasons: First, no person should ever suffer like that on his or her first day at work, especially those new to America; and second, no person should ever suffer like that over a loosie. That’s just not right.

 

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On Being Mistaken For a Restaurant Safety Inspector (And Four Crazy Things We Learned About Restaurant Grading)

This morning, we were in a café near our home that we go to very infrequently. Walking up to the counter we studied the menu for a moment before ordering a coffee.

“False alarm!” the barista (who turned out to also be the owner) barked to his colleague.

“What false alarm?” we inquired.

“We thought you were a health inspector.”

Oh my, we thought. We must change our wardrobe if that’s the vibe we’re giving off.

Turns out the café (we’ll keep the name to ourselves, as the owner and the NYC health inspector we finally met were quite forthcoming with information while not knowing where we work) had already had an initial inspection and they were awaiting a follow-up. Still, despite the fact we were dressed in kind of industrial-looking clothes and carrying a manila file folder, we were a little annoyed to have been confused for being a health inspector.

And, the staff kept asking us if we were working undercover. (Perhaps we always are in the journalism field, but still.) They seemed to think we might announce ourselves at any moment. We were planning to prank them as we paid our bill and say, yes, we were from the Department of Health, it had all been a ruse, and it was time to show us what was under the sink.

But, right before we could, our plans were dashed. The proprietor held up an “A” with pride, showing that the inspector had in fact come and that they’d passed with flying colors.

This surprised us, because we’d had our eyes out for such a person. We hadn’t noticed anyone or anything out of the ordinary in the small café until then.

Perhaps it was because the inspector was completely inconspicuous. She was not dressed unlike us, was about our age, and had an easy air about her. (We stopped being so offended for being mistaken for someone in this line of work, if this is what they all look like.)

We talked with the inspector and she was quite chatty about her job and what it entails. Some interesting things we learned:

1. After a city inspector comes the first time, they come two more times. They give the restaurateur a time frame of when it will happen. This café was aware the next inspection would happen with a number of days. And, although it already got an “A” and the owner framed it with pride this morning, a second inspection will be happening tonight between 4 and 7 p.m.

2. Nothing related to a dog is allowed on the premises. This café would put a bowl for water out in front for dogs. They got a citation for having that bowl stored in a storage closet. Nothing related to “the presence of animals or animal food” is allowed inside a food establishment. (You can still weather this infraction and get an “A,” though, apparently.)

3. Regarding no. 2, “What about bodega cats?” the owner wanted to know. The city inspector said that bodegas were a state issue, not a city one. Even though bodega owners (no. 3 on the Voice list of the 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers) may serve bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, and coffee, the city inspector said, they are considered food stores and not food service providers because 90 percent of their revenue comes from selling groceries. (We find that figure hard to believe at our corner deli.)

4. The inspector didn’t look like what you’d expect an inspector to look like. She was young, chatty, friendly, and very likable. She said she had to mark the infraction about the food bowl, but as if to make the owner feel better, she admitted she’d gotten a ticket once for having a pet not in a pet carrier in the subway once.

If the café does well tonight for their follow-up, the inspector said, they shouldn’t have to come back for a year.

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New York City May Get a Vegan Bodega

For many, the whole point of a bodega is that you can get Doritos, cigarettes, and Gatorade all at once, but photographer Eric Hopf is looking to change that in the near future, setting his sights on opening what would be the city’s first vegan bodega.

“Approximately two to two and a half years ago after I got together with my partner and I saw a vegan grocery store in Seattle, I thought, Why doesn’t New York City have something like this?” explains Hopf, who is vegan. “So then a year ago before my daughter was born, I was in Florida and I saw an advertisement for a vegan convenience store. … I went and checked out the space, and it was tiny but stocked well. The fellow who owned it told me he invested his retirement fund in it, but the place became profitable pretty quickly. I thought if someone could do it in Orlando, I thought it could be done in New York City.”

Hopf is particularly interested in setting up shop on the Lower East Side, and is currently looking at spaces there and talking with owners. He’s also looking to raise capital for his venture through the website IndieGoGo, having met nearly 10 percent of his $15,000 goal already.

“We want to try and do a mix of products,” says Hopf. “For the healthy vegans, we’ll have raw items, but also junk food. We’re investigating about produce and fruit. At the very least we are going to partner with a CSA farmer in New York or New Jersey and be a collection point if they want to join.” He also wants to focus on New York-centric vegan items and help support the city’s other vegan ventures. He’s also looking at carrying the other main staple of bodegas — beer — but notes that the process for getting licensed is both lengthy and costly.

Operating any business can be tricky, but Hopf believes his store will be a success because he’ll be the first to market. “The vegan aspect is under-served in this regard. You can go into health-food stores, but there isn’t a place where you can get everything. We want to show people that you can get the same type of food, but plant-based.”