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Written by Tom Fervoy for W42ST Magazine — October 2018
Bodegas are the beating heart of our city, run by some of the hardest working people it’s possible to meet. Tom Fervoy goes behind the counter to feel the pulse
A few weeks back, while hustling bags of ice from my corner deli up to my rooftop for a summer party, I asked a passerby to snap a quick photo of me posing with two young neighborhood stalwarts.
The caption that accompanied that photograph read: “I’ve watched these two fine young men grow up behind the counter of our corner deli here, over the past 22 years on W49th Street. Their family runs the delis on three of our block’s four corners. Fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Yemeni American families run hundreds of these ‘bodegas’ in New York. Corner delis are the beating heart that sustains daily life on every block in the city. These two are branching out to open their own deli this year. They’re among the smartest, friendliest, hardest working, honest, dedicated family men I know. They are, if it is possible, even bigger Green Bay Packer fans than I am. They’re as American as apple pie … as American as you or I.”
However, given the moment that we’re in – in Hell’s Kitchen, in NYC, in America – I think this pic deserves more characters than Insta allows. To that end, I got behind the counter with “Wally” Wahlid one of those two fine young men from the Skyline Deli, for a thin slice of his afternoon … or just enough time for three phone orders and seven or eight walk-in customers
T: How long have you been in NYC?
W: My whole life! I was born in New York City, at Bellevue Hospital.
T: Excellent. I’m trying to remember – where did your family live before New York? Wasn’t it in … Green Bay? In my home state?
W: No, actually, my parents have never been to Wisconsin.
T: So how did you wind up …
W: A Packer fan? My dad moved to California, I think, around 1999-2000. And when he was there, we had a lot of free time. We didn’t have the deli then, so we could actually watch football games on TV. Plus, everything seems kind of slower out there – not fast paced like here. So when I was in California, everyone was a Niner fan. For some reason, I didn’t like them. And they were a good team too. They were stacked. So when the Packers came on, they were supposed to lose. But they ran over them. And since that day, I loved them. I was probably eight years old.
T: How long were all of you in California?
W: We stayed there for only a year and nine months. Central Valley, it’s a small town called Woodville, an hour away from Fresno.
T: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
W: I have seven brothers and two sisters.
T: Seven brothers – of course! 7 Brothers Famous Deli! And you grew up right upstairs above the deli on W49th St, didn’t you?
W: I did. We all did. We live in Jersey now, in Bergen and West New York. I love it there. Now I have my own family, my wife, and two kids.
T: How many delis do you guys have?
W: Just two – this one and 9th Avenue. It’s so diverse here in New York. You got whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians, Spanish, and what I like about it is, we can live with each other and it’s not a problem.
T: And you and your cousin Hamza are going into business together to open a new one. Are you excited about that?
W: Yes I am, man! We’re going to open another one on 41st Street. I can’t wait for it to open. You’re going to love it – because it’s a green-and-yellow theme, y’know?
T: What, the deli’s green and yellow? Are you kidding me?!
W: I used the Packer’s colors.
T: I love that! Is that in Hell’s Kitchen, too?
W: It’s at 41st and 10th – in the new building, 555 TEN. Superior Gourmet Marketplace. You want to know why we use that name “Superior”? Hamza’s dad used to have a supermarket there. Well, he still does, but it’s not his anymore. It used to be called Superior Market.
T: And you have other relatives that have delis too, right?
W: My grandfather owns the one on 48th and 10th. We have cousins who have one on 51st. They’re all over the place.
T: I never knew until around a year or so ago that many of the city’s delis and bodegas are owned and run by Yemeni families. I’m interested in why they’ve gravitated to that business.
W: Yemeni people are very smart. They’re just like the Chinese – they focus on a market where they know they can make money out of it. So, basically, with the deli business – people always gotta eat, y’know?
T: It’s a tough business though, too. A volume business. You’re open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
W: Yes, It’s tough. But the thing is, you have to be on top of it all. You can’t just open a deli and think you’re going to make money.
T: What do you like most about the deli business?
W: I get to meet people like you!
T: Ha! What do you like least about it (and it could be the same answer)?
W: Actually the least is that there’s a lot of responsibility. Just like you said, it’s 24/7, you gotta be here all the time, you got to make sure everything is right. You got to take care of those complaints.
T: Tell me, what’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you behind the counter?
W: It’s hard, man. There’ve been a lot of cool things that’ve happened. One thing was, one time, there was a guy that used to live around here – I forgot his name – when I was real young, when I was like 13. He came in here on Christmas. And I don’t celebrate Christmas at all. I’m not Christian, I’m Muslim. And he came in that time and gave me a big bag of gifts. And he was like: “Merry Christmas! I know you don’t celebrate it but …” And that really touched my heart. It just shows you how great people are.
T: That is a great story. What about the worst thing?
W: It wasn’t right after 9/11 but around then, maybe a month and a half down the line. Someone came in here – it was a woman. I don’t want to say where she was from – she wasn’t Caucasian – and she was like: “Hey, you gotta go back to your f**ing country.” And that kind of hurt me, y’know?
T: Have you heard much of that kind of thing?
W: Not really. But that time, it came from someone who – it seemed like she wasn’t from New York, like she wasn’t from America. She was from a different country herself.
T: What else do you think is interesting about your family that people may not know?
W: We give back a lot to those with misfortune. My dad, my brothers, we like to give to people we know are sick, mostly to people in the community. Say, for example, you go to church, you see people that need you to give, and we give a lot. We give through organizations and directly to people themselves. It doesn’t matter if they’re Muslim or not – they can be anybody. A lot of homeless people come through here, and they ask for things sometimes, and we give it to them.
T: I’ve gotten to see up close what good people you and your family are for 22 years now. And my last question is, are you optimistic or pessimistic about: Hell’s Kitchen? New York City? And America?
W: I know this president is hard and everything, and he says things that are not right sometimes. But I think we’re a great people. We’re so much of a unity, especially in New York, that … we’re never going to fail. We’ll always have a good future. And I thank god for social media also – it kind of helps us to get our word out there, and let each other know how we feel. It’s so diverse here in New York. You got whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians, Spanish, and what I like about it is, we can live with each other and it’s not a problem. I can’t speak for other states, but I know for sure New York – it’s unity, y’know?
T: Anything else you want to share with readers?
W: Just tell ‘em we love this country – it’s our country.