Takeout story: Behind bulletproof glass and out on a bike for a Chinese restaurant in Mott Haven
THERE IS USUALLY A STEADY STREAM OF CUSTOMERS asking for those chicken wings (that and chicken with broccoli are the most requested dishes). Lok Hin also sells French fries for a dollar, a price that reflects the competitive market created by the number of Chinese food stores in the area. A lot of the customers are in a hurry, ordering their food, then asking impatiently where their order is, again and again.
At one point, late at night, a few young teenagers came to eat in. After they got their food one of them, a boy, maybe 16, decked out in street-preppy fashion, stationed himself at the slot in the bulletproof window, so that he could repeatedly complain to Nancy that she made his fries too crispy. He finally ended with a casual, natural, “Alright, baby.” He didn't mean it affectionately.
I talked to one teenage couple eating at Lok Hin who told me it was “mellow here,” but there are shootings and gangs nearby, especially in the projects and, the girl said, around her school.
The family was short-handed the night I was there. One of Nancy’s sisters was out, and Lynn didn’t make deliveries after dark, so it was just Mr. Lin making deliveries by himself. It was busy and I was right there, it just seemed natural to offer to help. So I did. I walked some deliveries, then I started to use the bike, then I started riding with Mr. Lin, and wound up working all night.
One of the deliveries was to an apartment in a project building on Brook Avenue. I went in, got on the elevator with the food. There were some teenagers behind me and I held the door so it didn’t close on them and they thanked me.
I went up to the 14th floor and rang the bell. A middle-age African-American woman opened it and I told her I had her Chinese-food order. She was noticeably shocked and concerned. “They don’t come up here for deliveries,” she said.
She asked me if I knew how dangerous it was there.
I asked how dangerous it could possibly be.
Really dangerous, she said.
When I left, I casually told her to take care and she said urgently, seriously, No, you take care. She was petrified for me, and petrified of the building she was living in. She gave me a two-dollar tip.
In some buildings the stairwells smelled of urine. Outside one building there were three teenage boys screaming at the top of their lungs, almost Tourettes-like, explicit vulgarities, over and over again.
Mr. Lin and I rode our street-modified mountain bikes (wood and tape)—and Mr. Lin bikes fast—through housing-project parking lots and plazas, under scaffolding, up on sidewalks, bags flying from the handlebars. We got some odd looks when we hopped off our bikes to drop off the orders.
At one place two guys on the street just looked at us said, “What the fuck.” They were smiling when they said it. It was as if we somehow topped the usual absurdity they see in the ghetto—now it was some Batman-and-Robin routine with an older Chinese man who doesn’t speak English with a NEW YORK ball cap and his skinny white-dude sidekick zipping around Bronx streets late at night with packages of chicken wings.
One of them said to Mr. Lin, “So now you got a partner, huh?” and he smiled back, nodded and laughed with them, having no idea what the guy said.
Again and again, we’d drop our food off and collect our money, then ride back to the restaurant together side-by-side, in the middle of deserted streets.
“Nothing,” he’d say to me about his delivery, “No tip.” And he would laugh.
NANCY TOLD ME SHE WORKED PART-TIME in restaurants when she first came to America. When she told me she dropped out of high school I found myself a little too surprised. She’s smart, hard-working and curious and open enough to have let me into her restaurant. She said she was too tired from working to do well in school.
I asked whether a teacher or a guidance counselor had said anything to her when she was dropping out, figuring there must have been some good person in the system, somewhere, who would have recognized and attempted to stop an exceptionally bright 16-year-old who’d just immigrated from quitting her education. She said no, no teacher or counselor cared, American or Chinese.
Jian, her 25-year-old brother, told me later that that was a shame. He talked about his sister when she was out of earshot, and said that Nancy really liked school, and loved reading, but that she simply had to work.
“That’s the reality of what happens to teenagers when they work in family restaurants,” he said.
He said he wished he could have gone to college but he said he didn’t really have good grades and he’s not really bookish. But Nancy was, he said.
Nancy told me at one point during the night-shift that her dream, what she would love to be doing more than anything else, is to be an elementary school teacher.
Jian told me he knew another Chinese girl who got really good grades and did well in school. She did two years in college and her parents opened up another restaurant and forced her to work and she had to drop out.
“When you’re 17, 18, you’re working, you have money in your pocket, you’re thinking about money not school, school becomes just a waste of time,” Jian said, explaining the mindset.
