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What New York really runs on

By Lenore Skenazy

It is the place you can grab a gallon of milk or a can of frosting at midnight, but is it possible it is also one of those amazingly New York things that, like Central Park, makes us all a little calmer and happier?

The bodega is what we’re talking about today: That humble store, often as tall as it is wide, stocked with every item you didn’t expect to find there. (Except you sort of did, or why’d you go there in the first place?)

Muffins mummified in cling wrap, plantain chips both salted and un, Hershey bars slightly reshaped by global (or at least store) warming—all these are staples at the typical mom-and-pop bodega.

But you can also find these staples—cheaper, bigger, less lumpy—at the local supermarket, which is often just a block or two farther away. So why would anyone patronize the dinky little deli when there is a bona fide grocery right across the street?

“Speed!” says Bill Dysel, an opera singer and tech manual writer. (Yes. Both.) “I often run into my local bodega, pay and get out within 60 seconds. At the grocery everything has to be scanned and there are long lines. Somehow bodega cashiers always know what everything costs from memory.”

“And it’s across the street!” says Brooklyn’s Isabel Kraut, a mom of two. Convenience is the key.

“You can send your kid to get milk without any wayward glances,” adds another mom, Liz Gustafson.

There’s also something of the scavenger hunt about the bodega. You go in there and think, “They can’t possibly have a strawberry syrup.” Or, “I don’t want to go to the supermarket just for one package of onion soup mix.” And then you look way, way, waaaaay up on the shelf—and there it is!

Maybe slightly past its sell-by date. Maybe 29 cents more than at the grocery. But still. Score.

But even beyond the speed and clown-car quality of being stuffed with a million items you can’t believe all fit, there is another draw.

“The cat!” says Eileen Mullin, a web designer in Rego Park.

Well, yes, but beyond that, too. I’m talking about the two-footed friends. The people.

“I’ve run to my local bodegas to grab sodas or snacks a few times and realized I didn’t have enough cash on me. And rather than run to the ATM and back, the owners—who know me as a regular—have let it go with the promise that I’ll bring back the full amount the next day,” says Inwood’s Jena Tesse Fox, a writer. “You can’t do that in a supermarket.”

“On Monday when I needed an avocado, I went to get one at the bodega and the owner said, ‘They’re not so good, but they’re the only ones we have today,’ ” reports social researcher Marla Sherman. She skipped the purchase, but that is the way bodega owners win hearts. They’re on our side.

“When I lived on 10th Street, I liked the bodega on Second Ave and 10th because they would feed snacks to Dooley—little pieces of turkey,” says journalist Adrienne Press. Dooley was her basset hound.

Homemade food also lures us in. In the backroom or upstairs, some grandma is making pakoras, or tacos. I was in an East Elmhurst bodega the other day that sold homemade glazed fruit. And the smells are irresistible, too.

“At the bodega on my corner, they always seem to be making bacon,” says lawyer Diane Glass. She keeps kosher, but it’s not verboten to pass by and sniff!

As the years go by and relationships deepen, the family bodega owners become our extended family, too.

“When my mom had a severe stroke, the owner of the local mini-market saw me through his window, walking home from the hospital in tears,” marketing consultant Amanda Hass recalls. “It’s a bit of a blur, but he made sure I had food. And, years later, he made the platters to feed folks after she died. He let me ‘borrow’ his best worker to help me move her belongings. Twice. So hell yeah, I don’t mind paying a premium.”

When you live in a city where the people who sell you your gum also lend you money, love your dog, and see you through life’s biggest transitions, you live in a city that cushions the slings and arrows of daily life.

Let us raise a cup of $1 coffee, then, to the very best bodega in New York City.

The one down your block.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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