Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bodega Banter

I love my bodega. Call it a deli, call it a grocery, call it whatever you want, but the guys inside never let me down. They're open 24-7, 365. They've got everything: light bulbs, Drain-O, mac 'n cheese, apples, and once, when I really needed it, a bike pump. They've also got the incredible deals that seem only to exist in Brooklyn's bodegas: the 25-cent peanuts, the 35-cent ice cream sandwiches, the candy bars for 75 cents (Duane Reade sells them for $1.19 now!), the dollar bagel and cream cheese, and 40 oz. of PBR for $2.75 (that's what the lady and I call date night). They make a mean sandwich, whether I want it at 11AM or 1AM, and they never worry if somebody's a few cents short. I never feel closer to being a New Yorker than when I say it--I love my bodega.

The gents behind the counter hail (as do many local grocers) from Yemen, and they're always good for a story or a laugh. Waiting for my sandwich the other night, the owner, Mohammad, shared one that struck me as worth retelling. Making conversation, I asked how long they'd been on the corner of Dean and Franklin, and Mohammad told me twenty-seven years. I followed with the obligatory comment about "you must have seen a lot of changes" and Mohammad replied "Yeah, yeah. A long time ago, I got shot."

My eyes widened as he continued. "There was a lady outside, and three guys were trying to rob her. I had a gun then, with a license, so I went outside and scared them off. The next day, they came into the shop and stood at the counter threatening me." Mohammad showed me how he had hidden one hand beneath the counter, which kept the troublemakers on edge because they thought he had his weapon. What started as a tense encounter began to turn friendly, and thinking the danger had passed, Mohammad pulled his hand out as a show of good faith. "That's when he shot me," he said, pointing to where the bullet had torn through his shoulder and exited his back. "He fired three times, very quickly, and I fell to the floor. The guy tried to reach over the counter and shoot me in the head, but he missed, and then they panicked and left." The other guys in the store called 911, and Mohammad escaped with his life and a shoulder full of bullet fragments (they remain to this day).

Stunned, I only mustered a "wow" as Mohammad paused to let his description sink in. Then he added, "About a month later, they got him." My eyes must have betrayed my alarm, because he laughed and said "Not anyone I know. Another gang. That's how it goes. I never chased after him."

After one of the midsummer shootings, I remember walking into Mohammad's place and finding it packed with concerned locals, all talking at once about what had just happened outside. I've never felt more like an interloper, and I hung back, watching Mohammad calmly field questions and nod sympathetically as people sought information and shared stories and opinions of similar incidents of gun violence. At the time, I was impressed with his statesman's comportment, and his recent story adds a layer of logic to it--he's been here as long as anyone, and he's survived the very worst Franklin Avenue has to offer. When, on my way out with my sandwich last week, I said "Well, I'm glad your still here!" he replied with a wry smile "I'm always here."

1 comment:

  1. He told me that story towards the end of summer when things were starting to quiet down. Nice guy.