Garcia the storekeeper
below my window every day at the curb
sweeping before the sun gets up,
patiently gathers bottles,
the broken shiver-stars
of yesterday’s do-nothings,
who sleep as ever, across the hoods
of parked cars.
His wife, getting up late, with gummy eyes,
stands in the doorway trading the time of day
with customers, children, loafers and dogs.
Garcia’s indolent son, a sort of tire-man of waist fat,
will squat upon his black motorbike.
It’s his third this year. His Fu Manchu mustache
and unshaved dirty cheeks will squeeze out
from under the helmet,
shading a cloud of greasy black hair.
Every day, Garcia watches it all serenely,
his hollow cheeks are withered.
He sells coconut bars and chicken wings,
peers through his dirty glasses
across sales slip figures, with his
naked gums and two teeth.
Twice this year they’ve come in under the floor
next door from the basement,
and skipped away with a dozen cases of his beer.
He shrugs, sniffs, and nails up a network of two by fours.
At nine in the night, he stands by the adding machine
figuring the day, talking to Anselmo
the numbers runner, who leans over his cane,
rubbing his white fuzz of hair.
Garcia fumbles the numbers into the machine,
takes out the paper,
peers at it under his glasses,
licks his lips, says OK, shakes his head
with a sort of benediction.
Then he puts on his red woodman’s jacket,
slams the gate and sets the burglar alarm.
Never does it go off with a moonlight celebration
of a burglar. It rings by itself
many a night at 4 a.m.
Garcia will patiently rise up out of his bed
and float like a wraith around the corner to set it again.
When he leaves, he will hesitate,
then pat his door gently,
like quieting a restless, sleepless child.
© Andrew Glaze 2015, from Overheard In A Drugstore
This poem is a description of life just outside our Manhattan apartment at 803 9th Avenue and 53rd Street. We arrived there in 1962, and left in the early 1990’s. Our former neighborhood still goes by the nickname of “Hell’s Kitchen”, but by the ‘70’s it contained a blend of theater performers, artists, Puerto Rican and other ethnic groups as residents, creative restaurants, the sound stage for the TV soap opera “All My Children”, an off Broadway Theater called the Cubiculo, and a music studio where singer Carly Simon often recorded.
Our narrow 5 floor walk-up building had two apartments on each floor and ours was the entire right side of the 2nd level. Immediately below us was a store front that changed renters every few years. By contrast, Garcia’s store was a bodega below our neighbor’s apartment. The burglar alarm went off frequently, seemingly for the sheer joy of it. The store was tiny and looked like it had been there since the dawn of time. The merchandise consisted of Hispanic menu ingredients, cans, milk, bread, and fruit that was well on its way to becoming compost.
Cigarettes, cigars, and beer comprised the major part of Garcia’s sales. In the summer the door to the store stayed open, Garcia was always up for a chat, and a local group of drunks would assemble to socialize just outside his doorway. The sound of laughing voices would drift up to the windows of our living room where my father had a desk and a typewriter. When we approached to enter or exit the building, they’d apologetically move their crate seats out of our way. Scrawny, and smiling, the most creative of the drunks was named Gene. His occasional requests for financial donations had humor. “Hey, Irish, can you spare a quarter? I’m starting to sober up!” was his method of addressing my teenage brother.
When we first moved into our apartment, the store below us housed a Puerto Rican barber named Benny. Whenever my parents sent my brother downstairs for a haircut, he’d leave looking like one of the Beatles, and come home looking like Charlie Brown in Peanuts. We concluded Benny only knew one haircut.
Garcia and Benny were just two of the many Hispanic store owners in our area. Each store specialized in something, but they all looked vaguely similar. My brother Peter used to patronize a newspaper and magazine store a block away. He recently wrote:
“When I was a kid growing up in NYC, there were a lot of Puerto Rican immigrants in the neighborhood, along with a lot of little Hispanic newspaper/magazine stores and “bodegas.” I used to stop at one such store every Monday morning on the way to school, with my allowance in my hot little hand, to buy baseball cards.
I started noticing a little book hanging up by the cash register titled, “The Dream Book.” I became fascinated by this book, which was $2.00, assuming it to be a manual of dream analysis, wherein I could find out what my dreams meant. I had heard that dreams had special meanings, and I thought for sure I would now be able to find out why I once dreamed that an alligator peed on me — but that’s another story.
I only received 60¢ a week allowance, so I had to save for more than three weeks (and sacrifice baseball cards!) to buy the book, but after carefully hoarding my money I finally had enough. I walked in that happy Monday morning, bought the book, and continued walking to the subway station. I eagerly opened the book and started reading as I rode the train, but imagine my dismay when this is what I saw on page after page:
Alligators — 27, 86, 32
Ancestors — 12, 22, 08
Antelope — 81, 96, 112
Bison — 03, 76, 104
Burglars — 16, 98, 25,
Butter — 07, 107, 32
I had no clue what this was about, but I knew it had nothing to do with MY dreams.
I forget who I finally asked, possibly my father, but I eventually found out that this was a book for numbers runners, and people who played the illegal numbers game. These were the numbers you were supposed to bet on if you dreamed about those specific things.”
I still get a laugh when I imagine what those guys at the store must have thought when the little 10-year-old Anglo kid came in and bought a book on numbers betting.”
— Peter Glaze
By the 1990’s, the original Latino flavor of the neighborhood was fading. As the bodegas closed they were replaced by Korean fruit markets and new higher priced stores. More and more young professionals arrived in the area and rent prices rose accordingly. Our former building still stands firmly in place, but currently the stores below it have merged into one large and trendy Mexican restaurant.