Nestled under the J train, you’ll find many “mom and pop” businesses. The Korean produce stand ECY market was no different from them. A neighborhood staple, the market then called Kim’s Produce in the 1990s, was previously managed by a Korean couple known to the Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Ocean-Hill neighborhood as Mr. and Mrs. Kim.
Today, the current manager, TK, said goodbye to my quickly gentrifying neighborhood. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Kim’s iteration of the stand, this one catered to a variety of diets, and featured gluten-free and organic foods, in addition to the traditional Caribbean and Latin staples the community was accustomed to having. It was one of the few places you could buy a coconut, plantains, kimchi, and tofu.
I learned through a friend that the store would soon be closing, but they were unsure of the exact date. Initially, I was unfazed because gentrification had robbed me of so many of the local shops in the area. However, tonight when I was walking to get my greasy American Chinese food, I stopped in. I had meant to interview TK for over a year now, and I must admit I procrastinated because I thought he’d always be there, just like Mr. and Mrs. Kim. I’d known him for about three years, in the way you know you’re local produce stand manager. Sometimes we’d exchange pleasantries on my way home from work, while he was smoking a cigarette. Other times he’d be surprised I was asking for particular Asian products, like mirin.
But that night, I begged TK for an interview, (no, really, I did). He politely told me he would love to help me but didn’t think he’s the right person. He said his English isn’t that good and he wants to make sure that people understand what he’s saying and don’t misinterpret his words. His English is pretty good by the way. I told him I’m working on a podcast and that I wanted to hear his story because it’s vital that we preserve his words. He humbly continued to decline when I told him he was the perfect person, and I even offered to call a friend that speaks Korean to translate. He insisted that he still wasn’t the right person and said, “no one wants to hear me.” I assured him he was wrong but rather than continue to push the issue, TK gave me something more. He gave me a conversation.
Thirteen years ago, TK started as a cashier on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, not too far from NYU. He recalled being robbed twice at gunpoint and chasing thieves out of the store. “It was ok then because I was much younger, and I could run after them,” he said with a hearty laugh and pushing his brown rectangle glasses up on the bridge of his nose. People would come in that store while he was working overnight and steal all types of things.
After about four years in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, his boss said it was time for him to move on to a different location. The boss had opened a store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, right on the Queens border. He operated the shop from 11 am – 11 pm, but it wasn’t enough time. Most of his business was later in the evening closer to closing time. He expressed to the boss, “Why don’t you make the store open 24 hours?” Bossman said it was because of the neighbors. Brushing his thinning salt and pepper hair out of his eyes, TK suggested to the boss, that he ask the building tenants about keeping the store open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday so they could make more money. A few weeks later, his smart thinking paid off. The store was open 24 hours on the weekends, and often the lines were out the door for beer and other Friday night purchases (use your imagination). Eventually, the traffic was so massive; the boss decided to sell when offered.
I appreciated TK’s candidness. “I was scared of the new neighborhood when the Boss took me to Queens.” As he’s telling me this story, he stops to help a woman neighbor in the apartment building next door carry their package, that he accepted earlier on their behalf, to their door. Shuffling his lanky frame back into his rightful place on the stool behind the register, he continues his story. He was pleasantly surprised to learn how beautiful the Queens neighborhood and the people were. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was trying to decipher if that meant he was in a majority Black area or somewhere else with a bit more variety, given the demographics of the borough.
“You, leavin’?” TK nodded with a smile as he fixed his blue Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker jacket and replied, “Yes, today is my last day.” Disappointed, the woman in her blue turban, fluttered her eyelashes and said, “Awww no. You’re going to be missed. We love you.” He smiled and waved with a bit of disbelief, “Everybody says they’re going to miss me.” I remind him that he’s an integral part of this neighborhood.
He’s had some minor thefts, while at ECY but nothing you wouldn’t expect to find at any produce stand. He reminisced about the rowdy teenagers in the area. But all teens are obnoxious, and that’s to be expected. He was very understanding and brushed the behavior off. The local winos, however, didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt. TK said there was one man in particular who would steel bananas only while drunk. The day someone stole an entire watermelon, he had two revelations. The first was that he was getting older and that his days of running after thieves are behind him. Secondly, he had to move the produce inside.
Rather than keeping the outside stands bare, he opted to put potted plants out front. It also doubled as an advertisement for his floral arrangement skills. As he lamented that people in the neighborhood are going to have trouble finding flowers for this upcoming Mother’s Day, our chat was interrupted by another area local who came to say goodbye.
Interrupted by two young men wondering if the store was closing, he politely smiles and tells them today is the last day, and he’ll be there until 10 pm. “I’d never been to this part of Brooklyn, and it was so dark,” referring to being in the shadow of the elevated J train. I was perplexed to hear this too, but as he explained, it made perfect sense. The business owner, next door, told him that there are shootings on Broadway every few weeks. We haven’t had that type of activity in quite some time. Luckily, he says in the three years he’s been working here he can only recall two shooting incidents.
As TK shifted his weight on the stool, I hung on to every syllable that came out of his mouth like a child hearing their first ghost story at a campfire. His fear wasn’t due to the people in the neighborhood, it was the unknown that comes with running a shop. As a long time resident of Brooklyn, in an area home to a housing project, poverty, multiple cultures from the Black and Latinx diasporas, neglected infrastructure and very few economic opportunities, that’s almost an anomaly, but a beautiful one. Many who come into the neighborhood are unjustly fearful of the locals.
In the summer of 2017, I had my first non-food interaction with TK. I was returning from the nearby bodega, and one of the customers had collapsed due to a seizure in front of the store. Naturally, he was frightened and concerned for his customer. As I watched TK smoke out of nervousness, he waited patiently while the firefighters, who thankfully were around the corner, came to the rescue and stabilized our neighbor. He let out a big and well-deserved sigh of relief as the gentleman entered the ambulance. Then his infectious smile made contact with everyone who was in the area.
However, TK didn’t just give to the neighborhood; the neighborhood gave back to him too. For years he was a chain smoker, but because of a regular customer KP and his wife, TK was able to stop smoking. They encouraged him and provided him with the necessary support to finally kick the habit. He shared pictures of himself and KP along with a mini “We believe in you!” calligraphy poster made by KP’s wife. He was beaming with pride over his recent accomplishment. He said it was one of the hardest things he had to do. And for most people it is. He hasn’t had a cigarette in five months.
“Everybody has been so nice to me. Even before the store was closing, I’m sad; I’m leaving. I’m going to miss the people.” Hearing that touched me more than anything. For many of us in the neighborhood even as children, the only interactions many of us had with an Asian person was with our food, either at the produce stand or the Chinese restaurants.
Throughout our conversation, many people popped in to take advantage of the 45% off sale but far more came in to say goodbye. In TK’s short time under the J train, he’d left his mark on a quickly gentrifying working-class neighborhood, and we’d left our mark on him too. It’s been a week since the store has closed and you can often see people smile at the shuttered storefront when they walk past, most likely thinking about their warm interactions with a Korean American produce stand manager.