September 2, 2007

Games Bodega Owners Play


It was the first week of August, and New York was in the middle of yet another of the summer’s assorted heat waves. Temperatures were approaching the mid-nineties, and the air was thick enough to leave a visible wake.

      I’m not much one for the heat, so I was trying to get all of my errands run as early and as quickly as possible so I could get back to my apartment and, well, sweat like a pig for the rest of the day.

      I hit the bank, then picked up some bread and more beer at the grocery store. The only thing left on the list was smokes.

      I generally buy smokes a carton at a time, and every time I do it makes me laugh. I’m not laughing because it’s such an evil and self-destructive thing to do, No, I get a little chuckle every time because for well over a decade now, almost without fail, I’ve been buying my smokes from the same man at the same neighborhood bodega. After all these years, he’s come to know me, know what I want, and he’s never been anything but pleasant and friendly. But every single time, without fail, he tries to cheat me. Every single time.

      After the twin towers came down, business fell off dramatically for places operated by Middle Easterners, and this bodega was no exception. I kept stopping by as regular as ever, though. Not to make any sort of political statement or any other such nonsense—it was simply more convenient to just keep going there. He’d lost a lot of regular customers after the attacks, and let me know on several occasions that he appreciated my business. But that sure as hell didn’t stop him from trying to rip me off every time I stopped. I guess we’re both creatures of habit.

      So that’s why I laugh. It’s become a kind of game to me at this point, waiting to see how he’ll try to do it this time around.

      At first I thought it was just a simple accident that I ended up short-changed. But as it continued happening week after week, year after year, I became fascinated.

      It reminds me of the dorm cafeteria when I was at the University of Chicago. Every couple of weeks, they’d offer something they loosely defined as a “Reuben.” I don’t claim to be any kind of Reuben connoisseur, but these things coming out of the cafeteria were shockingly awful, and made me sick every time I had one. But every time they offered it, I ate one. And I ate one simply because I could not believe that they were actually as bad as I remembered. But they always were.

      That’s sort of the same way I think about the bodega.

      Some of the ruses he employs are straight out of Grifting 101. He’ll hand me my change in a jumble, hoping I’ll be more concerned with straightening it out and getting it back in my wallet than in actually counting it. Other times, he’ll “count” the change aloud before handing it to me, and in doing so, he’ll count a single as a ten.

      On occasion, he’ll pretend to be “really, really busy” taking care of other customers—pouring cups of coffee, making sandwiches—and he’ll toss the change at me then quickly leave to do something else.

      When I stopped by two weeks ago he rang up the smokes, told me how much they were, and I handed him four twenties. He put the bills in the open drawer, slid the carton into a bag, then returned to the still-open drawer to get my change.

      “Oh,” he said, staring into the drawer, “how much did you give me?”

      “I gave you eighty dollars—four twenties.”

      “Are you sure? I think you just gave me three.”

      And so forth.

      I bet these penny-ante scams work on a bunch of people, too. And I have to wonder if he keeps trying them out on me because I’m blind and he figures I’m an easy mark. Too many stupid mistakes over the years, however, have left me a little paranoid about my cash. Some of the time, anyway. To be honest, if I see that he’s only cheated me out of a buck or two, I’ll let it slide. It’s damned hard to make a go of it as a small businessman these days.

      This most recent time things weren’t so bad. Maybe it was just too warm to pull anything too elaborate.

      I walked in and stood in line behind three people buying lottery tickets. When it was my turn he smiled and asked “Cigarette?”

      “Yes please.”


      “Yes please.”

      His eyes scanned the stock below the counter. Then he frowned and reached for a box.

      “These okay?” he asked, holding up a carton of Viceroy Lights.

      This was an oldie. He pretends he doesn’t have Kools, then tries to pawn off a carton of some unpopular brand or another on me—some kind he can’t get rid of. I fell for this one for a long time, but I’ve since learned that if I just keep nudging him, he’ll always “happen to find” a carton of what I’m looking for.

      “You mean you don’t have any Kools?”

      He put the Viceroys back and began scanning again.

      “How ‘bout these?” he asked again, holding up a carton of Kool 100s.

      “I’m afraid those make my head hurt,” I explained. “If you have a few loose packs of regulars, I’d be happy with those. It’s fine. Whatever you got.”

      “Oh, okay,” he said, replacing the unwanted carton. Then he grabbed a new carton of Kool regulars (the one that had been there the whole while) and slammed it down on the counter.

      “How’s that?”

      “That’s swell,” I said, smiling. I’d won again, and he gave me a discount.

      So why do I keep going back to a man who seems so intent on cheating me? Can’t really say, except that I have an odd admiration for his stick-to-itiveness. And maybe, even though I catch him every time, I’m helping him get the necessary practice he needs to cheat other people!

      Being able to help out a small businessman that way just leaves me with a warm feeling inside. I paid for my smokes, then stepped back outside into the unbearable heat.


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