Brian Doyle was an essayist, novelist, poet, and editor of Portland, the alumni magazine of the University of Portland. Though a longtime Oregon resident (and “quietly very proud,” he said, to be considered an Oregon writer), he was born and raised in New York, one of eight children in an Irish Catholic family. His novels include Mink River, The Plover, and the young-adult book Martin Marten. His work first appeared in The Sun in February 2010, and he was a frequent contributor until his death from brain cancer in May 2017.
For those eight years we were able to publish him, I had the pleasure of discussing writing, editing, and the finer points of punctuation with Brian. I tried, with what now seems an embarrassing persistence, to convince him to use more commas, but where a comma might stiffen or break up the flow of his language, he would not have it. Periods, he joked, were “fascist.” It was important to him that words on the page mirror the way people talk and the “blunt shaggy how-it-was” of things. If there is any unnecessary punctuation in what you are about to read, I take full responsibility.
Even when we disagreed, Brian maintained a humble good humor and gently reminded me not to overthink everything. That same humor and gentleness comes through in his work. What I recall most, about both the writing and the man, is his sense of wonder at the world and the people who inhabit it. He could express equal awe for the size of a whale’s heart and the heart shown on the basketball court by an old high-school teammate.
His essays were often portraits of people he knew, as with the piece we’ve chosen here. For a better portrait of Brian than I can offer, I recommend reading everything of his on our website and then buying his books. They reveal a man with a saintly appreciation of life, the good and bad of it; no small love of rightness and justice; and a supreme talent for putting that love and appreciation into words.
— Andrew Snee
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.
But Mr. Kim shouts at public meetings about zoning and redevelopment. He insults and excoriates members of the city council and the tax commission. He gesticulates and offers vulgar remarks about people whose parked cars block the alley next to his shop, making deliveries impossible. He refuses to speak to the polite women who run the nail salon next door because at some point in the past they did not join him in a petition, the purpose of which is now totally lost to history but not to Mr. Kim’s memory.
Yet Mr. Kim many times has shoveled the snow away from the curb in front of their salon so that their customers could park and walk to their door. He filled their shop with twelve small candlelit cakes one evening when the mother of one of the women died. After a terrific thunderstorm knocked out power on the whole block for three days and the salon’s fuse box was fried, he quietly paid for it to be repaired at the same time his box was fixed.
But when one of the two women came into the bakery to thank him for his kindness, he denied that he had paid for the box and was gruff and stern and terse and said, “If you are not here to buy anything, then you are obstructing customers. Thank you, goodbye,” and he smiled tightly when she stormed out of the store.
“Why do you do that?” I asked him one time, even though I knew that my questions were not welcome.
“Do what?” he said. “What are you talking about? Are you here to buy something or ask questions? This is not the newspaper office or the library help desk. If you are not here to buy something, then you are obstructing customers. Thank you, goodbye.”
I bit my tongue, and I bought a loaf of his superb garlic bread, and cradled the redolent, crinkling bag in my arms like an infant, and drove home with that exquisite scent filling the car like a song, and when I opened the bag with a flourish to show my family the glorious addition to dinner, out fell three cookies, one for each of my children, beautifully wrapped in brown paper so thin that when you held it up to the light you could see right through it, impenetrable though it seemed.
“Mister Kim,” by Brian Doyle, first appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Doyle. Reprinted by permission of Mary Doyle.