It’s easy to be a cashier in a New York deli, right?

Howe-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Bill Ohl

Today is my first full day as a deli owner, and I’m standing next to the cash register, trying to figure out what is missing. A few minutes ago, at four o’clock, the day shift quietly ended, and now there’s a lull. After walking in, I slipped behind the cold-cut display and felt a surprising shiver of excitement as I entered the narrow space where the cashiers stand. Where I am now is like a stage (it even has a little platform), but so constricted is the space that it feels like the gap between two cars in a parking lot, without the headroom, thanks to the overhanging illuminated Marlboro display. Behind me is a sink filled with wet coffee grounds; to my right is a vinegary-smelling deli slicer covered with bits of lettuce and ham; to my left is a lottery machine spitting out scraps of paper and sputtering like an angry robot. Yet my first thought upon entering this space is not that it is filthy, cramped, or unpleasant, but that something that I can’t quite put my finger on isn’t here. Finally, after a few minutes, I figure out what it is: I’m looking for a chair.

After six months of searching for a store, this is how the next phase begins. It seems unreal to be on the other side of the checkout counter. Is the store really ours? Could Salim, the previous owner, somehow change his mind and take it back? Now that we’re here, all I want to do is to put our stamp on this place and make it our own. There’s no time, though, for even now, during a brief moment of calm between shifts, as the wave of evening commuters prepares to crash over us, there’s an endless list of things to do, and it’s all I can manage to stay out of Kay’s way.

I nod and make a cocky face like Who, me? But the truth is, I have never felt so ill-prepared in my life.

“Excuse,” my mother-in-law says after hip-checking me into the sink. She and Gab have been here since 6 a.m.; now Gab is going home to collapse, leaving me till 1 a.m. with her mother, who has yet to stop moving for a single second.

“The checks for the deliverymen are in the cash register, under the drawer, and there are three of them, just in case the beer guy shows up,” Gab says before leaving. “Not the beer guy who delivers Heineken, but the beer guy who delivers Brooklyn Lager. Next to the register is the price list, and I’ve attached instructions for making a void, in case you have to. Don’t forget to refresh the cash supply every few hours, and don’t try to do the lottery machine yourself, or put too much meat on people’s sandwiches, or too much sugar in their coffee. Don’t forget to ID anyone who looks underage and, oh God, am I forgetting anything? Yes! Turn on the awning lights when it gets dark or people will think we’re closed, and if anyone from upstairs comes in, ask if they can turn up the heat—it’s freezing. And your parking meter! Did you park on the street? The fine is one hundred and five dollars as of this week. Can you keep all that in your head?”

I nod and make a cocky face like Who, me? But the truth is, I have never felt so ill-prepared in my life. Yesterday, while Gab was at the closing, I got a taste of the action in the store, but Kay made me spend the whole time stocking (Kay is now the boss, and we’re not supposed to disobey her—not that I would be inclined to), and when we got home Gab advised me that today would be much, much harder. I had no doubt that she would be right. Still, at that point I wasn’t nervous. When you live in New York you shop at delis every day, and you become accustomed to seeing what clerks do. It’s easy to think, I can pour a cup of coffee. I can butter a bagel. I can punch a lottery ticket. So can anyone.

It is only after stepping up to the register that I realize how wrong I am. A deli worker is lucky if he gets to focus his attention on just buttering a bagel, pouring coffee, or punching a lottery ticket. Much of the time he has to do at least two of those tasks at once, while in his mind he has to be doing at least seven, no matter what’s going on with his hands.

And then there’s the cash register, the bane of every clerk-in-training’s existence. Ours, a Royal Alpha 9150 cash-management system with fifty daunting, multicolored keys, conspicuously lacks one of those nifty handheld price scanners I was looking forward to beaming against customers’ behinds. The cash register has an effect on me similar to quadratic equations and French movies—that is, it makes me yawn uncontrollably and feel instantly and hopelessly defeated. Kay says I only need to learn how to use about five out of those fifty keys, but every time I look for them I get lost in a sea of mathematical symbols that I haven’t seen since the math classes I repeatedly failed in high school.

Embarrassingly, though, my biggest struggle is with the money itself. I have always had a hard time handling cash: my hands go meaty and numb when I touch it. It started at a young age, when my parents caught me strutting around our house triumphantly showing off a couple of dollars I’d saved. “Put those away!” they barked at me. After that I noticed that my parents were always washing money in the laundry, leaving it in places where they would never find it, or storing it in undignified locations like sock drawers. They weren’t intentionally careless, but they seemed careful not to be too careful with it either.

“Here,” Kay says, handing me a stack of twenties. “Count this.”

As soon as I start counting, the bills squirt from my fingers and land on the floor. Kay gasps. Both of us bend down, taking our eye off the open till of the Royal Alpha for a dangerous second.

“Try something else,” she says, handing me a Snickers bar. “I want to buy this. Pretend I am customer.”

Taking the bar, I turn unsteadily toward the register, where the first symbol I see looks like a Mayan hieroglyph.

“Some kind of problem?” Kay says, watching me stand there with my mouth hanging open, a single digit frozen in midair.

I turn to her and wince. “How much is it?” I ask. “The candy bar, I mean.”

“You don’t know? I thought Gaby gave you price list.”

Our store has over a thousand different products, only a third of which have price tags. For someone like me who struggles every day to remember his own debit card PIN, this is going to be a serious challenge.

“She did,” I admit. “I just haven’t had a chance to memorize the candy bars yet.”

“Sixty-five cents,” Kay says, trying not to sound impatient. Then she shows me which buttons to press, a sequence scarcely less complicated than the one presidents use to unlock the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and at the end of it all the cash drawer pops open.

