From His Corner, A Bodega Owner Watches Brooklyn Change

Mira Jacob profiles her Boerum Hill bodega in this illustrated essay

You never know when you are going to meet someone who you will end up knowing for over a decade. I first met Sam after work on a summer Friday. I had been drinking.

Mira (short dark hair): Pack of Camels, please.
Sam (behind counter, a bald man with a small mustache): You should quit.
Mira: Excuse me? 
Sam: Eight twenty-five.
We had just moved into the neighborhood. Back then our block had a drug den on one side, and a family who sat outside an RV listening to the radio all day on the other.

Neighbor man, smoking a cigarette: Hola, morena.
Mira, offscreen: Hey.
Neighbor woman, also smoking: Ay, que ridicula con esos zapatos!
At night, semis would park in the block behind our house. Sometimes, if I came back late, I would see the women going in and out of them.

Woman, long blonde hair: What are you looking at?
Mira: No. Nothing.
Two streets over, some of the houses were brownstones, and all of them had tenants. We called Elberih Deli "the fancy bodega" because it carried organic milk.

Sam: What are you looking for?
Mira: Do you guys have agave?
Sam: What?
Mira: Aga-
Sam: No.
Sam's son Ala looked like he fell out of Sam's leg. He mostly worked on weekends. He seemed like a really good kid. I felt bad buying cigarettes if he was working.
Ala (looks just like Sam but with hair): Just the candy bars?
Mira: (thinking) I hope I have a kid like you some day. (out loud) That's it.

When Ala smiled, it felt like applause.
The year I got pregnant was the first time Sam ever smiled at me.

Sam: It's gonna be a boy!
Mira: You think?
Sam: I know. The belly. My wife was like that with the boys.
Someone offscreen: Do you have organic yogurt?
Sam: Second shelf.
I had a boy. When I brought him into the store the first time, Sam looked at him for a very, very long time.

Sam: He looks like his father.
Mira: What about me?
Sam: Not so much.
The year my son turned four, movie stars moved into the neighborhood. Farm-to-table restaurants opened up. A lot of our old neighbors started moving away.

White woman with long hair: I thought they'd have more yard, for what they're asking.
White man with a beard and sunglasses: Let's keep looking.
Sam had moved to New York from Palestine in 1984. He bought the bodega in 1990. He has seven kids now, four boys and three girls.

Mira: Do you ever want to go back?
Sam: I will go back. I am going back. I have a house there. It has a garden. Nice place. I'll go back with the whole family.
Sam's son, who has a beard and a buzz cut and is wearing a Champion shirt: We're not allowed to go back. The most they will give us is a three-month visa to our own homeland.
Sometimes we talk about how the neighborhood used to be.

Sam: Two times we were held up. One time the guy starts shooting. He shot here, he shot there. It's a miracle no one got hurt.
Mira: Jesus.
Sam: But the neighborhood was better then.
Mira: You think?
Sam's son, the one with the beard: Because people knew us. They talked to us, they would call us by our names. Now, all these new people, it's like you're a lamppost to them. You stand outside sweeping, and they pass you like you're not even there.
Sam: It was all families then, see. People with kids.
Mira: Who is it now?
Sam: How do I know who? You live here. You tell me.

About the Author

Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, longlisted for the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize, and honored by the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association. She is currently working on her graphic memoir, Good Talk (Dial Press, 2018). You can find more of her drawn conversations over here:

— The Bodega Project is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

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