How To Run a Bodega Successfully in the Boogie Down, NYC – New Fiction by Ivan Suazo 

Joint Winner of the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories

Listen up, compadre. If you want to run a bodega successfully in the Boogie Down, you need to check your scruples at the door. See that upside-down milk crate by the potato chip rack? That’s a chair. See that cold-cut slicer in the deli? That’s your best friend. See that tabby cat licking itself in the Goya aisle? That’s Tito aka pest control. But don’t go saying shit like that out loud. Saying “Tito is pest control” will get us in trouble with the man from the Health Department.

You’ll meet him, compadre. He likes to show up unannounced like a stray dog at Sunday Mass. He looks like the creature from The Lord of the Rings movies. The one who says, “My precious.” Same bug eyes and everything. Just letting you know in case he comes ‘round. Which he will.

And when he does, don’t say dumb shit like “Tito’s pest control.” Say we have a guy who comes to spray once a week. Tell him the exterminator sprays along the baseboards and treats all the nooks and crannies in the stock room. And if the health inspector says, “Are you sure there aren’t any mice living in the walls?”, you tell him, “No, sir. Not one.” I’ll show you how to take care of the mice droppings later.

Sidenote: If the health inspector brings up Tito again—talkin’ ‘bout cats can’t be hanging out inside of bodegas due to sanitary reasons—show him the ESA letter. I keep the letter in a drawer next to the candy cubby, right by the Swedish Fish and the Bazooka Joes. The letter says Tito’s allowed to be here. Says he’s my emotional support animal on account of my “dissociation.” Wink wink. Which is a serious condition. Wink. The health inspector knows damn well about the letter. But he might want to push your buttons ‘cause he likes fresh meat. He might say, “May I ask about Mr. Perdomo’s condition? What it is, exactly?” In which case, you say, “No siree, Bob.” That’s his name. Bob. Bob’s not allowed to ask about my condition. My “condition” is not up for discussion. That’s the beauty of America, compadre. You will soon learn all about American beauty.

Now, let’s say Bob’s feeling both lucky and daring and he corners you about my out-of-body experiences, talkin’ ‘bout, “What are they, exactly?” You’re only allowed to say that you don’t know what they are except that they’re triggered outside of work, like when I’m waiting for the Bx1 bus on the corner of Grand Concourse and 161st Street. Tell him my dissociation doesn’t get in the way of me running my bodega as I see fit. Maybe leave out the “as I see fit” part ‘cause them’s fighting words, and when you’re in the bodega business, you’re in the business of de-escalating things on the reg. Like the gang fights. I’ll get to the gang fights in a moment.

First, one last word on the ESA letter. Before you grab it from the candy-cubby area, make sure your hands aren’t grubby. That letter’s too precious, to quote the creature from The Lord of the Rings movies. Be careful with the letter, compadre. Treat it like you would a bad mama jama on your first date, assuming you want to get laid at the end of the night. I paid a pretty penny for the psychiatrist’s signature. Three-fitty, to be exact. No, not three dollars and fifty cents, silly. Three hundred and fifty dollars.

Anyhow, go ahead and grab that crate of navel oranges. That one, right there, on the floor. Make sure you lift it with your legs. Not your back. Take it from me, compadre. I threw my back out once, trying to lift a big-ass box of tubers—yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, ekcetera—then I heard a click, and I was like, “Uh-oh.” I straightened my back and then I felt it: an electric shock shooting up my spine. A legit shock! And that was it. I couldn’t bend over.

Couldn’t even walk properly for ten days. I kept shuffling my feet like I was some old man. You know how geishas inch their way across the room in those wooden sandals? That’s how I walked when I threw my back out. Like a damn geisha. Wifey had to pull my pants down just so I could pee. Then she had to wait till I was done, flush the toilet, and pull my pants back up. Like I was some damn baby. So be careful with that crate of oranges, compadre. Don’t go breaking your back before dawn.

