In their corner grocery in East Baltimore, Ki Nam Yi and his wife, Sung Cha Yi, measure out their 13-hour days in small sales of soda pop and potato chips, white bread and homemade iced tea, candy and cigarettes.
The first-floor windows of the worn old rowhouse at the corner of Luzerne Avenue and Preston Street are boarded up. The overhead sign still says Green's Grocery; in the early '60s, a couple of guys named Isadore and Ruben Green owned the store, and nobody's bothered to change the sign since. A variety groceries and confectioneries have occupied this corner for at least 50 years.
In their windowless store, the Yis work behind a locked door and Plexiglas shielding that gives the shop the atmosphere of a bunker or a guard post, a checkpoint on some hostile border.
The Yis deal with their customers through rotating Plexiglas windows, like monks withdrawn to a cloistered monastery, getting paid before handing over an order. Behind their murky Plexiglas they seem watery and indistinct as creatures in an aquarium. Beyond the barriers, their customers seem equally remote and shadowy.
"One of my friends came in and said it's like a prison," says Chang Hun Yi, the Yis' 30-year-old son. He's a tae kwon do master who runs his own White Tiger School in Parkville, but he sometimes helps his folks out in the store. Today he's the family spokesman. His parents' English is understandable but limited.
Since the middle of January, two Korean-Americans have been killed and a third seriously wounded in a series of holdups of stores like his parents'. Behind their barrier, the Yis are not exactly fearful. But they are very, very careful.
"When we first came," Chang Yi says, "we had people come in and do their shopping. They'd check out and they'd leave.
"Neighbors came in and actually told us we shouldn't let people in here. Nobody comes in any more. We get all their stuff for them."
Business fell off. Some people complained.
"You want to let them in," Chang Yi says. "I do understand how they feel about not being able to come in. It's a fun business when you interact with people and get to know them.
"But what you worry about are strangers and what's going to happen."
Korean-Americans like the Yis run about 1,500 small businesses around Baltimore, mostly neighborhood groceries, carry-outs, dry cleaning shops, liquor stores and small clothing and jewelry stores. In the two square blocks around the Yis, there are four stores, three owned by Korean-Americans, one by an African-American.
There is a perception that the Korean merchants in the inner city are prosper- ous. That is dead wrong, according to Jai P. Ryu, a sociology professor at Loyola University and Mayor Schmoke's liaison with the Korean community.
Since about 1992, he says, businesses like the Yis' store have been struggling, because of cuts in public assistance and welfare payments and competition from chains such as Safeway and Revco.
A once brisk turnover in corner groceries also has virtually stopped. Ryu says some who bought homes based on earlier income levels now face foreclosure.
Many store owners are in a "dire situation," he says. "They're pretty stuck."
Chang Yi says his parents' generation found a place in these small businesses because you can go into them without any specialized skill or training, and perhaps most importantly, you don't need much English. Start-up costs are manageable; hard work counts.
"They came for the education of their children," Chang Yi says. "For our education."
Careful words and conduct
The recent holdups and shootings have Korean shop owners talking constantly about the best way to take better care of themselves, to be prepared, be careful.
"One thing I'm glad they're not doing," Chang Yi says, "they're not blaming the black community. Many people in the city want to stop the violence. That's what the Korean community wants, too. It's not that we're being targeted. It's just that there is too much violence."
Ki and Sung Yi themselves were held up twice at gunpoint in a carry-out they ran for 13 years on Reisterstown Road near Fordleigh Avenue.
"The first time the guy came in wearing a mask," says Chang Yi. "My dad thought it was a joke. He thought it was somebody he knew. He laughed and tried to pull off the mask.
"But then he realized it was the real thing. Luck was on his side. The guy didn't pull the trigger. Usually when you grab a guy, they shoot. They told him to give them the money. Then they told them to lie down on the floor. And they did.
"Nowadays, you give them the money and they still shoot anyway," he says, an edge of bitterness in his voice.
"After an experience like that, you kind of think differently about the people you work with every day," Chang Yi says. "You look at them differently. You wonder if they're going to rob you. You get a different feeling. Even these days [my father] thinks about that every day."
The Yis have owned the grocery on Luzerne two and a half years now, and haven't had any trouble, despite being deep in the Eastern Police District, which has been the most violent in the city.
In the compact census tract around the store -- a neighborhood between the Amtrak line and Federal Street and Montford and Lakewood avenues, just south of Baltimore Cemetery -- more than 37 percent of the people, 1,424 out of 3,834, tried to survive in 1989 on an income below the poverty level. The per-capita income was $7,482. Just 13 white people, all over 75 and all below the poverty line, lived in the neighborhood. The rest were African-Americans.
Major Wendell France, Eastern District commander, says the neighborhood around the store is not "overtly active. I would say there's an appreciable amount of stability."
The Greater Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church is catty-corner across Preston Street from the Yis' store. That makes Sunday their busiest day, even though it's also their shortest. St. Francis School is half a block away and a couple of public schools are nearby. The kids come to buy candy before school and then again after school: Now-and-Laters, Boston Baked Beans, Jolly Ranchers and the old standbys, Peanut Chews and Sugar Daddies.