He came to America when he was seven and he talked about the kids bringing book bags to restaurants to work after school.
Jian is hard-working, but he also said, “America has changed me—I don’t have that Chinese way of thinking anymore,” referring to the constant sacrifice of working in the restaurant, not having a chance to do anything else.
“I don’t want to be stuck here my whole life,” he said.
Jian was on a delivery two years ago and a teenager pulled a gun and stole everything: his food, his cell phone, his money. He went to the precinct to look at the mug-shots book and that was it, nothing happened. Nothing has happened when he and his family have given the police the phone numbers from some of the other robbery calls they’ve gotten.
Jian told me last year he and his father got a big order called in. They went together to the address on 146th Street. Jian went inside and buzzed up to say that the food had arrived. Jian noticed some guys sitting nearby with their faces covered (it was winter). Jian told his father they needed to go.
Suddenly one of the guys punched his father in the head. Mr. Lin fell and Jian went after the guy, using his bike chain. A gun was pulled, and while they were all struggling it fell to the floor. Jian had seen a police officer on 145th Street, so as he was fighting, repeatedly striking one robber on the back with his bike chain while the robber was on top of his father, he was screaming for help from the officer. He said it took about 20 minutes for the police officer to come.
Two years ago, Jian’s sister and his mother were together on a delivery on the 15th floor of a building when two young men confronted them. One pointed a gun at them and the other had a baseball bat. They said, “Give me the food,” and the two women handed it over.
They saw that the robbers went to the 10th floor with the food and they called the police. The police found the baseball bat, the gun, and the food in the apartment. Jian told me the parents of one of the young men came into the restaurant insisting to the family that their son didn’t do it, that it wasn’t him. The sister testified at trial and the man went to jail. I delivered food to that same building.
Jian said, “If you don’t fight back they think you’re weak.”
He has had a lifetime of being taunted for being Asian, being disrespected by young children, watching people throw bones on his floor as they’re eating. He says he’s thought many times about buying a gun but that his father doesn’t want him to.
Jian also told me about the surprise visits by the Health Department, where they’ll always find something and it’s $500 or $1,000 every time they come. A violation for Mr. Lin eating food in the kitchen, for instance. Jian asked whether his father was supposed to eat at one of the two tables they have, outside the bulletproof glass, with the customers. His question was rhetorical, and disbelieving.
When I was at No.1 Wok, a female sanitation-enforcement officer came by and wrote them a ticket for some garbage that was in the middle of the street in front of their restaurant. A restaurant worker was trying to argue with her but there was a language barrier. I stepped in and told the enforcement officer that actually they were in the process of cleaning it up before she came, and that it wasn’t even their garbage. She said she didn’t care, and that at the exact moment she came it wasn’t being cleaned up. I told her I was a journalist. She just covered up her badge and her name with her hand and left. Hundred-dollar fine, $300 if it’s late.
I talked to a group of teenagers hanging out in the park one day in Mott Haven. They were cutting school, hiding from truant officers who were looking for them. (“They can’t do anything to us after 12,” one told me). I asked them about the Chinese takeout restaurants in their neighborhood. One boy said he knew some guys who robbed them—the guys did a “prank call,” and when the deliveryman came they went downstairs, hit him, grabbed the food and took all his money.
As to why they think this happens, they talked about trauma, and about wreaking havoc. One of the teens said, “Chinese people don’t know how to speak to you,” meaning respectfully. Another said, “We poor, they’re poor.”
This teenager, a girl, said later on that some of the kids did it “just to bully another race.”
I stayed at Lok Hin until 1 a.m. that Saturday night. I drank some of their mother’s homemade rice wine as we all sat around in the back of the kitchen on those MSG barrels and ate a family dinner.
Before I left I asked Nancy about names, how should I identify her in the article. I told her I wanted people to really know her and remember her.
At Good Choice restaurant, also in Mott Haven, the very nice woman I talked to, obviously not American-born Chinese, said her name was Jenny. At No.1 Wok in Mott Haven, where I helped them clean up the garbage on the street, the man who took me behind the counter said he was Chan, “You know, like Jackie Chan,” and I was told the boss’s name was “Number One.”
Nancy’s Chinese name, her birth name, her government name, the name she had or was given when she was born in Fujian Province 30 years ago, does hang on the wall in Lok Hin on a certificate for some New York City food-protection course she took years ago, and she hangs on to a piece of that name in her email address. But for this article she said she wanted to be identified as Nancy Lin. She’s earned that name here in America.