Ed. note: “The Miss Jobless Chronicles” is a weekly series written by Caitlin O’Toole. Read all the posts in the “Miss Jobless” series here.
When you’re un- or under-employed, the corner bodega is your friend. Like going to the office that I don’t go to every morning, the bodega is like my neighborhood water cooler. The routine I don’t have but so crave. I head there around 7am to pick up my New York Post, my Times, my diet Peach Snapple, and sometimes, if I’m feeling crazy like that, a scratch-off ticket. (‘Win For Life’ scratch-offs are the only ones worth playing, by the way. You’re welcome.)
The local bodega is the place where everybody knows my name. There’s Luis the doorman from the building on the corner, hair slicked back and smelling like Alberto V05. He buys two packs of Newport 100’s every day and smokes one outside before his shift starts. There’s cheerful, fat Vinny from the grimy bagel shop next door who buys the store’s notoriously stale coffee and puts tons of powdered creamer in it. And then there’s the occasional street person who’s pocketed enough loose change overnight to buy a 40 of Colt 45 for the morning’s buzz. As some people are rolling into their offices, many of us are convening at the corner store — leafing through expensive magazines we can’t afford, shooting the shit, and playing lotto. It’s like ‘Cheers’ on welfare.
Some of the city’s best bodegas and newsstands are like time capsules and stock old-school candy like Razzles, Sky Bars, C. Howards Violets and Clark’s Teaberry gum. The Lukoil station across 10th avenue, which is owned by Saleem, a Pakistani man whose wife and family live overseas, has shelves half-full of dusty Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, Hostess cherry pies, Jordan almonds, and now, a product by Herr’s called Grilled Cheese Curls, which are frighteningly — and surprisingly — delicious. (But perhaps not surprisingly, taste nothing like grilled cheese.)
The bodega across from the Lukoil station is run by Daman, a strappingly handsome Indian man with an unfortunate complexion. Daman is nice enough to sometimes “lend” me bottles of diet Pepsi until Wednesday, when my unemployment check clears.
Once you get very familiar with a particular bodega’s stock, you know which one to hit up for whatever it is that you need. Saleem’s store offers Hostess and Herr’s products, while Daman has the old-school candy selection. I’m not nearly as lucky with scratch-off tickets from Daman’s shop; I frequently win $2 on tickets from the Lukoil station.
When you’re unemployed, you have time to think about things like whose feelings you might be hurting by patronizing another bodega. I began to feel like I was cheating on Saleem when I went to Daman’s store, and vice versa.
And then the nightmare began.
Late one night, I trudged over to the Lukoil station for diet Pepsi. The Indian bodega has it, too, but it’s frequently not refrigerated. Which means that extra step of putting ice cubes in the glass before pouring.
As I left the store, I heard a truncated ‘beep’ and I looked over to see Daman in a pimped-out SUV, his gaze following me as he slowly drove by. He looked angry, confused and hurt as he busted me cheating on him. I pretended not to see him.
The next day, I figured I’d do some damage control and visit him at his bodega.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.” I lied.
“I saw YOU. Across the street.”
“Well, they have diet…”
“We have that, too,” he said, pointing towards the back.
I felt like a traitor.
My relationship with Daman hasn’t been the same since. He’s distant, curt, and there’s a certain sadness in his eyes. I try to visit him more often, but I’m afraid there’s just no repairing our relationship.
Now, if I have to venture across the street, I wear glasses and almost tiptoe. Sometimes I take the long way around crossing at 23rd and 10th rather than at 24th.
And in between my daily tasks — like networking and creating facebook groups that no one joins such as “I’m so unemployed I’m considering prostitution,” I feel pangs of guilt over this very urban drama.
Caitlin O’Toole is a New York City-based writer and editor. A native of Washington, D.C., she began her illustrious journalism career as a Washington Post paper girl. She has since written and edited for Sesame Workshop Digital, Star Magazine, The National Enquirer, Glamour, People.com, Parade.com and Washington’s City Paper. Her work has also been featured on Fox News, ABC, MTV and VH1. She lives in Chelsea with her two cats, Lucy and Ethel. She can be reached for work at her LinkedIn page.