Usnavi, always at your service

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Usnavi, always at your service

Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer

The original Usnavi, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Photo: Mike Fitelson

The original Usnavi, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Photo: Mike Fitelson

One is named Usnavi.

The other, Ali Saleh.

There are phonetic similarities in their names, and in their occasional disposition towards the occupation they share.

“I hate it,” says Saleh. “When you get a bodega, you’re married to the business.”

And Usnavi de la Vega agrees.

“Yeah, I’m a streetlight
Choking on the heat
The world spins around
While I’m frozen to my seat
The people that I know
All keep rolling down the street.”

 

Ali Saleh works at a bodega on the corner of Broadway, while Usnavi and his cousin and bodega assistant, Sonny, worked their corner store at 181st Street in In the Heights.

Bodega shelves have everything.

Bodega shelves have everything.

Both toil long hours in family businesses, and come to know their customers as if they were part of the extended clan.

Saleh is at the bodega, owned by his father, day in and day out.

For the past three years, he has been working there full time.

Most of his daily activity happens within a few square feet behind the counter.

He landed the job, he explained, as a result of not pursuing school more avidly, although he did not have much time to elaborate.

A steady influx of customers comes in and out, at all hours, and Saleh tends to their needs for coffee, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and sandwiches.

He does so fluidly, his arms in perpetual motion, nodding and greeting the regulars. Cash in, change out; coins and bills are exchanged all day long, a neat choreography of supply and demand.

Usnavi knows about that too.

“People come through for a few cold waters and a lottery ticket,

Just like in the neighborhood, the bodega in In the Heights is the center of action. Photo: www.pbs.org

Just like in the neighborhood, the bodega in In the Heights is the center of action.                                        Photo: www.pbs.org

Just a part of the routine
Everybody’s got a job
Everybody’s got a dream
They gossip as I sip my coffee and smirk
The first stop as people hop to work
Bust it-I’m like-
1 dollar, 2 dollar, 1.50, 1.69
I got it
You want a box of condoms what kind?
That’s two quarters
Two quarter waters. The New York Times
You need a bag for that? The tax is added
Once you get some practice at it
You do rapid mathematics
Automatically
Sellin maxipads and fuzzy dice for taxicabs and practically.”

 

Still, Saleh says life as a bodeguero here in Washington Heights is better than being back in Yemen.

“Back home, we used to ride camels. Now, I ride the MTA,” he noted.

He has even learned some Spanish.

“I picked it up from the streets,” he said.

And when he has a spare moment, he looks out the window as the world passes by.

Camera-shy bodeguero Stephen Bello uses these hands to make ham-and-cheese sandwiches, make change and bestow high-five’s.

Camera-shy bodeguero Stephen Bello uses these hands to make ham-and-cheese sandwiches, make change and bestow high-five’s.

Further along Broadway, Stephen Bello and Ramón Rodríguez work behind a different bodega counter.

Salsa plays from deep within the store, with its shelves stacked to brimming with colorful wares.

“I love it here,” says Rodríguez. “I never get bored.”

Both workers are, like Usnavi, from “the single greatest little place in the Caribbean,” the
Dominican Republic.

And both Bello and Rodríguez, who work part-time, say they love talking to customers, stopping often to offer a special high-five to a regular.

“Sometimes people come in here because they’re bored and they just want to talk to me,” explained Bello.

Far from being a nuisance, it’s one of the things he loves most about his work.

“It’s bacanisimo [Dominican slang term for hanging out]. I could be here all day,” he says, grinning.

Others could be there all day too, apparently.

Two customers, who might have bought coffee hours ago, were still hanging around. There is a constant flow of people coming in and out, for beer and munchies.

You’ll never know what you’ll find at the bodega. Vendor John Matos stops by to show off his wares at the Deli Grocery on Broadway.

You’ll never know what you’ll find at the bodega. Vendor John Matos stops by to show off his wares at the Deli Grocery on Broadway.

A crab vendor even stops by with two live specimens.

Bello and Rodríguez don’t even bat an eye.

It is, after all, just another evening at the bodega.

“So I’m switchin up the beat
Cuz my parents came with nothing
They got a little more
And sure, we’re poor, but yo,
At least we got the store
And it’s all about the legacy
They left with me,

It’s destiny.”

 

All lyrics from “In the Heights”.

Tickets for In the Heights: In Concert on Mon., Feb. 11th at the United Palace Theater at 4140 Broadway are still available at www.telecharge.com.