Sunday, July 11, 2010

Angelo's Gone

I’ve learned that most of our lives are rituals. Probably always knew this, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate it. 9/11 went a long ways towards opening that door. Those few days after that were devoid of ritual in New York, a dark gray haze of slow passing time, and all I know is that going back to my normal schedule felt heavenly in comparison. Same with Dad passing on – the ritual of going back to work a week later felt all right, after days of darkness. The darkness didn’t magically disappear, but you learn, it never does. Ritual means you’re moving forward in some sense, even if it feels like the exact opposite.

Sunday mornings, I go out boxing. My regular instructor is on vacation, so I always worry about his temporary replacement. Turns out it’s a younger white guy, really leans hard on the calisthenics, but overall, entirely acceptable, so I’ll keep going for the next two weeks. The big ritual when I get off the train in the early afternoon is to grab a newspaper, some bread, some ice tea, all at Angelo’s Food Emporium on Ditmars. Head home, kick back, take it easy for a few hours, usually until I make that big Sunday meal that will feed me for the next few days.

The reason I’ve gone to Angelo’s is because Angelo is a good guy: an older, bespectacled Greek with a kind face who welcomes everyone into his store. Most delis, I walk in, and it’s business as usual, shopkeepers who don’t seem particularly warm or friendly, selling the basics. Angelo sells the basics, too, but he’s always been unfailingly kind and friendly, from the first time I went in there to the last. So why not give him my money?

I actually felt guilty about a year ago when I started buying mixed nuts from a competing deli down the block on the other side of the street. The place opened up with a more “European imports” vibe about it, no doubt aiming at the new moneyed gentry with their selections, and I blew it off for weeks when it opened. But I saw after awhile that they had a pretty substantial nuts and dried fruit section at the front of the store. And I found that it’s a killer selection of stuff, fresh, reasonably priced, much better than Angelo’s ho-hum selection of cashews and such. So, every few weeks I stock up there, but give Angelo the vast majority of my deli visits.

The last few times I was there, Angelo seemed uncommunicative – tired, sitting in his folding chair at the end of the counter and not really talking to anyone, a glum look on his face. He let the young Mexican guy he has working there run the show, and I get along fine with that guy, too. But I had to wonder what was going on with Angelo, as I saw this routine three or four times over the course of weeks, which was unlike him.

Well, last two Sundays I’ve been there, Angelo’s gone. His signage is still on the front of the store, but he’s not. Last week, I was hoping maybe he’d just gone on vacation or something, and he had friends helping him out. The guy there now is another older Greek, with his wife and what appear to be their son, and don’t seem to be bad people. But not Angelo. The young Mexican guy is gone, too.

This week, I don’t know. I started noticing re-designed looks to the store’s layout, a lot of the Greek sundries Angelo had on the counter removed. Different kinds of ice tea in the coolers. The worst part: they fucked up the Sunday paper two weeks running. The paper had the right outer wrap, but last week there was no “news” portion of the paper (just the arts guide), and this week, they stuffed the Saturday edition of the paper into the Sunday outer wrap … which really pissed me off. I could handle the weird vibe of Angelo not being there, but knowingly selling me a shit copy of the newspaper two weeks running without a word of warning is one of those “dealbreaker” things I won’t put up with from a deli.

But, of course, the worst news for me is Angelo appears to be gone. Dead? I doubt it. There would have been candle memorials in front of the store. Gone back to Greece for a month? Possible … but why the sudden minor store re-design? As noted, his signage is still on the store, so I have to wonder what goes on there. I’m afraid to ask! Because I suspect what happened to Angelo is what will happen to most every small business on that main drag: once the 10/20/30-year lease comes up for renewal, the new monthly rent will be astronomically unaffordable, and the original owner will have to leave, usually after decades of catering to a working-class Greek/Italian neighborhood that’s turning more yuppie by the minute.

That’s the most logical explanation. But usually when this happens, there’s a warning, the owner let’s you know he’s leaving, there’ll be signs stating as much, and the store front goes dark, around here, for months usually as no one in his right mind is willing to pay the cut-throat newer rents local real-estate barons are charging for these places. And eventually, a Dunkin Donuts or such will move in.

I have to believe the man is gone. Where, I don’t know. Hopefully, he made enough over the years to be ready for something like this. I’d have no idea how much a deli owner makes in an outer borough of New York. I doubt Angelo was getting rich doing what he was doing. But he had such a feel for his customers. Spoke Greek. Hired an even-keel Mexican kid because he could relate to the Spanish-speaking customers, and Angelo spoke Spanish himself. I remember going into his deli when we had a deep-summer blackout for a few days, only because I wanted to give him some of my money, and his first words were, “My old friend, how are you doing in this hell? How can I help you?” And he wasn’t joking about hell – this post covers those few days. Going without electricity in a major city in 90-degree heat for days on end aint no joke. Angelo's freezers were shut down, his meats were gone, and he was only selling canned goods and bread.

What does it mean? I’m not sure. But Angelo should know, if the store he runs is no longer there in any real sense and he’s gone, that he will be missed. Things like this seem so inconsequential until they happen. It’s just a deli. I only walk in once a week in general, unless I’m desperate for some Bounty or mineral water. I never hung out there for hours, exchanging stories and bantering with other locals. I’d walk in, chat with Angelo, buy my shit, and walk out.

But he made it clear to me, every time I was in there, that this was his store, that was his name on the front, and he wanted you to know, with every fiber of his being, that this is what he stood for, this was his life, and he cared that you were in there putting money in his pocket. So that’s what disappears when someone like Angelo is gone. Someone who gives a shit about something and let’s you know it. I don’t like seeing people like that getting shit-canned for any reason. That’s why I went there in the first place. The Indian deli just up the block, the first time I walked in there, the girl behind the counter glared at me and barked, “In the future, please pay for your newspaper BEFORE you pick it up outside.” I can’t recall exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of “There is no future. Keep your fucking newspaper, asshole.” In fact, that might have been the first time I walked into Angelo’s, that day, when I was so incensed to be treated like a jackass by someone with zero sense of customer service. (And not to knock Indian store merchants – most of them I’ve dealt with here have been just fine, with a few just as friendly as Angelo. That particular one happened to be an asshole, and Angelo would often tell me he suspected they’d steal his bundle of newspapers if he didn’t get there early enough in the morning. Come to think of it, that’s probably what’s happening now with Angelo gone!)

This bothers me, much more than I thought it would. It also doesn’t help that we’re in the midst of a heat wave, temperatures above 90 most days last week, with the daily high set to never fall below 85 for the upcoming week. It’s “mumbling to self like homeless person” type weather that really wears on your average New Yorker, me included. Just too fucking hot for this sort of nonsense.

I guess this thing with Angelo is like any situation where someone goes missing. It reminds you of your own mortality, if not in that final life/death sense, then in the sense of your lease coming due one day, too. Most of us who’ve been in Astoria for awhile are either going to get priced out one day or pay way too much money to hang around an ever-increasing population of careless douchebags pining for a Trader Joes to open up here and complete the gross suburbanization of this neighborhood. That desire is like a freight train that doesn’t stop for anything or anybody. I fear it just ran over Angelo, but I’ll be sure to glance in his store window over the next few weeks, against all hope, that maybe he just went on vacation. In a better world, a man with that sort of dignity and dedication would have the chance to call his own number, instead of getting mowed-down in a sleazy numbers racket that benefits very few people in this town. Or world, for that matter.

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