by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan
New York City can be somewhat daunting to a person encountering it for the first time. The throngs crowding the sidewalks, the dizzying height of the skyscrapers, the plethora of subway and bus lines, the continual hum of noise from traffic and construction, the dazzling light display in Times Square, the notoriously brusque attitude of the locals, and many other aspects of the metropolis can easily leave a tourist or a new resident feeling overwhelmed and longing for a helping hand. In this article I will try to provide a bit of guidance to those experiencing "NYC shock," albeit help narrowly focused on the topic of the city's retail establishments, which can be a bit mysterious to the newcomer.
Perhaps the most common shop in New York City is the "bodega," or maybe I should say the "deli." In Brooklyn, I often find a store that Manhattan residents would call a bodega referred to as a deli. I have no clue what they call such stores on Staten Island – nor does anyone else from any of the other four boroughs, since none of us have ever been to Staten Island.
Whatever they should be called, what I am talking about are small variety stores, almost without exception owned and staffed by immigrants. In front of the store, taking up a few feet of sidewalk, you will find displays of newspapers and cut flowers, protected from rain and snow by a canvas awning and, quite often, sheets of clear plastic hanging down from the awning to the pavement. Immediately inside the entrance, on one side of the deli will be a single cash register sitting atop a long counter, while the opposing wall is devoted to a handful of the most frequently purchased goods, such as coffee or candy. Beyond the checkout area, refrigerated cases line the walls, and two or three shelves of goods run down the middle of the store. The back wall is probably covered with more refrigeration units. Besides snack foods, newspapers, soda, lottery tickets, sandwiches, and beer, delis always carry a handful of grocery items that people hate to run out of at home, such as bread, milk, pet food, orange juice, eggs, toilet paper, canned ham, and Vienna sausages.
Wait a minute, you say, did I really mean to write “canned ham and Vienna sausages”? Well, yes, I did, because, along with what seem to be the natural offerings of a vendor whose profits depend on the juxtaposition of his convenient location and his customers frequent and time-sensitive desire for certain items, almost every deli has a decent stock of products that seem to me to have no place in a high-turnover, convenience-purchase venue. Am I in the dark about the tastes and priorities of my neighbors? Just down the block, is Tony, after a futile search through the kitchen cupboards, calling out, “Damn it, Angela, we got zilch-o on the deviled-ham front. Haul your friggin’ butt down to the corner deli and pick up half-a-dozen cans.”
While a deli is usually the right place to quickly grab a paper or a bottle of water, I should offer a word of warning: If you suddenly realize you need a pack of smokes as you are rushing off to work, a ballgame, a date, or a play, you'd better hope that you haven’t arrived at a deli during the last few hours before a lotto drawing. At such times, I have puzzled over why people I've worked with could buy a million dollars of stocks in a good deal less time than each of the four customers in front of me takes to select their numbers. It’s as though lottery junkies believe that the particular numbers they pick affects their odds of winning… Oh, wait, that is what they believe, isn’t it?
But let’s return to the question I raised earlier: when is such a shop a “deli” and when is it a “bodega”? I mentioned that one distinguishing characteristic seems to be the borough in which it is located. A second differentia is the ethnicity of the owner. If he or she is Korean, Chinese, or Indian, then you should lean toward calling the place a deli, while Hispanic ownership favors the term bodega. Unfortunately, on rare occasions the owner will not be visible when you enter. For instance, you may encounter a non-immigrant teenager working the register, which, as outlandish as the notion sounds, does happen, since although the owner works 100 or so hours a week, even he needs to sleep sometimes. But even in those circumstances, you still might be able to determine what to call the store you are in, because a bodega is more likely than a deli to offer plantains, yams, chayote, and a shelf full of Goya canned goods.
Also common in New York City is the “grocery.” To the untrained eye, it may be nearly indistinguishable from a deli/bodega. But after many months of study, I have found the key to quickly establishing which of the two you are faced with: a grocery, unlike a deli or bodega, is required to have three or four large bins of rotting produce for sale.
