Bye, Bye Buffa’s, Hello Wal-Mart

by Thomas Beller


290 EAST 196TH STREET, Bronx, New York

Neighborhood: Bronx

“Seventy-eight years!” someone said, and there was that distinctive popping sound. I’d come for a tuna salad sandwich but now plastic cups of champagne were being poured and, in a democratic spirit, one was placed on the Formica counter in front of me.

Before I could ask what was going on, the waitress came up and said they were out of tuna salad.

I had wandered into Buffa’s, on Prince and Lafayette Streets, on a whim. I had been feeling a bit frazzled. I go there now and then to settle down. “Time pools,” Barry Lopez wrote in his essay, “On the Wings of Commerce.” He was traveling the world in cargo planes, spanning the globe in a day, but it’s also possible to be jolted out of time in the course of certain city blocks. Buffa’s is a time-pooling place; it provides the consolations of a sandwich on a plate whose only other adornment is a pickle.

The two proprietors, brothers named Augie and Jon, were behind the counter wearing Buffa’s T-shirts. Someone came in and asked for a straw.

“Straws I don’t got!” Augie said. “I timed it perfectly, down to the wire. Nothing left.”

“You closing?” I asked.

“Renovating,” said Jon. “We’ll be back in a couple of months.”

Jon and Augie are the grandchildren of the man who opened the place 78 years ago. Over the years Buffa’s has grown, replacing adjoining businesses. Now it’s an anomaly in Soho, a place where an egg salad sandwich, a Diet Coke and a Tootsie Pop cost $4.70.

In a couple of months they will return but, as Jon explained in a hushed tone, as “a different kind of place.” He named a very sleek restaurant on 17th Street and 7th Avenue. “Something like that,” he said.

“So this is it for you?”

“Oh, no, we’ll still be around. We’ll be partners, you know.”

My egg salad sandwich arrived. Jon was called away for a toast.

It was approaching 3 o’clock, closing time.

On the way out I grabbed a Tootsie Pop from a big glass jar full of them — I suppose you can’t time Tootsie Pops — and as I paid, Augie launched into a monologue about how much the neighborhood had changed since he grew up down the block.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t know who to be more afraid of, the wiseguys or the nuns,” he said.

“And which of those two groups are still around?”

“Neither!” he said. “They’re both gone. The wiseguys I don’t miss. The nuns …,” he shrugged.

Hello Wal-Mart

A few days later I drove up to the Bronx to attend a rally by the anti-Wal-Mart organization Wake-Up Wal-Mart. The rally, at Our Lady of the Refuge church, was to be the launch of a cross-country bus tour to get the message out.

There was a heat wave in action — Fordham Road was sweltering and chaotic, but open for business. I was on my Vespa, and when I pulled over to consult a map, a blast of air conditioning from an open-fronted store barreled into me with such force, I was surprised the entire Bronx power grid didn’t collapse on the spot. It felt good.

The other means of dealing with the heat wave involved a more tangible medium — water. The side streets were a festival of open hydrants.

A huge tour bus was idling outside Our Lady of Refuge. A giant smiley face with a frown had been painted on the bus, along with the words, “Wake-Up Wal-Mart!”

Inside the church — in a large concrete room, a community center of sorts — 60 or 70 people milled around and sat in chairs. Most of them seemed to be the event’s organizers. Or people wearing union T-shirts. Or reporters. The room buzzed with energy.

The Reverend Billy, a political performance artist, took the microphone and led his choir into a gospel song whose refrain was, “Back away back, Wal-Mart, back away!”

Next up was a Franciscan priest, the Rev. Bryan Jordan. He wore a brown robe and jogging sneakers. In a thick New York accent he delivered a brief speech against Wal-Mart that began “It’s nice to be home in the Bronx!” and ended, “They steal from Indians, Chinese, and expect the workers of this country to work for peanuts. Wal-Mart can [and here he used a figure of speech that involved Wal-Mart kissing a part of his body]. Get out of here!”

A union man followed, then a pair of local political activists who shared an anecdote about a Bronx-born soldier in Iraq who said he would rather risk getting killed than take a low-paying retail job in the Bronx.

Then it was time for the main event, the show-and-tell by Chris Cofinas and Paul Blank, former campaign officials for Howard Dean and Wesley Clark respectively, who set up the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign and who were going to be getting on the bus.

