Min Jin Lee: The people behind the counter are people
(Celeste Sloman/The New York Times)
A worker behind the counter at a restaurant in Koreatown in New York on Sunday, May 10, 2020.
You can get jajangmyeon, the Korean version of the Chinese black bean sauce noodles, in plenty of places. Queens has a strong jajangmyeon game, but I live in Harlem now, so it’s easier for me to go to 32nd Street in Manhattan.
When I got to the restaurant, I kept on my mask, disposable gloves and baseball hat. I stood between the front door and the entryway, which was sealed off with heavy plastic. No one could get inside. In that plastic sheeting in place of an interior door, there was a cutout portal, the size of a pet door flap, at waist level for payments and orders. The dining room was dark, the only light coming from the kitchen.
In no time, a petite Korean woman approached the desk, which served as the counter on her side of the plastic. Even behind the mask, I could make out her pretty oval face, the small chin. Gray T-shirt, black pants, apron and gloves. Hardly a drop of makeup. She was younger than me. I’m 51. Her eyes looked tired and worried.
I felt bad about my techno-style cycling mask that I’d bought on the internet. All the attractive models had sold out. If I were to rob someone, I’d wear this.
“Hello,” I said in Korean, trying to sound cheerful.
She brightened, her eyes smiling.
I ordered two jajangmyeon.
“Ten minutes,” she said, pointing outside.
Arms folded, I waited in front of the restaurant and glanced east. Less than a block away, Mimi Fong’s family had a wonderful restaurant, which is now long gone. My childhood friend Mimi and I lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and went to the same elementary and middle schools, and our fathers had small businesses not five blocks away from each other in Midtown Manhattan.
Ours was a tiny wholesale store that sold costume jewelry, about 200 square feet. From 1977 to 1999, Monday through Friday, my parents opened at 7 and closed at 7, and on Saturday they closed at 3. To give our mom a break, my two sisters and I took turns working on Saturdays and school holidays. Sometimes, when I was working and knew Mimi was helping out her father, too, I’d visit her.
Mimi would be perched on her stool by the cash register. If he wasn’t busy, Mr. Fong would step out of his kitchen, the size of a New York City closet, and ask Mimi in Cantonese if I’d like something to eat. Sometimes her sisters would be bustling around, and I knew from watching them that if the napkins were folded, the fortune cookies and sauce packets were stocked away neatly, the tea was hot, and the tables were wiped clean, someone in the family had done all that work.
Two blocks west and two blocks south from where I was waiting for my jajangmyeon order was my parents’ store. It was there, from behind the counter, I learned that a supply chain isn’t an abstract concept; a real person forged each link.
Sometimes Harry, my dad’s supplier who had a brass jewelry business in Thailand, would stop by. A kind man with a sunny smile, he’d lay out his sample merchandise across the display case. The landlord, Mr. Justin, would pick up his rent check each month. He and Dad got along fine. The UPS man would come daily to drop off and pick up packages.
If I sold a street peddler six pairs of gold-filled earrings at $1.50 a pair, I’d ring up $9 on the register. The manufacturer of the earrings charged my dad maybe $1.15 for the pair, which would mean that $2.10 was profit, and even as a kid in middle school, I understood what that money meant.
From that profit and whatever else we’d earned that day and in the rest of the month, my folks had to clear enough money to pay rent for the store and our apartment; the salary of their employee Mr. Shim, who was also given breakfast and lunch; utilities; business insurance; taxes; food; clothing; and health insurance. My sisters and I were always needing things — coats, sneakers, money for lunch.
We didn’t go on vacations. If my parents closed the store, then their customers — gift shop owners and peddlers who sold their wares on card tables in subway stations — would go elsewhere. We couldn’t afford to lose their sales.
I went to college at Yale, and for pocket money, I sold clothing at Ann Taylor on Chapel Street in New Haven. One Saturday, a beautiful woman and her daughter came in for cocktail dresses. They threw heaps of clothes at me, and I arranged them in the dressing room. That month, the sales manager was holding a contest — the best-selling associate would get a cash prize on top of commissions. I wanted to earn that money. Maybe it was a hundred bucks.
The mother and daughter ignored me, so I made myself invisible, trying only to anticipate what needed to be done. The daughter chose two velvet dresses that looked elegant on her.
My residential college, Trumbull, was about to host its “Trumball,” so I figured she was going to her residential college’s party.
“Are you going to the winter formal?” I asked.
The mother and daughter looked surprised.
“Do you go to Yale?” the mother asked.
I nodded, then turned to clean out the dressing room.
When I rang up the sale, they smiled nervously, embarrassed at their coldness. I felt sorry for them. I could have let on earlier.
The jajangmyeon restaurant door swung open.
The Korean woman in the apron handed me the paper bag and stepped back.
We bowed to each other, the way we might have at a Korean church.
“Su go ha se yo,” I said, which translates to “Keep up your hard work,” but that isn’t it exactly. The phrase is a kindness, meaning, I recognize you’re making an effort, and I encourage you to bear up, and it also means, I admire your labor.
My city is five boroughs, and each borough has many neighborhoods, and each neighborhood is made up of numerous blocks, and on each block, there are businesses, and in each one, there is a counter, and that’s where you and I meet.
I hope when we can take off our masks, I get to tell you how much I need you.
Min Jin Lee is the author of the novels “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko.”