That's not an easy hurdle to leap. In fact, it’s almost impossible for the owner to ensure that all of his produce is always rotting. Eventually, the condition of some of his fruits or vegetables will become so foul that even a New-York-City-grocery-store owner can no longer bear to offer them for sale. He will be forced to dump them and re-order, which means that, for a few days, his bin will be filled with decent-looking samples of the produce in question. Nevertheless, at any given time, he can rest easy in the knowledge that the vast majority of his produce is in an advanced state of decay, because no one ever buys any of it. Therefore, the same, say, tomatoes that were, regrettably, fresh for a couple of days, will still pass the bulk of their time in the store as wrinkled orbs dripping a pus-like ooze from their multitude of cracks and bruises.
Non-New-Yorkers might also find themselves confused by New York City supermarkets. Almost anywhere else in America, “supermarket” designates a gigantic store, containing perhaps twenty or thirty aisles of food, household goods, popular magazines, personal-care products, drugs, potted plants, paperback bestsellers, garden supplies, and perhaps any number of other items from other assorted categories. In New York, on the other hand, “supermarket” is the name for any deli or grocery that has expanded past three aisles.
New York City does have a number of the gargantuan supermarkets common in suburban malls, but none of them are in "the city." After re-reading the previous sentence, you may suspect that I'm trying to befuddle you with double-talk, but I assure you that's not the case. My statement makes perfect sense once you understand that, to people who live in New York, the phrase "the city" refers exclusively to Manhattan. For example, if you ask someone from Queens what he did over the weekend, he may reply, "I went into the city on Saturday night."
"But don't you live in the city?" you ask him.
He looks at you as though he suspects you may be a bit dim, and replies, "No, I told you a dozen times, I live in Queens."
Another curiosity is that if you are looking for beer in New York, the last place you want to head is to a liquor store. You can buy beer in a bodega, in a deli, in a grocery, or in a supermarket. There are stores where you can purchase beer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (Well, except between 3:00 AM and noon on Sunday, as it's the Sabbath. Why aren't sales banned all day on Sunday? That's because, while the Lord commanded us to keep holy the Sabbath, He recognized that we could use a few hours of slack between midnight and three in the morning, in order to wrap up our Saturday night partying. And, of course, He understood that by noon on the day of rest we might find ourselves in dire need of “a hair of the dog,” so that naturally we aren't expected to keep on keeping it holy when a bad case of the shakes and a blinding headache are threatening our equanimity.) Besides all of the places you can buy beer to take home, in almost every neighborhood there is some bar open by 11:00 AM, and it isn’t hard to find one still serving beer well past the legal 4:00 AM closing time. But if you are the kind of degenerate who would like to purchase your beer in a liquor store, well, buddy, you should understand that New York City doesn’t put up with that sort of debauchery. After all, if New Yorkers could just their buy beer at the same place they buy their liquor, well… well… well, they might not have to walk two doors down the street from the liquor store to get the other half of the supplies for their evening’s boilermakers.
Another striking thing about New York City shops is the number of places offering goods from odd combinations of categories. Within a block of my apartment, one restaurant serves Thai cuisine and sushi, while at another you can choose from Texas barbeque, soul food, or Chinese fare. In other parts of the city you can find Middle-Eastern-and-pizza restaurants, Mexican-Chinese restaurants, Cuban-Chinese restaurants, and a number of papaya-juice-and-hot-dog stands. There are Laundromats where you can have your watch repaired, video stores that offer color copying, vacuum cleaner outlets that also sell children's shoes, and video stores that contain post offices. A friend of mine once walked into what, at first, appeared to be simply a jewelry store. However, after having penetrated a bit further to the rear of the establishment, she found she was in a shoe store, and she also learned that, if she cared to venture up to the second floor of the same business, she could receive acupuncture treatment.
There is, of course, much more that might be said about retailing in New York City – for example, an entire book probably could be written on the fantastic variety of stores in most of the city's "poor" neighborhoods. But I hope that the small smattering of curiosities I have explained here will provide some assistance to any reader who plans to brave a taste of the Big Apple.
September 18, 2004