Bodegas

10 Oct

Spanish flag demonstrators

I’ve been color-numbed by the red and yellow of both Spanish and Catalan flags recently.  As a consequence though, a theory I once had that the color scheme of New York bodegas comes from the colors of the Spanish flag has resurfaced in my consciousness.

bodega 3.jpg-shot4 Philly or NYC

It’s not that far-fetched an idea.  The first large group of Spanish-speaking immigrants to New York originally came from mostly Galicia and Asturias in northwestern Spain in the late nineteenth century and settled in what are now the streets north and south of West 14th Street and in the meat-packing district.  That’s why there are still so many mediocre Spanish restaurants in the far West Village and Chelsea and there’s also the still spectacularly good El Cid on West 15th.

Unfortunately Riomar — on the corner of Greenwich Street and Little West 12th, one of the most ambient-blessed bars that this city has ever seen: a real dive, with horrible food, stale potato tortilla and sweaty chunks of bad chorizo tapas and Goya jarred red peppers you ate with toothpicks, dirt on the floor, a dismal wine list and great jukebox, the feel of a real sailors’ bar in Almería with a “manchado mostrador” out of a Concha Piquer copla, where you went to have an after-dinner argument with your girlfriend which no one paid attention to because everybody else was having their own vicious spats, interrupted only by a good merengue or when Don Can’t-Remember-His-Name from Burgos, chef and owner of El Cid, pulled out his guitar — left this world about fifteen years ago.

Riomar was one of those bars that got busy with after-shift restaurant workers (including those of El Cid) who needed a post-combat drink and the scene would really pick up after around midnight or 1:00 a.m. when the kitchens let out, and if you hung out long enough, the Nuyorican meat workers would come by for a caña before work (guess like Sheryl Crow, they liked “a good beer-buzz early in the morning”), and then you went for breakfast with the other meat-workers and the drag queens at the much-loved Florent around the corner on Gansevoort Street (three over easy on a roll for the butchers, eggs benedict for the gay dudes; this old diner managed to cater brilliantly to both its clienteles for decades), also now gone.  Infuriatingly, Riomar was replaced by some over-priced piece of mediocrity called Serafina Meatpacking with the gallingly named Gansevoort Meatpacking NYC Hotel across the street (“trendy hotel with a rooftop bar & pool, wi-fi, 259” says Google Maps).  Actually, have you seen the size of the rooms in most of these ’boutique’ hotels? “Meatpacking” might actually be the most accurate term.

Florent has been replaced by something called Bubby’s High Line.

(Grrrrrrrr….  Why did I let myself go there?  Now I’m pissed.  Does anybody even want to live in this sterile Manhattan that’s replaced that one anymore?)

Vanishing New York Jeremiah Moss

Ok, bodegas.  A lot of the Galician and Asturian immigrants who settled in that neighborhood often came through a generation’s or less immigrant experience in Cuba or Puerto Rico, Spain’s last Caribbean colonies; if you know Havana (saludos to my pana Yusuf who does) you know two of the most imposing buildings in the city’s center are the Centro Gallego and the Centro Asturiano.  One of the innumerable fascinating things about Cuba is that while it has perhaps the richest and most vibrant Afro culture of any society in the Americas, it also has some of the closest, organic ties to Spain of any Latin American country as well.

They bring the red-and-yellow color scheme?  Why?

The only place in the Spanish-speaking world where “bodega” means a cruddy, smelly grocery store that you can’t live without is New York.  Why?

And what you call the dank grocery is the same word as the word on the label of your $300 bottle of Rioja.  Why?

Because “Bodega” in Spanish simply means warehouse or cellar.  That’s why your wine, sherries especially, comes from “bodegas” in Spain.  But in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the sugar plantation or ingenio/refinery company store, where first slaves collected, and then indentured workers later bought, their basic food stuffs, was the company’s warehouse — the bodega.  And take a sec even today to look at the merchandise in your corner bodega, other than the beer, cigarettes and soft drinks, that really moves: plantains, yuca, yautía, malanga and other tubers, the bags of rice, beans, lard, and if it has more than just grocery pretensions, pig feet and salt pork in the counter fridge.  Slave food.

So when the guajiro plantation overseer or the Cuban-Galician neighborhood businessman came to New York in 1910, he called the little store he set up that sold Cuban food staples a bodega, and I’m guessing figured the best colors for it were Spain’s red and yellow.  And then it stuck.  And then became tradition practically.  You look for the bodega’s red and yellow lights in the streets in New York at night when you need a smoke, or a seltzer to rehydrate after drinking too much, and when you remember there’s no coffee in the house for tomorrow morning; just like you look for the flashing green pharmacy cross in a European city at night after drinking too much and when you remember there’s no ibuprofen in the house for tomorrow morning.  And though the economy that produced the term has disappeared in the islands, and if you tell anyone today in Cuba or Puerto Rico or the D.R. who hasn’t visited relatives here in the city to go down to the “bodega” and buy some milk he won’t even know what you’re talking about, it survives in New York, our huge φτωχομάνα and warehouse of the world’s darkness and exile that run a constant lament under the city’s exuberance and energy and often forced-feeling hedonism.

Bodega 10

bodega 1

Bodega 2.jpg gkjarvis

Bodega 4

Bodega 5

Bodega 6

Bodega 7

Bodega 8

platanos

Yuca

img_8353

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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