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 cityís retail
establishments, which can be a bit mysterious to the newcomer.
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.
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.
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."
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, youíd 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
Iíve 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Iím trying to befuddle you with double-talk, but
I assure you thatís 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
donít you live in the city?" you ask him.
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."
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 itís the Sabbath. Why arenít sales banned all day
on Sunday? Thatís 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 arenít 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, wellÖ
wellÖ 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.
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 childrenís 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.
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 cityís "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.