Long Live the Bodega
Illustration: Derrick Dent

Long Live the Bodega

Bodegas like Susan’s in Queens, NY aren’t just a part of the community — they create it

Illustration: Derrick Dent

When 2020 is said and done, it’ll likely become known as the year of massive uncertainty. But with so much instability (from Covid-19 to crimson skies on the West Coast), corner store culture remains familiar. LEVEL’s “Corner Store Chronicles” series pays homage to the power of the store that delivers the warmth and care that ACME will never replicate. Whether known as bodegas, tienditas, or another term of endearment where you’re from, our hoods would be nothing without them.

From the platform at the Seneca Avenue train station in Queens, NY, the Empire State Building’s silhouette is just visible.

It’s a whisper of luxury, the glamour of Manhattan quickly giving way to Ridgewood’s arching, asphalt hills and graffitied rooftops. As daylight fades, the streetlights begin an electric choir, and the neon facades of the many bodegas that line the avenue come aglow.

Ridgewood Finest Deli; Classic Deli & Grill; JMC. On short walks home from the station, I’ve frequented most of these spots. I’ve dipped into JMC to scan its selection of avocados for a quick last-minute dinner. I’ve sprinted down to Ridgewood Finest after realizing I didn’t have a lemon or enough garlic for a recipe halfway through cooking. And despite turning my back on Buy & Go numerous times due to rudeness, its Haagen-Dazs selection keeps calling me back.

But while I consider all of these to be my local bodega, it’s Susan’s I frequent most.

Sitting on the corner of Onderdonk Avenue — just off the main strip of Seneca — Susan’s Deli Grocery is an unremarkable storefront bodega. After the owners have rolled up the metal gate with a resounding thud on early mornings, the odor of cooked bacon wafts through the recessed doorway.

As a Nuyorican, I grew up with Puerto Rican bodegas as a big part of my life. Bodegas represented a tradition of community and a culture that I still needed education on, even though I held it near my heart. The bright yellow awnings lined with blue and red bulbs, candies stashed behind thick translucent glass, and the tinny ring of salsa coming through a busted radio were all part of the education I found when I rushed through those doors, my older sister (and designated banker) in tow behind me. But while the bodegas of my childhood represented an ethnic enclave, Susan’s represents a different aspect of community: intersectionality.

I’m not sure if Susan (the owner) and I have ever exchanged names. At this point our relationship has done just fine without them.

If I could trace a line through my life, along with people and places, it would pass through numerous bodegas, all serving up a representation of who I was at that time. In my younger days, working night shifts and drinking hard on weekends, I preferred the “two-four,” those 24-hour establishments that are the staples of New York City deli culture — specifically, Classic Deli & Grill on Seneca Avenue. The lights were always on, the grill was always hot, and very rarely was a night out complete without a drunken shuffle through the moonlight toward a chopped cheese, peppers, onions, bacon, and mayo, please.

I never found myself alone at that time, either. The night tends to bind those lonely wanderers who maneuver through it. And the two-four was where we all washed up. Whether the MTA bus drivers fresh off a shift and ordering what would amount to dinner, or a cadre of sex workers looking to indulge in something sweet, the divisions that make up so much of our society — class, race, or education — all slip away under the right circumstances. And the two-four was the embodiment of just the right circumstances.

As my nights got shorter, and my days started earlier, my bodega go-to changed. The 3 a.m. excursions for a hot sandwich became 6 a.m. trips to the park, my pitbull jogging steadily beside me. But on mornings when I didn’t have time to cook, I stopped at Susan’s for that 7 a.m. bacon, egg, and cheese. Again, I wasn’t alone.

In front of Susan’s on any early morning, the makings of a line begin to form. Members of the Latinx community, young and old, intermingle with an old guard of Europeans and a new wave of hipsters as they wait in line for the best bacon, egg, and cheese around. For $2.50, you get perfectly crisped, thick-cut bacon layered atop two fluffy eggs smothered in cheese. An extra 25 cents gets you a coffee. It’s delicious — but more importantly, it’s cheap. Susan’s caters to its community, the working-class nature of the neighborhood. It remains an accurate reflection of the diverse community it serves, of each individual who frequents the store.

But like most things, reflections tend to change over time. Even though Susan’s storefront remains the same — the same sign advertising cold beer, the same menu advertising prices that haven’t been updated since God knows when — many of the bodegas around it haven’t. It started with the renovations, one-light-out signs replaced by fancy new neon. Slowly, prices went up, first to $5.50, then six dollars, the slight shock of having to dig back into your pocket for that extra bill. The stock started to change, too — artisanal cheeses and almond milk can now be found in refrigerated sections.

There’s nothing inherently bad about these changes. They just represent someone else’s connections, a reminder that my memories live on in someone else’s reality.

That’s probably the main reason I continue to frequent Susan’s, even when I’ve got the time to make breakfast, even when I’m short on cash. Two dollars and fifty cents for a bacon, egg, and cheese buys me a new memory. It safeguards my tradition and my connection to the neighborhood as newer residents continue making their own.

I’m not sure if Susan (the owner) and I have ever exchanged names. At this point, our relationship has done just fine without them. And when she sees me, she waves, exhaling cigarette vapors into the crisp morning air. I always make it a point to wave back. It’s little interactions like these that make the bodega a cornerstone of the community.

But that’s the thing. Bodegas like Susan’s aren’t just a part of the community. They create it. In the service they provide to their customers, they make visible the translucent webs of experience that connect us.