Bodegas Represent Everything Weird and Wonderful About New York

Bodegas Represent Everything Weird and Wonderful About New York

by Michelle Lhooq | CULTURE |

These quirky, independently owned convenience stores are miniature stoner paradises.

Earlier this month, I left New York to join the weed revolution in Los Angeles. In the weeks leading up to my move, I became consumed with nostalgia for the city I've called home for the past decade, taking long, melancholic walks down familiar sidewalks, and keeping a quiet tally in my head of everything I'd miss. Most of it was extremely mundane: Latin trap rattling out of car windows in the summer; teenage breakdancers yelling "It's showtime!" as they swing around subway poles; the easy camaraderie of construction workers cracking jokes on their lunch breaks. Still, part of me would miss bodegas––yes, bodegas––more than anything else.

The word "Bodega" itself comes from the Spanish la bodega—"grocery store"—which is derived from the Latin-via-Greek word apothēkē, for "storehouse." In New York City, they have a very specific meaning. The word is reserved for those locally-owned store on seemingly every street corner; the ones that will sell you rolling papers and a beer and condoms at 2AM, and a bacon-egg-and-cheese roll with a side of Advil when you come back the next morning. Unlike the 7-Elevens that threaten to replace them, no two bodegas are ever the same. This dramatically raises the stakes when you're high: you never know what variety of snacks and tricked-out sandwiches—what kind of munchie paradise—you might find when you walk in. (Although every stoner worth their weight in keef has a mental map of all the primo ones.)

Bodegas are an indelible part of New York City culture—just as iconic, but far less celebrated, as the attractions written about in guidebooks and Yelp reviews. These stores are the last vestiges of a New York that was long gone by the time I arrived, daily reminders that there existed a time before Williamsburg was a post-collegiate playground full of corporate conveniences, when SoHo was a cratered-out dead zone without a cronut or cupcake shop to be found. Bodegas hearken back to a time when your block was like your extended family, and your neighborhood was more than just where you crashed at the end of a long work day.

In today's New York, bodega dudes, who are almost always people of color—I've almost never seen a white person behind the counter during my ten years in the city—are your real homies in your neighborhood. Forget about your upstairs neighbor or your coffeeshop barista. Bodega dudes are the ones who see you at your hottest and your most hungover, who you can joke with or vent to at any time of the day or night.

My friend had a bottle of Cheez-Whiz that his local bodega would keep for him every time he came in, blazed as hell in the middle of the night, for a sandwich—even though he'd only stop by once every few weeks. "Do you want your Cheez-Whiz?" they'd ask after he ordered his usual cheesesteak. He'd nod and they'd bring it out from the fridge. Whenever the Cheez-Whiz ran out, he'd buy another bottle and they'd pop it back in the fridge. Stories like this are not uncommon; my ex once got a bottle of wine and a handwritten card from his bodega guy on Christmas a few years back.

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For some weird reason that no one has ever really explained to me, every bodega seems to have its own in-house bodega cat. These wild creatures are the real titans of the store, given free reign to wander boldly between your legs and racks of potato chips, reliably cute as hell and fun as fuck to pet when you're high. Their presence around raw foods might flagrantly violate health codes, but then again, health codes are the domain of New New York, not the bodegas that stand in defiance of it.

On top of it all, bodegas are also just convenient as hell, often open 24 hours, seven days a week. This is obviously of paramount importance for stoners, who often find themselves starving and thirsty in the wee hours of the morning. I've only been in LA for a little more than a week, but already I've found myself sitting in front of a rave at four in the morning, smoking a come-down joint and crying to fellow ex-New Yorkers about how much we wish we could just pop down the street for an egg sandwich.

In fact, one ex-New Yorker I met at a party told me that he tried to franchise the concept of bodegas and bring them to Portland, where he now lives. But his investors, old white dudes who'd never been to New York, couldn't grasp what the big deal was and rejected the idea.

With their cultural diversity, innate quirkiness, sense of community, and premium on instantly gratifying convenience, bodegas embody everything I love about New York City itself. Sure, it might be kinda dirty, shitty-looking from the outside, and swarming with strange, kooky people, but god damn is it never boring.


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Michelle Lhooq is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @MichelleLhooq.


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