Khalid’s eyebrows fly up to meet the brim of his checked flatcap. “No, no we don’t want to talk about anything.” He throws his hands up in mock dismay, but I think he’s got actual suspicions. This has been my bodega since middle school (though it wasn’t always so nice inside) and it’s hard to think about how little I really know about these guys. Khalid is reacting to an exchange he’s just had in Arabic with the current cashier, whom I’ve just asked questions to only to be informed he doesn’t speak much English. Thus, I’ve been referred to Khalid, who smiles genially even though he’s refusing to answer my questions.
This has been my bodega since middle school, which I attended across the street. That’s the first thing Khalid is eager to talk about: “We do a lot for the middle school across the street. The kids come in, they love us, they love the cat, we love them.” The store was closed during the Yemeni bodega strike of February 2, 2017, wherein over a thousand Yemeni owned Brooklyn businesses closed for eight hours to protest 45’s US entry ban. As many as 5000 people gathered in front of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall that night. It’s hard to imagine your bodega closing for so long – your corner-store can be the backbone of your block, a 24/7 resource for Whatever You Need. That’s got to be the point, though: without the contributions of Muslim immigrants, where are you going to buy both emergency toilet paper and a bacon-egg- and-cheese?
There was a time when bodegas were largely Latin owned – I remember my mother having a special rapport with bodega owners, chatting in Spanish when so many other customers couldn’t – but that began to change in the 90’s with an influx of immigrants from Yemen, even as the idea of a bodega itself evolved. It’s hard to find a dank, cramped place to buy chips and a quarter-water anymore (does anyone even sell quarter-waters anymore?) – it seems a whole lot of bodegas these days are brightly lit health food stores, like miniature Whole Foods. But then…that’s Brooklyn now, too, and these stores, rushing to serve their communities, have accommodated. Besides, you can still buy sandwiches.
And this give and take between bodega and neighborhood has never been so beautifully illustrated for me than on the evening of the strike, when the closed grate of Park Slope’s Farm Shop Deli was adorned by handmade signs.
“We Stand With You!”
“We are with you!”
“You are welcome here!”
“Thank you for taking a stand for what America is about!”
“We stand by you guys! (An Mish-Mish.)”
(There were a number of references to Mish-Mish, the store’s black and white feline mascot, who lazes around by the cereal boxes. The store is Mish-Mish’s domain.)
“You are part of the community!”
And on and on and on and –
The strike is past but the signs remain, taped to the inside of the store’s front windows. It’s
clear that the outpouring of love and support has had some effect on the store’s owners, to
give these signs such a place of honor. I ask Khalid if he was expecting to find things taped to
the grate when he arrived. He shakes his head. “We have three stores around Brooklyn. The
other ones? We didn’t have anything. But here? The people understand. It’s a real
neighborhood. Everyone’s family. The school across the street, the kids come in every day,
always nice, always respectful. They went home and told their parents about what we were
going to do, about what was going on with us, and I think that’s why they came.”
“Here, I feel safe. This store’s not mine, it’s my uncle’s. He’s been in this spot for fifteen years.
I’ve been in this country for twenty-five years. I don’t worry too much about this.” He gestures
vaguely at the stack of newspapers. “I’m an American citizen. I’m totally American. My wife and
kids are here. I’m not bringing anyone over. Last time I was [in Yemen] was…” He stops to
count. “Ten years! I’m not worried.”
I ask him if Brooklyn is home, now, and not Yemen anymore. He opens his mouth to speak, but
hesitates, screws up his mouth, shifts back and forth. “You know, for the first time, I think about
going back, you know? Because of this crazy man saying all sorts of things. I think about my wife and my kids, you know, and I want what’s best for them. Everybody does. I want them to be safe. And maybe that’s not here, anymore, for a while. I don’t have problems here, but you know… Sometimes when I go driving with my wife, I ask her to stay in the back seat now. You know why? Because she wears a hijab, and I’m worried about somebody coming up to the car, some racist, some ignorant… I’m worried about somebody saying something or throwing something at the car, and I don’t want her to get hurt. It’s not safe. I was going to buy a building! Before the election, I was going to buy an apartment building, I had everything set up, but now I think, ‘Why would I do that? Why would I do that if I don’t know what’s going to happen? To me, to my family? To the country, you know?” Another sad gesture towards the stack of newspapers. Mish-Mish is circling my feet now.
“I love America,” Khalid says, shaking my hand after ringing up my seltzer-water and my cookies. “I love America. I love America. America is the greatest country in the world. I can’t imagine going back. I’ve been here for twenty-five years, since I was young. This country has given me and my family so much. I love America. There will never be another country like America. This is my home, you know? The people are beautiful. And when I see that man Donald Trump, I say that is not America. He is not America. He is a devil.”