“Well, there, we did it,” I say, trying to summon a jocular air. “I guess we can go home now.”

Kay frowns. If this were an audition, I just failed.

Shortly afterward, my first customer arrives, a man with a sour expression and a wispy comb-over. I can’t help thinking how tired he looks, how sad and beaten down, the way his gray suit bunches at the elbows and magnifies the smallness of his shoulders. His tie is twisted. I wonder if he has a family to go home to. God—to be drab and middle-aged and not have a family? Is this all he’s having for dinner—corned beef hash and a loaf of Wonder bread? I can’t bear it, just the thought of him in some dismal little studio smelling of grease, sitting on the edge of a cot, and eating off a Styrofoam plate.

Gab once called me a “big-picture person,” which can be read two ways: either as a straightforward compliment or as a euphemism for having one’s head up one’s ass.

“You new or something?” the man asks.

“Huh?” I’ve been turning the loaf of Wonder bread over and over in my hands, absently looking for a price tag. Now I discover, with some help from Kay, that it’s printed right on the plastic wrapper.

“Sorry,” I say.

The man smiles benevolently. “Don’t worry about it. Everybody here is new at some point. That’s what makes New York so great. What country are you from?”

“If only,” I think. Then I’d have a decent excuse. I glance at Kay, who is appraising me skeptically over folded arms. I’ve never been a great worker, but not because I don’t work hard. I just tend to focus on the wrong things, like how people look, what they’re wearing, and whether they use words like “fortuitous” properly. Gab once called me a “big-picture person,” which can be read two ways: either as a straightforward compliment or as a euphemism for having one’s head up one’s ass. I think she might have meant both.

The thing of it is, I’d like to be a good cashier. To be inept with cash, such an elemental part of everyday life, would seem to bespeak a shameful and fundamental deficiency, like not being able to drive because you’ve always had a chauffeur, or not being able to cook because you’ve always had your meals prepared. Kay says there are workers who “you teach right hand what to do, but left hand not learn,” and I don’t want to be one of them.

There’s even something sort of appealing about cashier work—the enviable hand-eye coordination, the mental stamina, the unflappable cool during a rush. So for the next half-hour I attempt to prove to Kay that I can work the register as fast as anyone, resulting in a succession of over-rings, nineteen dollars in extra change for a grateful customer buying cigarettes, a decaf coffee served light and sweet instead of regular and black, as requested, and a turkey sandwich that never even gets made (the customer eventually walks out, cursing).

Finally, Kay nudges me aside.

“You go stock,” she says.


She nods.

Disappointed, I trudge to the back of the store. I can’t blame her for banishing me. If you can’t be useful behind the register, it’s best to stay clear of those who can. In a space this small, you’re either a help or a hindrance, and besides, the way my mother-in-law works, you’re in danger of losing an eyebrow in the slicer or getting accidentally doused in fresh coffee.

I can serve as a cultural interlocutor of sorts, educating my mother-in-law about the subtler aspects of American culture. For instance, recently I taught her the meaning of the words skanky and Eurotrash.

Sometimes I wonder what Kay thinks of me. I think she respects what I do as an editor, though when she worked at a 7-Eleven she always used to ask why The Paris Review wasn’t on the magazine rack next to Pro Wrestling Illustrated and People. I think she thinks that like a lot of men, I’m sort of hopeless when it comes to such chores as taking out the garbage or keeping the car filled with gas. Her biggest concern, though, I think, is that like many Americans, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to suffer. (“American people, you cut off they finger, they gonna cry,” Kay once said to me. “Me, you can cut off my whole hand and I not even care.”) Forgetting what it’s like to suffer can be a good thing, since suffering can make people too cutthroat for society’s good. But suffering also breeds certain capacities that are easily lost, such as the ability to focus and a willingness to engage with conflict. These are things that I believe Kay thinks I’m incapable of.

Which doesn’t make me completely useless. With my repertoire of professional communication skills honed as a member of the media, I can serve as a cultural interlocutor of sorts, educating my mother-in-law about the subtler aspects of American culture. For instance, recently I taught her the meaning of the words skanky and Eurotrash, and explained to her what a platypus is. I also had the occasion, on a recent foray to an International House of Pancakes, to explain to her the maple syrup making process. (“You see, it’s just sap.”)

The sad part is, Gab actually expects my being a “big-picture person” to be an asset at the store. “You know what people want,” she says. Gab says that her mother’s business philosophy is similar to the way she drives, which is that when she gets on the highway she prefers to stay in one lane and never get out. “It has the virtue of being consistent,” Gab says, “but everything she learned about American tastes is fixed in her mind from twenty years ago,” from convenience stores in Texas and Ohio, where the Paks first came when they got to the United States.

As I’m lost in these thoughts, I hear Kay’s voice summoning me back to the checkout counter.

“You bag,” she says. “I do register.”

The evening rush is here. You’d think a subway car had stopped outside our door. Customers arrive in waves—the door will not stay closed—and stand at the register, heaving armfuls of groceries. They’re tired and grumpy and want to get home. Fortunately, you can be a terrible bagger and not slow down the line, because people rarely discover that you’ve placed a gallon of milk atop their eggs until after they leave the store.

Kay’s register technique is dazzling. Even when she’s punching the keys four or five times a second, every stroke is perfect, and the sound it makes is like a galloping herd of horses. When she stops you can hear a penny roll, and you almost expect the Royal Alpha to let out an exhausted sigh. Kay’s steady presence makes people feel that the universe is a just and orderly place, and someday they will see their families again. It is impossible to look at her and not feel some faint yearning to be a cashier.

Ben Ryder Howe lives in New York. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Outside. “Amateurs” is excerpted from My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, to be published in March by Henry Holt.

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