“My Korean Deli”
By Ben Ryder Howe
(Henry Holt and Company, $25.00, 301 pp.)
According to last week’s New York Times, Koreans own 70% of the city’s greengrocer delis, but their numbers are rapidly falling – from 2500 to 2000 over the last decade. “In ten years there will be no more Korean mom-and-pop stores,” said Chong Sik Lee of the Korean-American Grocers Association.
One victim of this trend was the Brooklyn deli owned by Ben Ryder Howe and his wife’s Korean immigrant family in the gentrifying Boerum Hill neighborhood. Howe’s transformation from a Paris Review editor in the tony Upper East Side to a fumble-fingered cashier in their tiny beer, smokes, and lottery tickets bodega near the Gowanus Projects wasn’t enough to buck the trend, but it did provide a great story and moving account of a cross-cultural family bootstrapping its way into the middle class told with self-deprecating wit and newly acquired street smarts.
A Blue Blood Upbringing
Howe is a product of old-line Boston Puritan ethics, Colorado boarding school, and the University of Chicago where he met his wife Gab. She was drawn to the academic rigor of Chicago (“voted that year by Maxim magazine ‘the least fun school in the entire country’”) with the almost clichéd ambition of an immigrant child determined to rise above her parents’ hardworking service labor. He was a rich kid with intellectual aspirations. “In U of C-speak, Gab was more of a Lockean-liberal, whereas I fell into the Marxist-Rousseauian collectivist camp.”
A few years of graduate school later, they wind up living in her parents’ basement in a small house on Staten Island after she has abandoned the boring contract review work of a low-level lawyer in a big Manhattan law firm while he is earning the typical pittance paid by underfunded literary magazines. They can’t afford anything else in New York; and besides, it is an accepted – or rather expected – Korean tradition that multiple generations live together for mutual emotional and financial support.
Gab’s mother Kay is a no-nonsense survivor who has worked in convenience stores since arriving in the United States. Her father Edward is an independent refrigerator repairman – a job much envied by Howe where “you get to indulge in three of life’s greatest pleasures: driving, smoking and tooling around with machines.”
Kimchi and Tight Quarters
But the Kimchi smells and tight quarters of his Korean family’s bungalow drive Howe crazy. The solution, Gab is convinced, is to mortgage the little house, pool all of their savings and buy a deli so her mom can run her own show and they can make enough money to pay it all back and get a place of their own. Howe is not so convinced: “Even though stability-oriented people like Gab and me are probably destined to settle down early and bore even ourselves, marriage needs surprises – although truth be told, they need not go as far as buying a deli.”
“My Korean Deli” is Howe’s largely successful attempt to describe and understand his uncharacteristic leap into the risks and long hours of owning a small hands-on family business…not just any business, but a neighborhood corner deli/bodega – a business he and every other New Yorker enters every day but never once considers what it takes to run it successfully every day, eighteen hours a day.
The humor and wisdom of Howe’s chronicle of this two years of his life grows from the obvious disconnect between his large, privileged past and the cramped, penny here-penny there ways of immigrant life. Fortunately, he is without pretense or arrogance and knows his way around a good narrative; his years at the Paris Review under George Plimpton’s slightly off-center wing paid off.
Among the many funny anecdotes and reflections, Howe’s takes on his own family, Gab’s family, and the customers and employees of the deli are the richest. His parents are academics whose roots easily trace back to the Puritans. His was a pleasant childhood: “…being the son of an anthropologist is a wonderful thing…for one thing, there tend to be a lot of blowguns and spears lying around the house.”
But this circumspect background is not a very useful background for understanding Gab’s family’s ways of “banging from decision to decision” in their rush to get ahead. In his family’s way, “we like to think things through – then think about whether the process of thinking them through was as thorough as it could be, then write a book about it.”
The chaos of life in their little deli with customers streaming in and out, deliverymen double-parking and rolling their two-wheelers in and out, employees not showing up, and late night drunks picking up just one more Colt 45 before closing humbles him. “I’ve never been a great worker, but not because I don’t work hard. I just tend to focus on the wrong things, like how people look, what they’re wearing and whether they use words like ‘fortuitous’ properly. Gab once called me a ‘big-picture person’…a euphemism for having one’s head up one’s ass.”
Howe eventually masters the daily grind of working the store, but he also needs to learn that a business must earn a profit. His mother-in-law teaches him that lesson very quickly. His screw-ups making change, his over-stocking of the wrong products, his passive acceptance of employee absences, the city fines for his failing to check the age of cigarette buyers all hurt the business.
A North Korean Deli
They are soon losing money, and Kay and Gab tie him down to “the sort of brutal austerity program University of Chicago economists used to be famous for imposing on Third World economies.” Vendors can’t be paid and so they stop delivering. “Then it comes to me: with its empty shelves, dirty floors and damp, desolate chill, our store has become the North Korean deli.”
Howe is at his best in these introspective observations of his life in the street trenches. When he tries to turn the same eye on his life in the offices of the Paris Review, he is not quite so funny or understanding. The much revered literary magazine and its wealthy long time editor Plimpton are also losing money, but that doesn’t seem as important or threatening as the struggles at the deli. It is only when Plimpton dies of a heart attack that the magazine’s trustees hire experienced managers and editors with business smarts. In this process of succession, Howe is soon out of a job.
The demise of his deli comes in much the same way that his Paris Review job disappears. His hyper-active and over-worked mother-in-law has her own heart attack and needs to slow down. Even though her sister steps in to help out, the family concludes that it is time to sell the store. They are lucky – they find another Korean immigrant family to buy it and get their money back. It will be another decade perhaps before it falls to the fate predicted in last week’s Times.
It is time for Ben and Gab to move out of the Staten Island basement…maybe even have kids. She finds another legal job in Manhattan that pays enough to cover the rent on a Brooklyn apartment. Fortunately for us, Howe writes “My Korean Deli” and finds a publisher. If enough of us buy a copy, perhaps his royalties will be sufficient to keep him out from behind a deli counter…unless the next New York trend after Korean delis will be Puritan delis.