Bodegas are, if you live in a city that has them, about the best little shops on earth. If you are from the suburbs or rural places, you'd have to visit a truck stop to find the next best thing.Except at truck stops you don't have the diversity factor. Bodegas are rarely owned by people who hail from the United States, and they are located in inner city neighborhoods that often have high crime and poverty rates. No matter the nationality of the owner, I call them all "bodegas". It's just easier than trying to remember how to say "weird little shop" in 10 languages.
Their merchandise is comprised of random samplings of essential and nonessential items. All products are usually toward the front of shelves in perfect geometry so as to fool the eye into thinking there are more than, say, four boxes of Cornflakes. Individual rolls of toilet paper, sewing kits and candy bars occupy the same section. Alcohol takes up most of the wall space, followed closely by cigarettes, and lottery tickets are available at the front counter.
Those are the commonalities. What I love about a true bodega is the stuff for sale from the owner's country of origin. Across the street from me is a shop owned by a woman from Ethiopia. She moved here as a young child, so her English is better than mine most days. When I request a lottery ticket, she always recites the same caveat: "If you win, you must buy this place so I can get the hell out of here. Maybe Paris." Her half sister, on the other hand, barely speaks a word of English.
My last visit, I had to circle past a group of addicts and dealers trying to steal beer to do my browsing. After they begrudgingly bought the beer with coins, I arrived at the counter with an armload of what I thought might be tea, a plastic pack of what looked like mustard seeds, an interesting melange of spices and a Butterfinger. I have a pretty good handle on what a Butterfinger is, but I needed clarification on the other three.
The non-English-speaking sister was on duty. After a few attempts at communication, much improvised sign language and a gestured request for a lottery ticket I bought all four. Everything cost $1.99.
Much to my delight, what I thought might be tea is, and it's amazing. It's smokey and strong, and goes beautifully with a little honey and some milk. The mustard seeds (?) I've yet to put to use. They are irregularly shaped, and smell faintly of red peppercorns. The spices must be for making chai. I've harvested out the cardamom seeds for baking. The Butterfinger is long gone.
My next adventure is to visit the Algerian bodega for some goat jerky and bobby pins. Then to the Korean one for some canned hearts of palm and a second bag of multicolored tapioca beads. Why? Because they're there.