I stop by Al's Bodega on average twice a week. It's on my walk home from work but also just a few doors down from my apartment building. That makes midnight munchie runs possible. It doesn't matter when I go, Al's is guaranteed to have what I need. Milk and butter; a deli sandwich and a six-pack; laundry detergent or a pint of ice cream. Ben and Jerry's Phish Food, named after one of the greatest touring bands since the Grateful Dead.
Al's is your run of the mill convenience store on the corner of Halifax and Dearborn. Its yellowed sign with bright red letters is like an antacid after a bowl of Thai curry soup. It's looking up into the night sky and knowing the moon and the stars are there, even if the clouds and the city skyline obscures them. I can show up in my housecoat and furry slippers or an evening couture gown after a mandatory night out with clients, and Al's is open, waiting to serve in a no-judgment zone.
Tight aisles fill the 600 square foot space to the brim with everything you might possibly need in a pinch. Al's is like a hug from Grandma when you are on your fifth bout of strep throat in two months. Reminiscent of my Aunt Viv's musty little beach house on the Island, where each room was filled to the brim with odds and ends of her 85-year life. Nothing was ever deemed useless, and if you needed something random, like a set of size 9 knitting needles, Viv had them. And more importantly, she could find them before the commercial break was up for Young & the Restless.
Since Aunt Viv passed last month, the unexpected grief has been painful to work through. We weren't close the way my cousin Liz was with her. Yet, she was a constant in my life for thirty years. Now, my days feel more prolonged than usual, gloomier no matter how much the sun shines between the breaks in the buildings on Halifax Street.
Six nights back, I stumbled into Al's in my striped button-down pajamas and two different Ugg boots. It had snowed earlier in the day. Not much, but enough to make the sidewalks slushy, so footwear choices are essential. My naturally curly hair poked out of a beanie because it had mysteriously become even more unmanageable since Viv's death. For warmth, I donned an oversized cardigan that happened to be one she had given me a few years back. I think it belonged to her third husband. I am unaware of how awful I look and how unorganized my thoughts are. I grab a handbasket and begin filling it with random items. When I get to the register, I realize I had left my apartment without my wallet.
"I don't have my phone or my keys either. Shit!" I yell, before bursting into tears.
Ahmed, the nephew of Al, happens to be working that night. He knows all the regulars, including myself, but obviously doesn't really know us. Yet, he leaves the safety of his side of the counter to bring me an unopened pack of travel-sized Kleenex.
"It's okay. I'll ring you up, and you pay Uncle tomorrow," he offers.
"No. No. I couldn't. Let me run back to my place and grab my stuff. If I'm not locked out! Oh no! What if I'm locked out?! Look at me! I'm in my freakin' PJs!" I begin to sob in earnest.
Uncomfortable with my tears, or maybe it was the snot dripping from my nose, Ahmed shifts from foot to foot and glances around the store. I imagine a thought bubble above his head. A single word reads: HELP!
He raises his hands as if he wants to embrace me, thinks better of it, and scrubs them over his face instead.
"Tell me," he says, taking a deep breath. "Tell me, what is troubling you? No one's here. It's just you and me. You have something on your mind, yes? Or else you wouldn't have come out in the middle of the night to pick up..." he glances at the items in my basket. "Triple-A batteries, hot cocoa packets, a bag of basmati rice..." he lists out the random things as he takes each one out and places it on the counter.
I look down at my shaking hands, they are reddish-purple from the cold but surprisingly smooth and wrinkle-free. I'm a self-proclaimed germaphobe, excessive hand-sanitizer use keeps my hands red and inflamed most of the winter. However, I haven't even been considering germs since Aunt Viv died. What's the point? None of us are getting out of here alive anyway! I must have said that last bit out loud, for Ahmed stops what he's doing for a second and shoots me a look of concern.
The door chimes just then, breaking our awkward bubble of intimacy. It's someone from my building.
Myra. She lives on the floor above me. We often run into each other on the elevator or meet up on the subway. She immediately notices my blotchy face.
"Is everything okay?" she asks, coming over and putting an arm around my shoulder.
"I forgot my wallet. And my phone. And my keys," I hiccup.
She laughs a little. "Oh! I've done that before, haven't I Ahmed?!" She winks at him like two conspiring parents, reassuring their toddler that everyone cries in Kindergarten.
I'm unsure if she's telling the truth. She always seems so put together. I feel humiliated and have an immediate urge to crawl into under the bottom shelf in front of me. It's reserved for cases of water and soda but looks like the perfect spot to curl up and hide.
I look back at Myra. I'm envious. I bet she's never had a sad day in her life. Even now, in the middle of a cold winter night in the city, she's dressed in a designer wool coat over a high-end pantsuit and expensive leather boots. She shouldn't be wearing those in this weather. Apparently, I say this aloud, too, because she laughs and says they are waterproof.
Despite my doubts, Ahmed is watching the exchanging and nodding along with Myra, reassuring me that people forget their money all the time.
"It's the age of distraction," he shrugs. "What can we do?"
"Let me grab what I came for, and I'll pay for everything. We can walk back together and get the manager to open your door for you. Then you can pay me back. Or not! It's no big deal," Myra offers.
"No, no. I can pay. I just..." I fiddle with the beanie on my head, hesitating over what I want to say. I itch to yell out that I hurt everywhere, that life is unfair and stupid, and what's the point to all of this. I also know that if I say these things, Myra or Ahmed will be placing a call to non-emergency services to have me evaluated.
"Not another word. Ahmed, can I get a pack of Marlboro Lights and a scratch-off? That one, with the sevens on the front." Myra pulls out her phone and holds it to the little credit card machine while smiling between Ahmed and me.
I question whether the smile is sympathetic. Does Myra find this whole thing hilarious, or is she genuinely helping out a neighbor? I have to believe it's the latter, because true to her word, she pays and gets me situated at home.
As she's leaving, she turns and faces me, her smile gone, a shadow falling over her cheekbones. "About a year ago, I was in a bad way. I'd been laid off, and my girlfriend left me for her brother's best friend. She said she didn't know she was bisexual until she'd met Jeff." Myra rolls her eyes. "I was facing mounting debt and couldn't find a job, not even at Al's Bodega!" she smirks.
"A dark night of the soul, my therapist later called it. Fortunately, I had some friends around and saw the signs that night or I might not be here right now. Don't wait for things to get that bad, Jo. Reach out to someone, professional or otherwise. We all need a little help now and then." She hands me her business card and quietly lets herself out.
I cry myself to sleep that night. Not only for the grief I feel for losing Aunt Viv, but for the kindness of strangers. And for Al's Bodega. There is beauty in the ordinary, and that makes it extraordinary.