Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Korean Deli: Risking Everything for a Convenience Store, by Ben Ryder Howe

Ben Ryder Howe's family came to the "New World" on the Mayflower. He is an editor at the Paris Review, the literary magazine founded by George Plimpton. His wife Gab's Korean-American family came to the United States just a few decades ago. Gab is a corporate lawyer who has burned out and wants to help her parents by putting the money she and Ben have saved to buy an apartment of their own (they live in her parents' basement) into buying a convenience store. Does this seem like a good idea? Well....

Howe weaves together the story of their deli ownership--the search for a suitable store to buy, the process of learning how to run the store, the oddball customers and employees, the struggle between he and his mother-in-law Kay about what inventory to stock, the horrendous fines levied by New York City for infractions of various kinds--with the story of his work at the Review (Plimpton dies during the two years covered in the book) and reflections on marriage, family, and the immigrant experience.

The parts of the book on both aspects of Howe's work life are funny--in surprisingly similar ways. Although Howe portrays himself as something of a dufus, he endeared himself to me through the respect he developed for the work of convenience store owners and employees and his struggles to understand his wife's family. I did wish, however, that he had given Gab and Kay--both fascinating characters--a chance to tell us their stories themselves.

Favorite passages:
Forgetting what it's like to suffer can be a good thing, since suffering can make people too cut-throat for society's good. But suffering also breeds certain capacities that are easily lost, such as the ability to focus and a willingness to engage with conflict. These are things that I believe Kay thinks I'm incapable of.

My mother-in-law . . . [is] the archetype of a certain New Yorker who, whatever her actual story, is assumed to have sacrificed so much and worked so hard just to be here that it almost makes you defensive. Why are YOU here? What's YOUR story? It's not only people like Gab who struggle to live up to their parents' example, in other words; it's all of us. New York never let syou just sit there and relax. So many people are dying to get in, and willing to do almost anything to stay once they get here.

. . . self-reliance is a compulsion, not a skill you acquire because you or your parents thought it would be good for character development. You acquire it by becoming scarred, and becoming incurably suspicious that if you don't take care of a job yourself, no one will.

No comments:

Post a Comment