the bodega project
A Visit to the Irish Embassy in Queens
Dan Sheehan recalls his immigration to New York and the Maspeth bodega where you get cash for the doctor and a touch of home
By Dan Sheehan
Presenting the fourth installment of The Bodega Project, where authors from across New York reflect on their communities through that most relied-on and overlooked institution, the bodega. Read the introduction to the series here.
Sure the shamrocks were growing on Broadway
Every girl was an Irish colleen
The town of New York was the county of Cork
All the buildings were painted green
Sure the Hudson looked just like the Shannon
Oh, how good and how real it did seem
I could hear me mother singin’, sweet Shannon bells ringin’
’twas only an Irishman’s dream
With the exception of the deli across the street from my office on 14th Street, and the one near my building in Harlem, there is only one bodega in the city that I visit with any kind of regularity. Once or twice a year, I make the 90-minute trek to a part of Queens so inaccessible to me that it’s become the yardstick against which all other pain-in-the-ass errands are measured. I take a train to another train to a bus to the outer reaches of the borough, and then jog down the street for a few minutes until the familiar green and yellow awning with the crossed Irish and American flags emblazoned on its front appears before me — a little oasis of familiarity in a sprawling suburban desert. I do this because the deli houses an ATM and my doctor — who I recently discovered is not technically a doctor — only accepts cash.
Now I have been told on a few occasions that there are in fact physicians on the island of Manhattan — fully qualified medical professionals whose clinics sit snugly along my regular train line, and whom I could visit without having to set up an out-of-office email and update the timezone on my phone. This seems plausible, though I’ve never investigated the matter. I like my (not-quite-a) doctor. I like his manic energy and fondness for Viagra jokes. I like that his staff bellow at one another through the halls, and that his waiting room has an ornamental jar with Ashes of Disgruntled Patients printed across the lid. I like that his office shares a supporting wall with an Irish bar. I like these things because formality unnerves me, and short of a triage tent this is about the least formal medical facility you could imagine.
Even a cursory scan of the inside of the neighboring bodega makes it clear that the person in charge of the furnishings is, like my doctor, in possession of a delightfully unconventional worldview. It is, without question, the most gaudily Hibernicized store I’ve ever encountered. To be clear, I’m not talking about merely a Tricolor, a few boxes of Barry’s tea bags, and a fridge full of Guinness cans — though these items are of course present and correct. No, this particular bodega has gone all-in on the tat and tastes of the old country, stocking its shelves with, at an extended glance: county flags in all 32 varieties; Donegal Catch frozen fish sticks; baskets of loose, misshapen chocolates; knockoff jerseys with lopsided crests; and my personal favorite — stacks of DVDs with water-damaged photocopies for covers retailing at $5 a pop. The DVD library includes, but is not limited to, the following titles: Love/Hate (a popular Irish gangland series); The Daniel O’Donnell 50th Birthday Documentary (a celebration of an asexual Irish crooner); A Scare at Bedtime with Podge & Rodge (a ten-minute late-night bridging program from the early 2000’s where two red-haired puppet brothers tell lewd cautionary tales); and, for the more historically minded, Ken Loach’s Civil War drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
I have so many questions. Who is buying these DVDs in the year of our Lord 2017? Why would anyone want fish sticks from 3000 miles away? Is there anyone walking the earth right now in one of those jerseys? How does one get in contact with the supplier of these ersatz wonders? Is his warehouse filled with endless rows of vaguely nationalistic junk to suit the respective tastes of every other immigrant community in New York?
Is his warehouse filled with endless rows of vaguely nationalistic junk to suit the respective tastes of every other immigrant community in New York?
The only other person in the store is a middle-aged Indian man standing behind the counter. I approach and ask if he’s the owner. After a moment’s hesitation, he says no. I ask if the owner is Irish. He says no — Indian, like the rest of the staff. I ask what the story is with all the Irish stuff. He says he doesn’t know, but that people seem to like it. The more questions I put to him, the more uncomfortable he becomes, which, I realize too late, is wholly understandable given the current socio-political climate. If there has ever been, in recent American history, an appropriate time for a strange white man to quiz a non-white immigrant about the peculiarities of his business model and the nationality of his staff, 2017 is not it. I explain that I’m a writer from Ireland, that I’m merely curious about the décor, and that I come out here to visit the doctor from time to time.
Why? He asks me. Why? is an excellent question, and the answer is tied to my first significant experience with the plastic paddy aesthetic that has become so important to the owners of Irish bars and bodegas like this one.
