The Simple, Perfect Gift of Deli Coffee Napkins
Finding small joys in a pitiless world through bodega packaging
Every weekday morning, I used to stop at a hole-in-the-wall bodega, before a long commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan, to buy a coffee before I got on the subway. There was nothing uniquely special about the place, besides that the man behind the counter knew my order (small, milk, no sugar), and it cost just 75 cents, a price more refreshing than the coffee itself, which was often weak and burnt. But for me it was a ritual, a wordless interaction made more meaningful through repetition. The thing I looked forward to the most, as strange as it sounds, was the perfunctory pile of napkins the man would place on the lid of my cup before I paid him.
I’d been to other places that give out napkins with coffee, but this bodega was the first one I found, in my neighborhood at least, that did so with any regularity. I’d never been entirely sure what purpose the napkins were supposed to serve, which made them feel like a bonus. Ditto for the coffee in the bag. Who puts a coffee in a bag? I love that. Coffee doesn’t need to be put in a bag. It’s already in a cup. I was skeptical of the conceit until I tried it out a few years ago at a separate bodega near work, in Times Square. I’d usually say no to the bag, but on this day I told the bodega guy to do my coffee up, and it was a good experience, pirouetting down the street with a coffee in a brown paper bag, napkins placed above the cup.
Over time, I came to rely on the bag and the napkins, though not because I’d used them for what I imagined were their intended purpose. Mostly, these little morning accouterments were just something I looked forward to before the trains, with their unreliable schedules and bad smells and screeching wheels, made a fool of me—tiny things that gave me pleasure in the face of a long, depressing work day.
Maybe you look forward to a similar kind of ritual at breakfastime, as you make your way to a job you don’t love. I didn’t realize how much the ritual of the bodega coffee comforted me on the way to a job I didn’t love until it was gone, when I started working from home seven months ago. I’ve come to think that bodegas, much more so than slick cafés and predictable chains, are thrilling places to enter in the morning, urban circuses with pungent smells, gruff conversation and acrobatic spatula work.
Bodegas have their own weird, internal logic, which seems to have been developed over decades, through some shared consensus on how best to sling coffee and sandwiches. A bodega’s environment brings you into that liminal state, it seems, that the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner referred to as communitas, where social boundaries dissolve and new customs emerge. I think the small comforts these environments provide mean more to you when you’re unhappy with a fundamental part of your life. You search them out more deliberately—or at least I did, because my job misery was sometimes lessened by them. Not that it was an entirely conscious thing. When your greater problem abates, perhaps you forget them. But they were always there.
For a short while, I got my coffee in a bag, but then I started going exclusively to the hole-in-the-wall place in Brooklyn, and they didn’t give coffee in bags, just coffee with napkins, which more suited my morning routine. It was just simpler, no fuss about it, a little gift. So much depended, as I look back on those bleak mornings before the sun was fully up, on the pile of napkins placed atop my coffee before I walked below ground.