My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, by Ben Ryder Howe (Henry Holt, 320 pp., $25)
Family members make us do crazy things. But if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get a good story out of it. That seems to be the thesis of Ben Ryder Howe’s new memoir, My Korean Deli. Shortly after 9/11, Howe, a self-described WASP, and his Korean-American wife, Gab, are living in his in-laws’ basement in Staten Island to save money for a house of their own. Ben works as a constantly daydreaming editor at the Paris Review, suffering existential angst under the eccentric dictates of the late George Plimpton. Gab has been a lawyer but doesn’t like it. She wants to have children soon. As she turns 30, she becomes obsessed with all the sacrifices her gruff, chain-smoking, larger-than-life mother, Kay Pak, made to immigrate to America and raise her and her siblings. She announces to her husband that she wants to use the real estate fund they’ve built up to buy Kay a convenience store as repayment.
This was not completely random: Kay had run a bakery previously (she’d also been a wedding singer in her pre-immigrant life). Still, “the plan was so foolhardy, so pregnant with the seeds of its own destruction, that it was almost as if it had come from me, not Gab,” writes Howe. He doesn’t really want to do it. But as any young, newly married man will recognize, it’s hard to fight something your wife and mother-in-law get into their heads. This is especially true when you’re living in your mother-in-law’s basement. So Howe acquiesces, takes a grand tour of the steam tables, salad bars, and sandwich counters of New York’s small retail shops, and eventually acquires a deli in a transitional Brooklyn neighborhood. Without the cash to hire lots of staff, he starts reporting for his shift, nightly, after reading through Plimpton’s slush pile.
This culture clash soon takes on a life of its own. The cast of characters in My Korean Deli speaks to the best aspects of creative nonfiction; if this were a novel, no one would believe a literary lion named George Plimpton walked around the offices of the Paris Review in his underwear and black socks. Dwayne, the store’s best employee, issues sphinxlike proclamations, takes as much pride in sandwich-making as Plimpton does in editing, and turns out to be willing to risk his life to defend the deli. The deli itself attracts oddballs, from a naked man walking in demanding beer to a longtime customer who screams when the new owners try to move the bran muffins.
All of this makes for a book as packed as a small convenience store with poignant observations on New York, and particularly immigrant life. The generation of Koreans who came to America in the 1980s, Howe writes, “became the most successful immigrant group ever—ever: the people who took over the deli industry from the Greeks and the Italians, the people who drove the Chinese out of the dry-cleaning trade, the people who took away nail polishing from African-Americans, and the people whose children made it impossible for underachievers like me to get into the same colleges our parents had attended.” Temperamentally liberal (hey, he worked at the Paris Review), Howe is appalled by the city government’s decision to raise revenue on the backs of small businesses after 9/11. “Overnight, the fines go up from two hundred and fifty dollars to one thousand, and since most vendors receive an average of seven violations a year—often three or four at once—many are facing ruin,” he writes. “No public hearings or debates in the city council have been held on this calamitous change for twelve thousand or so of the city’s most economically challenged families.” He learns that municipal leadership can be as capricious as the governments of the Third World nations many of his fellow small-business owners had fled.
Unfortunately for Dwayne, Kay, Gab, and the rest, the deli is as doomed as Howe had imagined from the start, an undercapitalized business unable to survive in New York’s hypercompetitive retail market. The new owners struggle to understand, among other mysteries, the hardball world of lottery sales, how you can lose your license to sell cigarettes, and the vagaries of who is responsible for sales-tax revenue when a previous owner can’t be found. After Kay suffers a health scare and the deli is robbed at gunpoint, they decide to cut their losses and get out.
My Korean Deli is an earnest and readable tale, even if you occasionally have to swallow a sneaky suspicion that Howe put himself in this situation so he’d have something to write about. Immersion journalism (also known as “stunt journalism”) has been big for several years now, producing bestsellers from Barbara Ehrenreich’s tales of surviving in minimum-wage jobs to A. J. Jacobs’s year of living biblically, and so forth. Even so, Howe’s struggles ring true as a microcosm of a larger New York evolution. Over the past few decades, many small delis have closed. As chain stores take over the retail market, the city becomes a less welcoming place for the little guys. Retail is a tough business to succeed in, even without suffocating regulations.
The deli succeeded in a way, however: it helped Howe learn more about himself and question his WASP-ish assumptions that Brooklyn’s residents needed to upgrade their tastes in coffee and stop buying lottery tickets. He learned to enjoy the “pleasure of the job itself,” even if it was “physically and psychically demanding, and doing it every day is arduous, and knowing that you’ll likely be doing it forever is as demoralizing as the gulag.” Many office jobs these days never give workers the satisfaction of having accomplished something or solved a problem worth solving. At the convenience store, “There was never a moment in which I didn’t feel mentally stimulated by the tasks at hand,” Howe notes. “The labor itself even had, dare I say, a transcendent moment or two.” Those revelations were perhaps worth losing some money and sleep over—and maybe even the freedom from his in-laws’ basement.