Q&A With Ben Ryder Howe, author of My Korean Deli
Your wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her mother's sacrifice by buying her a convenience store. Tell us about your first reaction to her idea.
Well, I looked forward to getting free snack food and earning dividends on the hefty profits Gab thought we could make. I even looked forward to working a shift now and then - I thought that would be kind of funny. The humor dissolved pretty quickly once we started looking at stores and putting together the numbers, at which point we realized this would change our lives. And that was before we opened.
At what stage of owning the deli did you begin to conceive of it as a memoir?
I didn't start off thinking that way at all, and didn't take many notes, until one day when I was feeling miserable and went to see a friend who owned a coffee shop in Manhattan, and he said, "Don't let this period be forgotten, write it down, because as miserable as it is, you're going to remember and cherish it the rest of your life." And he wasn't a writer, just someone who'd gone through the travails of starting a family business. So I started keeping notes, but even then it wasn't for another year that I seriously thought about writing about it. For one thing, I hadn't written much in the first-person before - I kind of frowned on it, to be honest; I was raised to use the pronoun "I" as little as possible, especially in writing - and had never taken much interest in New York as a subject. At some point, though, I realized I'd had sort of a classic New York experience, like the Griffin Dunne character in "After Hours" who's sitting in a café one night and ends up getting chased by a Mister Softee truck and turned into a sculpture. That idea, that a dull, everyday person can be transported at any moment to some utterly improbable place - is one of the essential myths of New York, isn't it? Anything can happen.
Tell us a little about working with the famous George Plimpton at The Paris Review. What did you learn from him? What do you miss most about him?
The first time I met George he was in his boxers and black kneesocks and he got mad at me for calling him "Mr. Plimpton" instead of "George." Then he walked out of the office and I didn't see him again for about three weeks. He was not a heavyhanded editor. He wanted people to do things on their own and exercise their own judgment. He was trusting. He had a light touch. This not only made him the ideal boss for a bunch of 25-year-olds but delightful company - the most delightful company most of us who worked for him ever had. That's what I miss most about George - just hanging around with him.
While you are working at the Review, the magazine is struggling, just like the deli. Did your experiences there help you with the deli, and vice versa?
Those were not the best years for either the deli or the review, but I'm not sure there was ever a time when either one wasn't struggling at least a bit. That's one of the lessons I hopefully learned, to recognize things for what they are. It's very New York to be petrified of stagnation and constantly pursue the cutting edge, but as Willy Loman the coffee salesman says in the book, "Why change if you've got a winner?" Indeed, why? Why not leave things alone? Of course, a WASP would say that: we hate change and want the world to go backward, or at least stand still. It's not always the appropriate attitude, but accepting the status quo - as in a corner store that does what it's always done, and does it reasonably well - shouldn't be something you're afraid of, either.
You ended up really liking working at the deli. What most surprised you?
There are, I hope, a lot of reversals to be seen in the book. For instance, early on I talk about a job I had as a teenager pumping gas, and I say that while I liked the work, who knows how I would have felt about serving strangers the rest of my life. Customer interaction was definitely something I struggled with when we opened the deli, but by the time we closed it was my favorite part of the job. This is something I've also noticed about my mother-in-law, who's spent half her life at cash registers: she really seems to enjoy it.
Overall, what was the best part of the experience?
Seeing through my mother-in-law's eyes. There's another moment early in the book where Kay wants us to put in what I see as a ridiculously low bid for the deli we want, and when I challenge her to explain why, she says the owner won't respect us if we don't come in low. Now, I have no idea whether that turned out to be true or not, but my mother-in-law is a smart businesswoman and it was moments like those that not only helped me to understand her better, but to see the world a little differently. The things I learned from Kay weren't qualities that tend to be associated with the literary world, where the job is basically to be discerning and smart. They were things like consistency, stamina, lack of self-pity and fearlessness. In a sense it was an attitude - how to treat people, how to handle pressure and conflict.
What do you miss most about owning your deli?
Having my dogmas shaken up. You know you're doing something worthwhile when things you felt totally secure in believing or never even questioned start coming under assault. And I miss Dwayne, our sandwich maker, who died in 2009. Half of Brooklyn misses Dwayne.
Now that you've been a shopkeeper, can you give us the inside scoop on New York's Korean delis?
They're struggling. The heyday of Korean delis is over. There's no official count, but talking to people in the business, you get the sense that New York has only about half the Korean delis it used to, and the rest will largely be gone in another ten years. The city is killing them with fines, the rents are beyond insane, and there's too much competition from Duane Reade and Subway. Koreans aren't the only ones getting out, incidentally - everyone is, or wants to be. When I talk to deli owners now, they say I should be glad our family sold our store when we did, because it's worse now than it was then - and back then people said it had never been so bad.
Now, New York being what it is, I don't expect the Korean deli to be seen as anything other than a blip in the city's ethnic history. Certainly they played a role in the overall change of the New York's livability over the last few decades. (I know an author who claims that by staying open twenty-four hours and being bright nighttime presences on what were then dark and scary streets, Korean delis played a critical early role in the turnaround.)
But as a New Yorker I do think it's worrisome. New York has always had an image as being open to newcomers - you know, the cliché about anyone being able to make it here if they're tough enough and they sacrifice. The deli is an iconic business because it's the kind of job anyone can do - you don't need any qualifications or experience. You don't even have to speak the local language. It's hard to imagine New York doing well if delis aren't viable, and I worry about what happens if New York stops being seen as a great place to come and get ahead. New Yorkers probably think that will never happen, but honestly, stranger things have happened in the city in the last few years.
How has your wife's family responded to you writing this story?
We were living together during much of the time it was being written, and often I'd come up to the dining room table from my desk in the basement and ask, "Does anyone remember how much a 'Cash-in-a-Flash' ticket cost?" or something like that. So it was something we were always talking about, and Kay's response when I told her I wanted to make her a focus of the book - no surprise to anyone who knows her - was fearless and enthusiastic. (I think she said, "Is there going to be a movie? If so, I want to be in at least three scenes.") For all of us I think there wasn't a question after the deli closed that there was a story to be told. It was one of those experiences where you look back and say, I'm not the same person I was when this started. We kind of digested those feelings together.
How would you react if your children gave you a deli when they were older?
I'd disown them. No, seriously, that's a great question. I'd never thought of that. You know, I used to think that the key to a happy life was having just the possibility of things changing in unexpected ways, that tomorrow you might find yourself doing something you'd never thought of. A deli forecloses on that - you have to reconcile yourself to doing the exact same thing in exactly the same place till possibly the end of your life (though it has its own set of pleasures, which I didn't quite appreciate before). I like the idea that my children would give me a store, because it combines those two things - an unexpected change with the sedentary pleasures of running a small business. I hope I'd have the guts to say yes.