The reason I’m asking you to grab the navel oranges is that you need to learn how to make a pyramid out of them. Customers love seeing fruit arranged into pyramids. Granny Smiths. Ruby Reds. Caribbean limes. The fuck if I know why. They just do. And it’s not just fruit they want to see in triangles, by the way. Ever heard of a human pyramid? Now that’s some shit, compadre. Cheerleaders make them with their bodies, stacking limbs on top of limbs. I mean, how bored do you need to be to come up with some shit like that? I’d rather focus my time and energy running this bodega, even if it means working twelve-hour shifts, six days a week and part-time on Sundays.

Are you following, compadre? You look a little lost. I’d whip out my Spanish, but trust me. You don’t want that. Mi Español no bueno. It struggles up the hill. I’m what you call a “Dominican-York.” I speak Baby Spanish like most Dominican- and Puerto Rican-Yorks ‘round here. Mi Español muy bebé. Maybe you could help me finesse that shit over time. You are family, after all. You are in this for the long run, aren’t you, compadre? Yes? Sí? Muy bien. Nodding is good. We like nodding.

You won’t regret helping me run this bodega, even if that means handling a gun now and then. You do know how to handle a gun, don’t you? I mean, Wifey said you did but she’s your sister. I trust my wife. But a sister’s a sister. That kind of blood runs thick where we’re from. In her eyes, you might be an angel for all I goddamn know. An angel who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. You do know what a gun is? Pistola? Bang bang? Yes? Good. Nodding is good.

And now for the gun. See that boombox on the counter? The one covered in Caribbean flag stickers? The source of the reggaeton? There’s a safe directly below it, on the floor. Look past the Tootsie Rolls. Past the Mike and Ikes. There’s a square iron safe there. Heavy as fuck. Don’t try to lift it or you’ll throw your back out. The combination is 3-4-7-7. As in, March 4th, 1977. Does that date ring a bell? Ding ding ding! Correcto. It’s Wifey’s birthday. You know your sister’s birthday by heart, don’t you? That should jog your memory when you need to open the safe. Which you might need to do, you know, when things get heated. When certain customers walk in, looking for trouble. I’ll tell you what these customers look like, compadre. Are you paying attention? Atención? This part is very important.

Now and again, some kids will walk in here and act like they own the place. They’re in their early twenties, maybe late twenties. They could be your nephew or niece. Your goddaughter or godson. They could be whoever the fuck. They’ll come in and grab an Arizona Iced Tea from the fridge. Maybe some platanitos or Doritos from the chip rack. Maybe they’ll drop some change on the counter before they leave. Maybe not. Whatever the case, don’t be a hero, compadre. Don’t say some stupid shit like, “You gonna pay for that?” Them’s fighting words. Them words will get you killed. Entiendes? Muerto!

But don’t you worry. I have a special arrangement with these customers. You could say we understand each other. They come in, take a few things, and we let them. No biggie. In exchange, no one else steals from my bodega. Because if we tell them that regular Joe Schmoe or Jane Schmane stole from my bodega, they’ll break regular Joe Schmoe’s or Jane Schmane’s arms. You feel me? You’ll only need to reach for the gun if things get real heated. 

See that red stain on the checkered floor? That ain’t ketchup, compadre. The last turf war put bullet holes in the roll-up gate outside. You probably didn’t notice the holes when we rolled the gate up earlier. That’s because I hired a local artist to spray paint “Perdomo’s Boogie Down Bodega” across the storefront, covering all nine bullet holes. But don’t you dare forget they exist. They’re a good reminder of what not to do when running a bodega in the Bronx.

Anyhow, there isn’t always a turf war going on. And when there’s a truce, the neighborhood comes alive. Vivo, compadre. Especially in the summertime. This is when city water gushes from the fire hydrant across the street and barefooted children in tank tops and tighty-whities come running out of the projects, screaming “¡Agua! ¡Agua!” Domino tables unfold and milk crates are stacked into makeshift counter stools on the sidewalk, and old men in guayaberas with too many pockets sit on these stools, playing dominoes, yelling, capicúa! when they’ve played a perfect game. Women also leave their apartments, slippered and hand-fanned, with rainbow rollers coiled around their tresses, smelling of canola oil and yucca fritters. Boys play stickball in the street. Girls jump double Dutch on the sidewalk. Yankee Stadium lights up in the distance. The scent of fried chicken wafts in the air. It’s amazing, compadre. You’re gonna love it.

