Excerpt: 'My Korean Deli'
Last summer my wife's family and I decided to buy a deli. By fall, with loans from three different relatives, two new credit cards, and a sad kiss good-bye to thirty thousand dollars my wife and I had saved while living in my mother-in-law's Staten Island basement, we had rounded up the money. Now it is November, and we are searching New York City for a place to buy.
We have different ideas about what our store should look like. My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria—the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance—pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money, up to a few thousand dollars per hour at lunchtime. She also wants a store that is open twenty-four hours and stays open on Christmas and Labor Day. She'd like it to be in the thick of Manhattan, on a street jammed with tourists and office workers.
I don't know what I want, but an all-night deli in midtown with a steam table isn't it. I'm the sort of person who loses my appetite if I walk past an establishment with a steam table. I get palpitations and the sweats just being around sparerib tips. Of course, I don't have to eat the food if we buy a deli with a steam table. I just have to sell it. That's what Kay says she plans to do. But Kay has an unfair advantage: years ago, after she came to America, she lost her sense of smell, and now she can't detect the difference between a bouquet of freesias and a bathroom at the bus station. My nose, on the other hand, is fully functional.
Luckily, I'm in charge of the real estate search, and so far I have successfully steered us from any delis serving hot food. As a result, Kay's frustration is starting to become lethal.
"What's the matter?" she asked me the other day. "You not like money? Why you make us poor?"
I focus on the drive into midtown—the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic ... and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.
These are not unfair questions. I would say that one of my biggest faults as a human being is that I do not love money, which makes me lazy and spoiled. Like finding us a store, for example. Call me a snob, but somehow a deli grocery—a traditional fruit and vegetable market—seems more dignified than a deli dishing out slop by the pound in Styrofoam trays. Is that practical? We are, after all, talking about the acquisition of a deli, not a summer home or a car. If dignity is so important, why not buy a bookstore or a bakery? Why not spend it on a business where I have to dress up for work?
Don't get me wrong: I'm not insecure about becoming a deli owner. I even sort of like the idea. Aside from a few "gentleman farmers," no one can remember the last person in my family who worked with their hands. After blowing off law school and graduate school, after barely getting through college and even more narrowly escaping high school, why would I suddenly get snobbish?
But the truth is, I'm still young (thirty-one is young, right?) and can afford to be blasé. It's like the job I had as a seventeen-year-old pumping gas outside Boston, a gig I remember as brainless heaven. I enjoyed coming home smelly. I enjoyed looking inside people's cars while scraping the crud off their windows. I enjoyed flirting with women drivers twice my age.
Who knows how I would have felt if seventeen were just the beginning, and I could look forward to fifty more years of taking orders from strangers.
Today we are looking at a deli with a steam table. This morning I was informed of the news by a fire-breathing giant, a creature escaped from a horror movie about mutants spawned by an industrial accident, who hovered at my bedside until I awoke with a start, upon which the creature said: For two weeks you be in charge of finding our store, and you not come up with anything. So starting today we do it my way. Then the creature exited, accompanied, it seemed to my half-asleep ears, by the sound of dragging chains.
For the rest of the morning I lie there under the sheets as a form of protest, not intending to get out, until my wife, Gab, sits down on the bed next to me with a cup of coffee.
"I want you and my mother to go together," Gab says. "I can't come because I have things to do at home."
The store is near Times Square and has a name like Luxury Farm or Delicious Mountain. Its Korean owners claim to be making eight thousand dollars a day, a preposterous sum that nevertheless has Kay all excited.
"Don't be afraid of steam table," she says as we drive to the store. "If smelling something stranger, close nose and think of biiig money."
I exhale deeply and try to follow her advice, but instead of fistfuls of cash all I can think of are slabs of desiccated meat loaf slathered in congealed gravy and the smell of boiled ham. So I focus on the drive into midtown—the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic, the gigantic television screens featuring high-cheekboned models talking on cell phones, and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.
Excerpted from My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe. Copyright 2011 by Ben Ryder Howe. Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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