It's amazing, how quickly a community can fall apart.
With the Rosarios no longer in business, it was only a matter of time before their drivers relocated. One by one they filtered slowly downtown, where the jobs and demands were. Benny held on for as long as he could, working odd jobs around town and trying to scrape together enough to buy his own place, but in the end he, too, had to leave.
It was just Usnavi, now. Just him and the bodega, and if he was being honest, he wasn't entirely sure how long that would last either.
The vibrant community of 184th Street, Washington Heights, had transformed into a ghost town in a matter of months. Even the piraguero had packed up and taken his cart down to where he could find some sweaty tourists in need of a cheap snack.
So Usnavi walked.
He'd lock up shop early – nobody came in after the lunch rush, anyway – and would just walk around. Sometimes he'd go all the way around the block and sometimes he'd just make it to Abuela's stoop before he sat down, eyes closed and surrounded by memories of times past.
When the sun goes down…
He would pretend the ladies at the salon hadn't been replaced by a Dunkin Donuts. He would pretend that the steady trickle of customers hadn't gradually gone next door to get the over-iced treats he didn't sell. He would pretend that the fluorescent pink and orange lights didn't clash horribly with his own modest, blue awning.
Sometimes when he'd walk back he'd notice a fresh spot of graffiti covering the light-up sign and he would smile to himself, thanking Pete, wherever that hooligan had got to.
Sonny was back in school now. He came by the store after school let out for the day, grumbling in protest when Usnavi made him do his homework and confiscated his cell phone whenever he was caught texting under the counter. Usnavi wouldn't tell Sonny, but he was glad for the distraction. He would attempt to help with the complicated algebra problems and would make sure that he really was doing his best on all his Spanish assignments, no matter how much Sonny protested that it was easier to pretend not to know the language already.
Usnavi hadn't finished high school, and now that it looked like his bodega wasn't going to survive, he was starting to panic about his future. Maybe that was why he was so hard on Sonny. He didn't want his cousin to end up like this, struggling with a store that wasn't even generating a stable income.
You close the bodega, the neighborhood is gone!
Those words echoed in his head every time he got another letter from the bank. The lottery money could only keep him going for so much longer, then it would be gone and he would be left with nothing. He needed to sell the bodega while there was still a profit to be gained from it, otherwise he'd be left out in the cold.
And what use was there, saving a neighborhood that was already gone? Everyone was already going next door for their donuts and it was only a matter of time before they stopped coming back over for their coffee. Without the salon and Rosario's, there weren't nearly enough local, independent businesses to keep the community going. Dunkin Donuts wasn't about to partner up with him and put in a good word for him to their customers like Daniela had.
So Usnavi went walking again. He closed his eyes and listened to the subway, its clanking no longer masked by the beats of club music. He heard shouting and cursing, more English than Spanish, and a scuffle one alley over. Pete was nowhere to be found, most unlike his usual habit of hanging around until everyone had locked up, looking for new canvases.
It was too quiet.
Washington Heights was silent tonight. There was no music playing, no dancing in the streets. Nobody stopped him on the street to say hello; they just kept their eyes averted and kept walking.
He put a sign in the door of the bodega, saying "Closing. Everything must go."
He sent in his application to get a GED and triple-checked all his bank statements, making sure the lottery money would be enough to get him through that and a two-year college. He wasn't Nina, but he knew he needed some sort of higher education if he was going to get anywhere.
His name tag at Starbucks just said "Navy." He hated how his coworkers – all of them late teens and early twenties, acting types who knew nothing about the art of coffee making – laughed when he corrected them. He tried speaking Spanish to anyone that came in with an accent, which caused his boss to keep him late one day to have a "talk." He got in trouble for giving Vanessa her coffee for free when she came in to visit one day. One of the twenty-somethings must have told on him.
Suddenly, his decision to stay seemed like the worst mistake of his life.