But first, you need to know how to run a bodega successfully in the Boogie Down. This ain’t no hoity-toity grocer in Pleasantville, America. No Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. We don’t walk around in Hawaiian shirts with pencils in our ears, humming and playing with our hair like everything’s awesome. This is a bodega. A bo-DAY-guh. So what if the cans of sweetened condensed milk are expired? Here, sell-by dates are arbitrary, which is a fancy word for “they don’t mean shit.” Remember what I said earlier about checking your scruples at the door? Sear that in your memory, compadre. It doesn’t pay to have scruples. Not in a bodega. Do you know where it pays to have scruples? At a Trader Joe’s. At TJ’s, they wouldn’t think twice about pulling expired products from the shelves. But you and me? We can’t be throwing away cans of sweetened condensed milk, expired or otherwise. I’ll be damned if we do. That’s money down the drain. Besides, ain’t nobody ever died from an expired can of sweetened condensed milk. I never heard of such a thing. Have you?

Which reminds me. You should see where we keep the cans of sweetened condensed milk or “leche carnation” as we Dominicans like to call it. Follow me down the Goya aisle. Careful steppin’ on Tito. Tito moves for no one. Not even for the feline goddess herself, Bastet of Egypt, if she were to suddenly materialize in front of him. Which means you’re gonna have to step over Tito. This fucking cat. He thinks he’s in the Dominican Republic, pretend-sunbathing in paradise, splayed out on the checkered floor. I better not see a mouse or so help me God.

Anyhow, here are the cans of leche carnation. I usually keep them like this, with one pack stacked on top of the other until they make one big tower. They’re what you’d call a bestseller. Good for things like tres leches cakes and morisoñando, which is Wifey’s favorite drink, of course. You knew that. I like the idea of “morir soñando.” Who wouldn’t like to die dreaming peacefully in their sleep? But if you ask me, better to die on top of or below someone you love. Better to croak while making sweet love, with a nice reggaeton playing in the background. Eh? You feel me? No? Too much?

Okay then. Back to orientation. Here’s a neat trick for running a bodega successfully: If you notice a rapidly approaching expiration date printed on a can of sweetened condensed milk, like this one, wet your thumb with your saliva and rub it over the date. You need to smudge the numbers, compadre. Distort the shit out of them. If Bob from the Health Department comes ‘round and says, “Why can’t I read the dates on these cans of sweetened condensed milk?” tell him the Nestle truck delivered them that way and that Nestle doesn’t accept returns. He can’t fault you for that. Not completely. But he might say, “I want all of these expired cans of sweetened condensed milk out of my sight.” Meaning we can’t sell them to customers. So you’ll say, “Okay, boss,” and move them to the stockroom. Then, when Bob’s gone, we’ll bring them back out and sell them to customers. You understand why I do this. Don’t you, compadre? I can’t be pouring money down the drain like TJ’s. I’ll never amount to anything if I do.

Besides, we’re talking about a bodega here. A bo-DAY-guh. Not some Key Food or Fairway Market. Certainly not Zabar’s or Citarella’s. Where do you think you are? This ain’t Pleasantville, America. This is the Bronx, compadre. This is how we boogie down.

Ivan Suazo hails from the Bronx, New York, but spent most of his childhood eating mangú in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. He holds a BFA in Dramatic Writing from SUNY Purchase and is currently based in South Florida, where he pens sleep stories for the Slumber App. When he’s not writing, you can find Ivan hogging the mic at a K-Town karaoke spot or experimenting with truffle-based recipes at home.

Original Artwork Supplied by Art Director Kita Das