Photo courtesy of Mauricio Matiz. M. Matiz (top right) B. Choi (forefront)
HJ Lee started KoreanAmericanStory.org to promote the Korean American experience. He recently co-produced a touching full-length movie, Happy Cleaners (trailer). The movie reminded me of my own Korean American story, albeit, from a different perspective.
During my freshman year, on weekends, I would take the subway from Morningside Heights, looping around 42nd Street and back up to the Upper East Side to work at a newspaper and magazine store owned by the Chois. Their son, Byung, was a high school friend, who also attended Columbia. He knew I needed work and connected me with his parents.
My hours were on Friday and Saturday evenings when the Sunday New York Times needed assembling. Every weekend, that little store on Third Avenue sold a lot of newspapers. The once iconic, now endangered, The New York Times trucks would dump wrapped bundles on the sidewalk in front of the store as early as Thursday. Bringing them to the rear of the store, where we would assemble the paper, was a workout in itself. The paper, weighing close to ten pounds and many inches thick, was assembled from at least three different bundles. The last bundle arrived in two editions, an early edition on Saturday with a puny sports section, given most games were still in progress, and a late edition on Sunday with most of the final scores.
The Chois had us make separate piles to accommodate customers who liked to pick up half the paper on Saturday night—early access to the Real Estate section was especially coveted, given the Times’s near monopoly on listings—and the second half, with the news and sports finals, the next morning.
Handling hundreds of newspapers would leave my hands soiled with ink. It took multiple soapings in the small sink in the back of the store to get them clean. Byung and I would partner on the assembly line, although there were some weekends when I was the only help and Mr. Choi would be my assembling partner.
I spent many hours with Mr. and Mrs. Choi, who were always together at the store. It was a seven-days-a-week job, or so it appeared to me. In many ways they
were similar to my parents. They worked hard while constantly worrying about their children and their education. They would nag Byung about studying harder, to stop partying and hanging out with friends, just like my parents would nag me. The family goal was to get him and his sister through college. Just like my parents, they were old school, concerned about fitting in. Assimilation was the mantra of the time. If there was a major difference between the Chois and my parents, it was their entrepreneurial spirit. Running their little store meant they didn’t have a boss to ruin their day, although, you could argue their customers played that role.
The Chois knew many of their customers by name, taking special requests, such as ordering a foreign magazine or holding a copy aside. They even listened respectfully to complaints about the Times’s recent move to a six-column format from their traditional eight. You wouldn’t think people would be upset by that change, but many of their customers in this wealthy enclave were traditionalists.
Life at the store was a microcosm of the neighborhood. It was usually the doormen and porters who stopped in on pay day to buy lottery tickets, but it was the nurse’s aides, mostly women, from the nearby hospitals who came for the scratch-off tickets. Any winnings quickly reinvested in more cards until all was lost. It was a sad line up to the register for these purchases. None was sadder than the guy who was addicted to the scratch-off cards. On pay day, he would buy a few cards, only to return to the store five minutes later to buy another set. He would repeat until he was sweating, his hair matted and dress shirt soaking through. He didn’t say much. He lived his excitement alone while donating all he had to the state’s education budget.
When the register got busy, mostly to attend to the lottery buyers, the store needed a second person giving out change to keep the line moving. The Sunday Times was seventy-five cents, and most customers paid with a dollar bill. I took change from the coin drop bowl at the counter, handing out quarter after quarter and passing the bills to Mrs. Choi. Eventually, Mrs. Choi trained me to manage the register. It was a piece of cake, certainly for someone like me who was dealing with Newtonian mechanics in Physics class, but she wanted me to do things her way, like always keeping the bill I was given on top of the register’s shelf till the transaction was completed.
Sure enough, I had no trouble with the transactions. I was quick, anticipating the coins needed before the customer had handed over their money.
One day at the register, I became a mark for a “quick change” scam artist. The guy was smooth and, after he had left, I replayed the exchange in my head realizing he had swindled me out of an extra ten bucks. When Mrs. Choi asked me if everything was okay, I just said, “He just needed change.” She knew something had gone wrong, but she didn’t press the issue. Afterwards, I felt bad that I had lost them money. I kept hoping the guy would show up again, wanting to expose his shenanigans. He never did come back.
Mr. Choi was a pleasant boss. He was strict, and, certainly, not gregarious like his son, Byung, who had assimilated well. The only time I saw Mr. Choi get riled up was when Byung got under his skin. There were men’s magazines on the racks near the back and when Byung dared to take a peek at one of them—when his mom wasn’t around—his father would scold him to put the magazine away, starting a father-and-son parry and counter. Like many parents, they would cherry-pick something they liked about me to browbeat Byung to do better. It was a constant refrain. Of course, I was always on my best behavior in front of them, polite and deferential.
On the nights when I was at the store at closing, Mr. Choi would ask me to wait with them until they locked up the shop and got in their car with the proceeds of the day. There was safety in numbers. Sometimes they would give me a ride, given we lived not far from their home in Astoria. More often, though, after my shift I would walk around the swanky neighborhood with the upscale buildings, taking in the fresh air to get the newspaper smell out of my lungs and clothes. I would make my way down to 59th Street to pick up the Queens subway, happy with the extra bucks in my pocket. Of course, the Chois would be back first thing in the morning, another long day of standing, minding their pristine store, their little stand nurturing the American dream.
Maurice and HJ met on the Ultimate Frisbee Team at Columbia University
Previously published at The Junction on Medium.com
Mauricio Matiz grew up in Astoria, Queens. From the melting pot of the world, he headed to Columbia University, where he made lifelong friends from all over the world. He still lives in Manhattan with his wife and children. His essays can be found at matiz.medium.com.