There was a slide show, and Cofinas did a good job of depicting Wal-Mart as a kind of retail version of the omniverous fish in the movie “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a kind of toxic rash spreading over the country, devouring other life forms. But the screen was very small, the PowerPoint slides malfunctioned, and Cofinas’ speech was flat. “Come on guys!” I thought. “You know what you are up against, you have to do better than this!”

I left before Cofinas finished his talk and took pictures of the idling bus double-parked outside. It was a two-way street, and now only one lane was available; cars squeezed by in impatient shifts.

“Probably Be a Good Thing”

The sun was in remission, the sky blue and pink. I cruised south in the heat-stricken dusk.

Back near Forham Road, smoke billowed from a pothole, water spouted from a nearby hydrant, and while police cars arrived with lights flashing, Con Ed workers huddled over a manhole and set up shop with their truck. I thought, blackout.

I stopped a man striding down Fordham Road with a backpack, muscles and a do-rag and asked him what he thought about Wal-Mart coming to the neighborhood.

Demone Colhoun
Photo by Thomas Beller
Demone Colhoun

“Probably be a good thing,” said the man, whose name was Demone Colhoun. “You have all these small stores going out of business around here. Maybe Wal-Mart could handle the rent.”

He said he had been to a Wal-Mart in Florida and liked it, and when I suggested that a lot of local stores might go out of business he said, “Me, as a customer, I want the most for my money.”

I asked the same question of an older woman walking by in a fantastic green dress and matching turban, who was carrying several bulging plastic bags. She moved warily and would answer me only from a distance of 10 feet. She, too, said that Wal-Mart coming to the Bronx would be a good thing. I told her that some people thought that their wages were unfairly low. (I didn’t want to proselytize, but Cofinas and company are definitely my team here.) She considered this for a moment. “Then I would be against it,” she said. “If the wages were unfair.”

She told me only her first name — Tonkya — and wouldn’t let me take her picture, but we parted cordially, and she walked away past a large police truck and a sign posted on a streetlight that read, “Area under NYPD video surveillance.”

City of Hydrants

It was full-on dusk now, and I wound my way home through festive if slightly apocalyptic night scenes of children playing in the fierce spray of open fire hydrants.

Video: City of Hydrants

My thoughts lingered on Wal-Mart in the city. And then moved to Demone Calhoun. And finally to Buffa’s. And I decided that I didn’t even like Buffa’s that much. I always found it a bit annoying. I once saw a couple of guys who looked very much like Demone Colhoun standing at the counter deliberating over menus until Augie, characteristically to-the-point, said, “Come on, guys, move it. You’re blocking the entrance!”

The two men said, “Rude!” and walked out the door to the fate of a much more expensive lunch.

Was that it?

Or was it a more abstract dissonance around Buffa’s? I drove along thinking about the contradiction: it was a slightly annoying place I was sad to see go. One of the complicated things about the city is that some of our annoyances are actually a kind of pleasure: the annoyance provides a friction, and that friction provides a kind of parameter to the self, a definition. The suburban big box store is all about no friction, no borders, economies of enormous scale, and no heightened sense of self. Maybe this heightened sense of self is unhealthy, overrated, but it is one of New York’s indigenous virtues, I think, and perhaps the reason it is so difficult to get any writing done in this town that is nevertheless full of writers.

The Decider

The car ahead of me slowed and stopped. Up ahead a child was straddling an open hydrant. He had a can in his hand. As each car passed, he pressed the can against the open mouth of the hydrant and turned it into a water cannon. Each car slowed as it approached the gauntlet. The kid had this great poker face. He would stand there with the water lapping peacefully out of the hydrant. The car would edge forward and then he would absolutely cream it, his eyes right on the driver, his expression unchanged.

This happened to the three cars in front of me, and then it was my turn. I sat there on my Vespa, with no window to roll up. The kid kept his mournful poker face as he stood hunched over the hydrant, can in hand.
Come on, I thought, give me a break. I waited for some sign from him that I had a pass. A horn honked behind me. The kid’s face, lit by the last traces of sky, a bit of street lamp and the headlights behind me, showed no expression. I put my feet up and rolled forward, waiting for the crushing blast. To my surprise, it never came.


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