Soundings

Bert Stratton
Renting the American Dream
Immigrants on the road to success in Cleveland
Spring 2013

I had a Dag Hammarskjöld week. First a Korean immigrant, Hyun Jin Kim, called me and asked, “Is my rent going up this month?”

Yes, and I had forgotten to remind him. He reminded me. I’m Kim’s landlord in Lakewood, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland (see “The Landlord’s Tale,” Winter 2012). Kim runs a dry-cleaning business in one of my buildings. “Thanks,” I said. “I would have caught it in a couple months, but thanks.”

The next day, I had a meeting with Mohammad “Mike” Quraan, from Ramallah in the West Bank. He wanted to take over a mini-market in another of my buildings. I went to Mike’s house and met him and his wife, Rana. We talked hummus, not Hamas. Rana said that if she had lemons, she would make me hummus then and there.

I said, “You know what the best store-bought hummus is?”

“I hope you don’t say Sam’s Club,” she said.

“Sabra.”

She pulled a tub of Sabra hummus out of her refrigerator.

I said, “I’m Jewish, if you haven’t figured that out. If that’s a problem, let me know, so we don’t waste each other’s time.”

“My eye doctor is Jewish,” Rana said.

“What’s his name?” (I claim, not quite accurately, to know most of the Jews in Cleveland.)

“I can’t remember his name,” Rana said. “But he is Jew.”

Rana’s 19-year-old son was there, too. He’s studying physical therapy at Cleveland State University. Bring on immigration reform, and then bring on more immigrants. Particularly in old towns like Cleveland. We need them. About 20 percent of my commercial tenants are immigrants.

Besides, around newcomers, I get to feel like landed gentry. My grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s and opened a mom-and-pop candy store in Cleveland. My dad and his siblings worked long hours there.

Kim, the dry-cleaning owner, is practically raising his kids at his store. Maybe he has beds in the basement. I remember one of my former tenants, a Chinese immigrant, who put a shower in his basement. Against city code. I caught him but let it go. He said he was a descendant of nobility.

Foreigners do sometimes say they’re nobility. One man from Azerbaijan had a surname 17 letters long. I advised him to change it. He didn’t like that. He said he was royalty. My father changed his name in 1941, from Soltzberg to Stratton, because of anti-Semitism. He hadn’t been able to land a job, even though he was a Phi Beta Kappa chemistry grad from Ohio State.

Later that week, Mr. Oo (rhymes with “boo”) came to my house. He had tried to put down a deposit to open a food market in one of my buildings, but the check had bounced, so I told him to bring cash. He was an hour and a half late. I gave up on him.

Then my doorbell rang, and there he was. “Oo,” I said, “couldn’t you have called?”

“My phone died,” he said. He had been delayed at the pediatrician’s office with his wife and two-month-old baby. Oo’s wife, with the baby, was standing next to Oo. My wife served green tea.

I said, “Oo. How do you spell that?”

“O-O.”

“O-O-7?”

“Yes. Ha ha.”

“Is Oo your first name?”

“No, that’s ‘Kyaw Swar.’ ”

“You Chinese?”

“No, I’m from Burma.”

“Close enough.”

“Yes, very close.”

“Is this going to be an American mini-market or an Asian market?” I asked. “I already talked to somebody about an American mini-market with 40-ounce malt liquor, cigarettes, and lottery. I don’t need another.”

“Asian market, sir. Our people like rice, the vegetables, avocados. Maybe cigarettes. The high school boys from the school across the street buy the fruit juices.”

Oo rented the store. He also owns two sushi stands located within grocery stores. And that’s not all. “Oo had a nail salon,” I told my wife later.

“Who?” she said.

“Oo.”

I don’t know enough Burmese to say, “Who’s on second?” Oo would probably rather wade through a land-mined rice paddy than hear yet another wisecrack like that. He must keep wondering why “Oo’s on first” is supposed to be funny.

Oo’s on first. He’s going to call his store Zoey’s Burmese Asian Market. Zoey is Oo’s baby daughter.

Zoey’s on second.

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