The theme of my most recent birthday was consumption: cultural and culinary. My husband B suggested a Bronx-based itinerary that sated my very particular tastes: the Original Products Company, a business that bills itself as the largest botanica on the east coast (and who would argue that designation?); the Monet’s Garden exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden; and dinner at El Bohio, a Puerto Rican eatery known as the temple of pork (mmm, lechón) and reputed to have good mofongo (double yum).
So this posting will be more observational than storytelling as I’m still trying to digest everything I consumed that day.
The day started well: We encountered no delays en route to the Bronx, and found a parking spot on Webster Avenue across from the Original Products Company and a Carvel ice cream shop. My Irish Catholic husband might have had misgivings about entering a spiritual articles superstore, but knew how much I would enjoy the adventure of browsing its aisles followed by a Carvel ice cream treat. I squeezed B’s hand like he’d presented me with Tiffany diamond studs for my birthday.
It was the largest botanica I had ever seen, like a Home Depot of religious and spiritual supplies. I was used to small operations squeezed between bodegas and barber shops in heavily Latino neighborhoods, with windows and interiors crammed with a jumble of religious statues, amulets, candles, portraits, books, oils, soaps, incense, herbs, and unidentifiable objects I feared looking at or asking about.
The merchandise in the Original Products Company was organized in aisles labeled by categories. I started with the statues aisle, and identified each to B like old friends I hadn’t seen since leaving the ‘hood: the Seven African Powers, the three-foot-tall statue of Santa Barbara (aka Chango), the devil-slaying archangel San Miguel, the orisha Boogaloo, los spiritos indios.
We were both raised Catholic, but B doesn’t have childhood memories of visits to botanicas or home shrines with a statue of the Infant of Prague, a Mama Inés/Mammy-looking rag doll and an ash tray or having his chest rubbed with Agua Florida/Florida Water when afflicted with un resfriado.
“Is a res-free-ah-doe a real medical condition?” he once asked me.
“Of course it is, pendejo. It’s what happens when you come in all sweaty from the heat, open the refrigerator door and stand in the cold air.”
“I think it’s been scientifically proven that exposure to germs, not cold air, is what causes colds.”
“Really B,” I exhaled, “I don’t understand how gringos survive beyond childhood.”
We spent almost one hour in the Original Products Company. It took twenty minutes for me to muster the courage to ask an employee if I could take photos, por favor. I stood in front of the wall of candles, available in what seemed to be every color for every imaginable purpose: the blue go-away-law candle, green for good luck playing the numbers, purple for cleansing living rooms of bad spirits, a black candle in the glass with the label on which to write the names of ten hated enemies. There were soaps for the body and cleansers for the home, bead necklaces in the devotional colors of specific saints and orishas, holographic portraits, and books of spells, prayers, recipes, and lucky numbers.
Business was brisk and constant for a summer Saturday morning. I purchased three soaps – keep away evil, fast luck and Florida Water-scented.
“That’s all you need?” B asked as we exited the store.
“These’ll keep me covered for the upcoming year. Now I need some Carvel.”
B laughed. He didn’t need a spiritista to figure that out.
Next posting: A visit to the Botanical Gardens.