For some, bodegas are where people really see you

Story highlights

  • Chaya Babu: As a startup, Bodega clearly doesn't understand the culture it's trying to appropriate and repackage for profit
  • After a late-night scare, I'm reminded of how central my neighborhood bodegas are to my safety and to my understanding of community, she writes

Chaya Babu is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Open City, VICE, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Feminist Wire, BuzzFeed and more. She was a staff reporter for three years at India Abroad. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)One night a few weeks ago, as I walked from my car on a Brooklyn side street to my apartment after an evening with friends, a man coming in my direction on the sidewalk stopped to ask me for a dollar as he passed me. It was cool and quiet, nearing midnight -- not so late that I watched my back as I walked, but late enough. When he spoke, startling me out of my easy pace, I instinctively looked to the other side of me, where another man now stood, making it the three of us out there in the dark.

Immediately I saw that they were together. They had me sandwiched strategically, both of them smirking, and panic shot through me. I said no and kept on my way, quickly, and the second man yelled a threatening obscenity after me.
I got away from them and made it safely back to my apartment. In that moment, amid my relief that I was okay, I realized I hadn't made a plan for such moments. What would I do if it happened again? I plotted the bodegas within a three-block radius, my brain charting a mental map of my neighborhood's grid. I starred Moon Deli & Grocery on East 7th, Magic Deli & Grocery next to my barbershop on Church, Stop 1 Supermarket, and my morning go-to, Church Ave. Food Corp. These were the places I would run in such a late-night emergency if it came to that.
    I haven't been able to stop thinking about these spots as my safe havens since earlier this week when I read Fast Company's profile of two ex-Google employees' supposedly ingenious venture (as validated by funding from First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures, and Homebrew, as well as angel investment from senior executives at Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and Google) called Bodega -- essentially a fancy vending machine with facial recognition technology. Though co-founder Paul McDonald has since stated that they are "definitely not" trying to put urban corner stores out of business, his initial statement was that, "Eventually, centralized shopping locations won't be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you." Even after a furious response, McDonald's subsequent apology did not and probably could not exactly retract the impression that his "Bodega" enterprise had places like the ones on my mental map in their sights.
    The fact that McDonald and his partner, Ashwath Rajan, thought their venture would prompt a collective sigh of relief or applause for such a service speaks volumes about how out of touch they are, not only with their potential consumer base, whoever that is, but possibly also with basic humanity.
    Like me, many city dwellers love and support our local immigrant- or POC-owned bodega (the real thing, not the bougie bot-box thing). Whatever these guys claim they are trying to do, the mere idea of encroaching upon the hallowed terrain of our egg-and-cheese-late-night-tampons-beer-Hot-Cheetos institution sparks not only ire at their audacity but an impending and acute sense of loss for our communities.
    In New York in particular, many of us live far from our families and may see friends at most once a week. We are maligned for being the type of citizens who don't know our neighbors, and for some of us that's true. But as we speed through our lives, we stop for $1 coffee at the bodega, and every day the same familiar faces are there, scratching their lottery tickets and buying cigarettes. For some of us, as the gig economy and toxic work cultures increasingly rob of us of any personal time and rigidly structure our routines, our neighborhood bodega is the only community we have, the single constant within an endless reel of strangers on the subway and our phone screens. Here, we have a brief moment of feeling familiar -- to someone, to something, to some world within this world.
    I cannot fathom why, except of course for the swag that being an entrepreneur of a shiny Silicon Valley startup brings, anyone would want to make such a space obsolete.
    Political theorist Hannah Arendt once described totalitarianism as "organized loneliness," and isolation as the "common ground for terror." I think of this often as I try to understand our current political climate and how we got here. Isolation is the rule of the day. Just as psychological studies show that infants need emotional mirroring and a caregiver's facial responsiveness for optimal brain development, socialization, and wellness, so to do we atrophy as adults when we lack this -- what is essentially empathy -- in our day-to-day existence. We need connection to be well. We need badly to be seen.
    And we need to be seen by other people, not the advanced digitized "eyes" of a surveillance camera -- or an iPhone's facial recognition capability.
    Bodega's concept is dehumanizing. Apart from pushing the average urban individual who likely shops at their corner store even further away from human interaction, McDonald and Rajan fail to see how many communities would be harmed by Bodega's sleek gym-lobby machine business's appropriation and re-packaging of those communities' cultural capital. I can think of a couple of words apart from audacious to describe this act. "It's clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people," McDonald wrote, responding to criticism of the name and the cat logo, about which they had apparently surveyed New Yorkers. Who "the right people" are is forever an issue of seeing and being seen.

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    Not long after I moved to my neighborhood, I stopped to buy a pint of milk and a small pack of Oreos from Moon Deli & Grocery. At the register, I realized I didn't have cash, so I began to place my nighttime snack back on the shelves -- until an older woman who was about to pay for her handful of items stopped me. "Let me," she offered, and bought my milk and cookies. Then she walked me home. Before we parted ways, she looked closely at me and without looking away said, "Try not to walk alone at night, okay?"