t was New Year’s Eve and it was pouring. Despite scrolling through dozens of Instagram stories that told me that 2019 is about staying on your couch, my boyfriend and I trekked out to a Cirque de Soleil-themed pre-fixe dinner — essentially my nightmare. My faux leopard coat was soaked when we got there, and I threw my cheap black bodega umbrella into a terrine of a dozen identical ones. After a meal of tepid salmon overseen by a glitter-covered contortionist who hovered just a little too close to my cocktail, we shuffled towards the door to leave. I rifled through several soaked umbrellas, a nest of black nylon, before giving up and taking one at random. It was of the same quality as mine, so I felt no bad karma coming my way.
Two days later, the same thing happened at my weekly Saturday dance class. When I went to leave, my umbrella was missing and in its place was the same, ever so slightly different, black bodega umbrella. This time I felt warm and affectionate towards the moment. Because it’s not like I was left with no umbrella, just a different one. It wasn’t stealing; it was an exchange. A shift in the air. A changing of belongings between secret friends. The ultimate lunchtime Jell-O swap.
Us New Yorkers walk the streets in a dark sea of these things — trading them accidentally, leaving them in odd places, using them until they are almost in complete tatters, then forlornly throwing them into the trash. We all have at least one of these umbrellas. We use them until they wear out, fall onto the ground or under a subway bench, inevitable and sad, but symbolic of our joint agreement and commitment to them and each other. We will walk the streets of New York covered by the security blanket of cheap material, bumping into each other with mild annoyance and subtle affection. A joining of habits and minds. Are these cheap black umbrellas we buy so compulsively the unspoken friendship bracelets of New Yorkers?
And if they are, what does it mean that they break all the time? Bodega umbrellas are unconscionably shitty. They poke you in the eye and unravel your perfectly messy topknot with an errant spoke. And everyone I know owns more than one.
“I think good New Yorkers have a stash of umbrellas,” Joel New said, a musical theater composer living in Crown Heights. “I covet my ‘real’ umbrellas in fear of the days I have to use the bodega ones. We have two in our closet. I think they’re both broken.”
No one knows who makes them. When I tried to track down the origin of the bodega umbrella — brands, contractors, anything — all I found was a string of Reddit threads centered around answering the very same question I was posing. They leave no trace. As if they manifested on 14th Street one day just for us to love and complain about and swear at when they inevitably turn inside out against the wind. When I asked my favorite bodega guy (on the corner of Spring and Mott, in case you’re wondering) how many he sold on average, he shrugged. “People only ever buy them when it’s already raining.”
The “nice” umbrella in New York is not only a major life decision, it’s also a conscious risk. I was gifted a very beautiful floral umbrella (huge, sturdy) for Christmas from my mom and my heart filled with fear. Was I meant to take this outside? Into the rain? That is wet? And cold? When I own seven completely broken versions of the same black umbrella at home? I have an unspoken vow with all city-dwellers to clutch them until they fall apart in my pruny hands. A nice umbrella? Who would ever?
“I buy umbrellas that stand out and I keep them close to me,” said Margot Cavin, photographer from downtown Brooklyn. “I have a white umbrella with pink and yellow polka dots — it could not be any girlier. I was at a bar near my apartment in Chelsea with my uncle who was in from California and it was pouring. We were sitting at the bar near the door and I see a large middle-aged man rifle through the umbrella stand and pick out my polka dot umbrella. So, I very sternly jumped up and asked if it was his umbrella. He looked dumbfounded and put it back, and walked out into the rain.”
When someone takes your nice umbrella, it’s intentional. When someone takes a black bodega umbrella, it’s an honest mistake. There is no malice behind the cheap umbrella swap because you’re not not left with an umbrella by the time you’re done with whatever dairy-alternative latte you’re drinking that week. Maybe the button is square rather than round, or maybe the clasp is a snap rather than Velcro. But you’re leaving only a tiny bit different than you came. And isn’t that all you can hope for wherever you go?
Lyz Mancini writes about beauty, culture, and sometimes Jeff Goldblum. You can follow her on IG at @lyzaster
Feature photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images.