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Evidently you don't cook the food that gets served at a steam table. You attack it with extreme bursts of heat from an oven that looks like a smelter. And you don't prepare it, either. You buy it premade from an offsite mass producer of cafeteria and hospital fare somewhere in Connecticut. The whole experience is rather shocking, and I think Kay feels bad for me.

On our way home, I expect the usual barrage of scorn, like sitting too close to a nuclear reactor, but instead she's quiet. And then as we drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the gateway to Staten Island and the traditional summing-up point for any of our family's journeys, she tells me she's changed her mind. That one too big. Besides, I'm not really trusting that woman anyway.

If store be making eight thousand dollars every day, how come she and her husband still working there? A few minutes later we pull into the driveway of our home and find Gab outside. Instead of having just snubbed out a cigarette, which is what she was really doing, she pretends to have been waiting for us. She does have news, after all. She bends over and sticks her head through the passenger window, maintaining just enough distance so that we won't smell the smoke on her breath. It wasn't my idea to buy a deli. The idea came to my wife at the time of her thirtieth birthday. Thirty can be an uncomfortable turning point for those inclined to measure their own accomplishments against those of their parents.

Gab took it especially hard. I reminded her that she had graduated from one of the best colleges in the world the University of Chicago, where we met almost ten years ago and obtained both a master's degree and a law degree. She'd even had a burgeoning career as a corporate attorney at a Manhattan law firm, until she'd decided to chuck it all so she could open this deli for her mother. And she was about to immigrate to America, a country she knew nothing about. All by thirty!

My Korean Deli Risking it All for a Convenience Store Paperback Common

I thought of reminding Gab that her mom never finished college—Gab was beating her three to none in the degree category—but it didn't seem like what she wanted to hear. Over the course of the next few months, Gab's thirtieth-birthday paranoia transformed into an obsession with repaying her mother's sacrifice.

My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe

Mistakenly, I had thought that she had already done that by being successful herself. But as the year went on, it became clear that Gab would not be satisfied without a sacrifice of her own.

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So her goal became to give back some of what Kay had given up in coming to America. Kay's old business had been a bakery serving typical Korean desserts.


She spoke of it so lovingly one wondered how she had ever coped with its loss. However, unless Americans suddenly developed a taste for mung bean balls and glutinous rice cakes, doing the same kind of business was not going to be an option. Kay knew how to run a deli, having twenty years of experience clerking at 7-Elevens and Stop'n Gos across America. Yet she was no longer the same person she had been in her twenties. Though still frighteningly strong at the age of fifty-five her one weakness being an inability to say no to relatives requesting favors , she was now prone to thunderous physical breakdowns that left her bedridden for days.

And the breakdowns were getting longer and more thunderous. Moreover, physical health was not the only issue. America had wrought some mysterious changes, like the loss of her sense of smell. And there was the question of why she'd never returned to owning her own business. Was she scared? Had she lost her nerve? Or had she lost the desire and the drive?

Was she possibly depressed?

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No one knew, because Kay would no more discuss her feelings than she would go to a doctor. She had no trouble exhibiting them, but discussing them was out of the question.

Due to her complex psychology, it was possible, of course, that she was all of those things. However, the only obvious reason why she hadn't opened a store was money. You need money to start a business, and Gab and I, around the time of her thirtieth birthday, were enjoying, for the first time in our married lives, having just a little money in our bank account.

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My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store

It was money we guarded with insane desperation, not even telling each other how much was in the account. The very act of saving was new to us, like a magic power we couldn't quite believe we had acquired. But even more important, it was that money and that money alone that would eventually buy our freedom from Kay's house on Staten Island. We had moved into the basement nine months before, after the lease on our Brooklyn apartment expired. After living in Brooklyn for three years, we had tired of paying rent to our landlord, a former ad executive from Parsippany who had miswired our brownstone so that everything blew up in our faces.

We wanted to own our own space and there were thoughts of starting a family, and when the lease ran out we decided it was time. Kay's house was to serve as a temporary refuge while we house-hunted. Deep shame attended our moving into Gab's mother's household, but it was not as bad as moving to Staten Island, New York City's pariah borough, a place where once-hot trends like Hummers and spitting go to die, a place so forsaken that not even Starbucks would set up a store there, nor even the most enterprising Thai restaurant owner—only immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, people fleeing environmental disasters and the most involuted economies on earth.

Perhaps they found something homelike in the smoldering industrial landscape, a familiar scent in the air. As Gab and I quickly discovered, friends were uneasy about visiting us in our new borough. Our bedroom was in a basement. One of our neighbors had a bored old house cat who used to come and sit in the one window and watch us undress. Probably he wondered what kind of deranged animal chose to live its life underground, watching people's ankles.

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Above our heads, clomping around day and night, were relatives of Gab's who'd recently made the trip from Korea and were as surprised to see us as we them. Some of them were new immigrants who spoke no English at all, but it didn't matter in Kay's house because the television was forever playing Korean soap operas, and the radio was constantly tuned to Korean talk radio, and the refrigerator was filled with bean sprout soup, sea slugs and fermented cabbage.

I was the only one for whom it mattered, because I did not eat Korean food and could not speak a word of Korean. Gab and I had no sex at all for the first three months. Too dangerous. In an Asian household no one wears shoes indoors, so you never hear anyone coming. From the day we moved in, we were dying to get out, which gave us the power to save thirty thousand dollars in less than a year. But then came Gab's thirtieth birthday, and suddenly our misery didn't matter anymore—in fact, the greater our misery, the better Gab felt.

At first, she and I would be the owners of whatever store we bought, and Kay would be the manager. During this period, we would keep the store's profits and use them to replenish our bank account. Later on, within the six months or so it would take for the business to stabilize, we would transfer ownership to Kay and resume our old lives. It's the kind of place, Howe confesses, where "the coffee is so bad it actually tastes better when combined with the tangy aftertaste of a Styrofoam cup.

Howe commutes between two worlds: literary editor by day, deli manager by night. Both are amateur, seat-of-the-pants enterprises. The patrician, fun-loving Plimpton, who died in , was a professional amateur. His most popular book, Paper Lion , chronicled his misadventures playing football with the Detroit Lions. Alan Alda portrayed Plimpton in the movie. Howe comes to see that "in a funny way, the Paris Review is like a deli: it's a throwback, an institution that doesn't quite fit in the modern world.