Some background: it has long been a point of pride between my brother and me to avoid doctor visits like they were trips to the gallows. At some point in our pre-teen or early teenage years, when our sibling rivalry was running hottest, we decided that admitting you needed to see a doctor was a sign of weakness. As soon as that was agreed upon, arguing over who had the stronger immune system and stomach became a small but sturdy foundation stone in our relationship. To this day, I will still eat expired food and refuse to wear a coat outside of the calendar-designated winter season to prove to myself that this most childish and nonsensical of boasts remains at least partially true.
That preserved idiocy was the reason it took a week and a half of death-rattle coughing fits before I finally resigned myself to the fact that I would have to find a doctor in New York. It was March of 2013 and I had been in the city for a little under a month. I had not brought a coat over from Ireland because mid-February is technically Spring and therefore I wouldn’t need one for another eight months. A day or two after arriving I set out to find a bar job and figured that the best place to do that would be Times Square. Now, if you’re thinking to yourself: wouldn’t that be the loudest, fakest, most unpleasant choice? Wouldn’t the bulk of the patrons be tourists who often don’t tip? Wouldn’t the turnover of staff in such a place be high enough that the management, if the mood struck them, could treat everyone like shit? You would be correct on all counts.
I worked as a waiter in a sort of Irish superpub — right in the erratically beating heart of what many consider to be the worst part of the city — for about nine months, eight and a half of which were out of spite. It was, is, run by a wizened old goblin from back home — a mumbling love child of John Wayne in The Quiet Man and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. He made the trip across the pond forty or fifty or sixty years ago with, I assume, nothing more than a dream, a few dollars in his pocket, and a commitment to performative armchair republicanism, institutional racism, and cultivating Tammany Hall-style political friendships. From those humble beginnings, he now sits atop a fortress of kitsch in a Disneyfied corporate mecca. The kind of place where you can hear a pleasing babble of Irish accents from the authentic young staff, and where the résumés of black job applicants go straight in the trash. Where members of the NYPD and FDNY gather in their dress uniforms on St. Patrick’s Day to raise a glass to their ancestors, and where a senior bartender once muttered the N-word when President Obama appeared on the television. Where you can sup on a creamy pint of Guinness, delivered to your table by a trained bartender who will never be promoted above bar back because he’s Ecuadorian.
To be fair, this city is full of wonderful Irish bars — I had my wedding reception in one of them — and the powers that be at this Times Square operation were certainly behavioral outliers in their field, at least as far as I can tell from my extensive on-the-ground research these past four years. But the fact remains, that’s where I ended up working. That’s where my hacking and spluttering was unnerving the patrons, eating into the very meager tips one can accumulate when one has been demoted from evening to midday shifts for arguing with management. Eventually, a slightly more seasoned employee told me about a medical center that charges uninsured patients a flat fee of 55 dollars, cash. She informed me that many of my co-workers had availed themselves of this service in recent months and wisely suggested that I pay the place, and its accompanying bodega, a visit before the cost of my commute to work exceeded my take home pay.
I of course did not detail any of this to the bodega manager, though he has doubtless interacted with many of my under-the-weather former colleagues down through the years. Instead I thanked him for letting me linger, bought a box of Barry’s tea, a packet of Tayto cheese-and-onion crisps, and a Podge & Rodge DVD, and left, none the wiser as to the provenance of the décor. The more I think about it though, the simplest answer — the one he actually gave me — is probably all there is to it: people seem to like this stuff. If I’m being honest with myself, I like this stuff. Not because I pine for the tastes of the old sod, or because I’m eager to garland my apartment with flags and plastic tchotchkes, or because I’m itching for a more regular hit of Podge and Rodge. What I’m drawn to is the idea that dotted across every borough of the most ethnically diverse city in the world are little embassies of home.
What I’m drawn to is the idea that dotted across every borough of the most ethnically diverse city in the world are little embassies of home.
From the most strategically curated corporate incarnations of Times Square to the gloriously kitschy mom-and-pop stores of the outer reaches, this city, for good or ill, feels like it’s invested in where I come from, in who I am. It feeds a dream of inflated significance — which yes, at its worst, can draw to the surface a repugnant vein of tribalism in those already so inclined — but which also serves a far more modest purpose. It helps to stave off homesickness, at least for a while, by letting us know that there’s a place for us here, that we’re seen, that we belong.
About the Author
Dan Sheehan is an Irish fiction writer, journalist, and editor. His writing has appeared in The Irish Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, TriQuarterly, Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among others. He lives in New York where he is the Book Marks Editor at Literary Hub. His debut novel, Restless Souls, will be published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) & Ig Publishing (US). You can find him on Twitter @danpjsheehan.
— Photography by Anu Jindal
The Bodega Project – Electric Literature
— The Bodega Project is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.