Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  May 2013 | issue 449

Mister Kim

by Brian Doyle

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Brian Doyle lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He has written fourteen books, among them the novel Chicago and the collection The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics.

Mr. Kim is abrupt. He is brief. He is short. He is terse. He is direct. He does not beat around the bush. He brooks no nonsense. He is from elsewhere. He does not say from where. He does not like that question. He says, “Elsewhere,” when you ask that question. He may or may not be married. He does not answer this question either and generally responds by asking if you are married, and when you stammeringly say yes, he says, “See? Unnerving question, isn’t it? Don’t like people asking questions about your private life, do you? Me neither.”

Yet Mr. Kim is kind. He is generous. He gives away loaves of bread from his bakery without fanfare. He gives free cookies to children if they ask politely and say thank you. He once gave me a pound of butter. He once gave a man a sack of sugar so heavy that he staggered when he carried it out the door. He posts the athletic schedules of high-school sports teams in his windows. He pins up posters about lost dogs. He once pinned up a poster about a lost parrot, even though he considered the chances of finding the bird slim to none. He does not pin up posters about lost cats because, he says privately, who cares?

But Mr. Kim is gruff. He is stern. Mr. Kim once threatened a prospective thief with a baker’s peel, which is a large tool that you use to slide bread in and out of the oven. It has a wooden handle and a steel head bigger than an ax, and when Mr. Kim brandished it at the thief, the boy ran out of the shop so fast he hit his head against the door, which must have hurt like hell, but who cares?

Yet when the police actually caught the thief two blocks away, Mr. Kim refused to press charges, because the boy did not actually steal anything, so what could he complain about?

Nor did Mr. Kim fire the ancient janitor who came with the shop when he bought it years ago, even though it was apparent that the janitor did not actually “janitate,” as Mr. Kim said, but rather slept in the corner behind the stove after making a show of washing the mountain of pots and pans. Mr. Kim did the janitating himself until the janitor grew so stiff and ill that he had to become a ward of the city, at which point Mr. Kim hired a boy who may or may not be his nephew or grandson.

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