The Yis feel they get along well with their neighbors.
"In my times here," Chang Yi says, "I haven't experienced any anti-Korean prejudice."
Though both are quite youthful looking, many of their customers call Ki and Sung Yi "Ma" and "Pa," even "Grandma" and "Grandpa."
Sung Cha Yi, a small, frail, totally charming woman of 56, scoots around the store with the energy of a hummingbird. She wears jeans and boots with pink and blue hearts on them and a white sweat shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the White Tiger Pack, kids from her son's tae kwon do school. She hands out lollipops to tots who come to the windows.
"You can see she's small and not very strong," says her son. Even their customers worry about her. "But she's spiritually strong. I think all Korean parents are."
Hard work counts
For the Yis, the day begins at 5: 30 a.m. at their Sparks home. They shop for their stock at the wholesale houses that open for business at 6 a.m. They open the store at 7, and don't close most nights until 7: 30 in the evening. Sunday hours are a little shorter: 8 to 6. The store is open every day of the year.
"Long hours," Sung Yi sighs. "All Korean business people are working hard. Mothers go home and more working."
She mimes cooking. In Korea she remembers women didn't go out to work much.
"Come to America," she says. "A lot of woman do a lot of work."
Chang Yi says his mother misses Korea. Her 86-year-old father still lives north of Seoul. Her daughter Mi Ae Yi, 31, Chang's older sister, is a successful singer in Korea. A third son, Chang Hyok Yi, is 22 and just graduated from Frostburg State University. He's working in human relations in Silver Spring.
"My sons good sons," Sung Yi says. "My daughter good daughter. I'm happy. Every mother is the same way. Good kids: happy."
Ki Nam Yi is handsome and looks much younger than his 60 years. His graying hair is stylishly cut and he wears rimless aviator spectacles. He looks a bit dashing in his black leather jacket with a scarf wrapped Ascot-style at his neck.
The Yis wear coats and sweaters indoors all winter long. The store is unheated except for a small kerosene space heater. Some days the store is frigid.
Between customers, Ki Yi sometimes peers pensively at the small slice of street visible through the outer door. He was born on a farm at Inje in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone.
He remembers he first saw Americans in 1951 during the Korean War. They had big noses and funny-looking eyes.
"His family was hiding under a chestnut tree and they saw Americans and they were afraid," Chang Yi says.
He was a skilled auto mechanic when he came to the United States in 1974 as a contract worker for a garage in Colorado. He left Korea alone after a year of deliberation. The family came later.
"Colorado too cold," he says. He slashes a hand across his waist to show how high the snow was.
He came East and washed dishes in a motel in Reading, Pa., then worked for the Pepsi Cola plant here. He liked working for Pepsi, but somebody told him running a carry-out shop was better.
"Carry-out job not better," he says. "It's a hard job."
The Yis gave up their carry-out on Reisterstown Road after Sung Yi was injured in two auto accidents and couldn't stay on her feet all day.
Ki Yi considered several alternatives, but when the opportunity to take over the Luzerne Street store came, he jumped at it.
"It wasn't something they had to study or took a lot of time to learn," Chang Yi explains.
Their daily life now moves with the ebb and flow of the orders shouted through their two window turntables.
"A bag of Choozels. A bag of Cheese Doodles. A bag of Cheddar Fries."
The store is a contemporary gallery of snack food: potato chips, corn curls, nachos, Bon Ton pork skins, Funyons Rings, Raps Snack Potato Chips with Honey, Utz Carolina-style Bar-B-Q Potato Chips. Also neatly stacked on the old shelves are Chef Boy-ar-dee canned spaghetti and meatballs, pork and beans, grits, yams, King syrup, soups, vegetables, fruits, toilet paper, detergents and disposable diapers. The Yis sell the diapers one by one.
"A lot of people can't afford to buy a whole pack," Chang Yi explains.
Prices are a little higher than in the big stores, he says. The markup is basically 33 percent, which he says is typical in Korean-American groceries. A lot of customers pay with Independence Cards, an electronic version of food stamps.
"Four bags chocolate-covered pretzels and a small Sunny Delight," says a voice beyond the turntable. That's Choozels and a citrus drink.
"$1.50," says Ki Yi.
"Two packs of Newports." The Yis sell a lot of cigarettes and Newports are their best-sellers.
"Give me a 25-cent ice cream."
Ki Yi holds up a Popsicle. "Only blue color."
"How much are your loose cigarettes?"
"No loose," Ki Yi says.
Diapers yes; cigarettes no.
And so on, the rhythm of the day flowing into evening.
Chang Yi is proud and respectful and admiring of his parents and their generation of Korean- Americans.
"There's a spirit in them," he says, "in that generation. It was instilled in them. They have this spirit: 'I'll never give up. I'll never give up.' "
Pub Date: 2/08/97