By Torsten Odland
109 Gourmet Deli stands just south of Morningside Heights proper, across 109th street from Suite, the gay karaoke bar, and across Amsterdam from Lion’s Head, brightening the corner with white and red lights.
I heard about “CrackDel,” as students have referred to the bodega for years, within two nights of arriving at Columbia, three years ago. People like to say the store’s claim to fame is the “Spicy Special,” a warm turkey-cheese sandwich. But that just isn’t true. In 2011, CrackDel was famous among students because they reliably did not card. If you didn’t have a fake, that’s where you could buy beer.
When I returned to the bodega this week, it was the first time I’d been since they were busted for selling to minors in April of 2013. For a year and a half, the refrigerators contained only waters, sodas, chocolate milk, and a long row of juices.
The store is bright and empty when I enter, except for the cashier and deli guy who talk over the counter in what sounds like Arabic. Approaching the refrigerated cabinets on the right wall, which support a fifteen-foot-long tableau of Scott toilet paper rolls, I’m shocked to see the drink selection once again. Eclectic is the word: three different sizes of canned Budweiser, wine coolers, ciders, no fewer than five varieties of Dogfish Head (as crafty as 109 gets) and row upon row of that strange mixture of the perverse and the divine: the forty ounce bottle.
I’d never had a forty before going to CrackDel, but it quickly became the only thing I drank. Although my taste has definitely shifted, it’s unlikely that my admiration for the inner logic of the forty ever will. Forty ounces is the perfect amount of beer to drink, and the bottle’s size and natural propensity to warm up dictates how fast you need to drink it. It’s hard to argue, forty in one hand, that the universe was not intelligently designed.
After ordering a Spicy Special and selecting an Olde English, I go up to pay.
My first time in CrackDel as a 21 year old and they card me. Only having received their new liquor license in October, I suppose they must be careful.
They card. I wonder if CrackDel is famous for anything now, if the first-years even know its racist nickname. There’s not a whole lot distinguishing it from the grocery stores lying closer to the campus’ main drag if they won’t sell an 18 year old beer.
As I wait for my sandwich, I chat with Omar Ali, the cashier, who’s been working at the deli for ten years, and scan the wall behind him. Plastic hookahs, do-rags. One has to leave Morningside Heights to find a real bodega. Though they’re a fixture of almost every neighborhood in the city, it doesn’t fit our major landlord’s brand. I ask Omar if he’s seen the store’s neighborhood change.
“Big change. There’s a lot of white people in here now. A lot. Lots of Columbia students.”
Walking home up Amsterdam, I stop in KSY Mini Market Deli, a bodega half a block closer to campus that cards irregularly, and that, for a year and a half, became “the New CrackDel.” The store is packed–a group of younger guys hang out in the front, old men in dark coats wait at the deli. It’s evident that this place, with its paltry beer selection, is the neighborhood corner store.
I remember what Omar said when I asked what makes his deli distinct. While he thought about it, I pointed out there was another place up the block.
“They don’t make it the same,” he smiled.