Covid-19 Claims My Favorite Korean Deli

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

I said goodbye to Margaret Park today. Now I’m certain given the uncertain, unnerving conditions in the new nothing-normal of our COVID-19 world, we’ll all be saying goodbyes a lot in the months to come. And, as goodbyes go, this wasn’t tragic. But it still had a tinge of sadness about it.

Unless you live in Crystal City, the urban Virginia community just three Metro stops from the National Mall and Washington, D.C. where I live, you probably don’t know Margaret (which is her Americanized first name for she is Korean/American). In fact, even if you did live in this community of 22,000 people, where 60,000 more come work Mondays through Fridays, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know the 67-year-old Margaret either.

But I knew Margaret. For 16 years, she operated the Deli Works, which was the first establishment you came to when you exited our apartment complex and entered the 12-block underground we have in Crystal City.

Actually, I still recall the first conversation Margaret and I had when we met nine years ago. I asked her what was good in her deli, which featured a sampling of Korean dishes. She asked: “You like spicy?”. I responded I did. “Good then, I’ll make you my special spicy chicken”.

And for the next nine years I ate Margaret’s special spicy dish – known in Korean as bul-dak – at least a couple of times a month. In fact, her chicken dish became a running joke between us.

I would pop in to the deli. And she would always ask what I wanted.

I might say, “Let me have the bulgogi bowl” or “I’ll take the bibimbap”.

Margaret’s response was always the same. She insisted that I eat her spicy chicken as she said it was better for me. And so I would once again eat Margaret’s spicy chicken, which definitely rated 5 out of 5 stars, especially when you considered its amazingly low cost given DC-area prices.

Another thing about Margaret was her luminous smile. Every time I would walk by her deli, if she saw me, her eyes would twinkle and she would smile and wave animatedly as if I were her favorite person in the world. Of course, she did that with everyone she knew. But even knowing that, it still seemed special and brightening at that moment.

Last Monday, I was walking past the deli and Margaret motioned me inside. Margaret often doesn’t always trust herself to convey what she wants to say in English. She held one finger up, signaling me to wait. She typed something into her cell phone in Korean and then pushed the translate-to-English button on the app. She held her phone so I could see her message. “I’m tired. On Friday,” it said.

At first, I was confused. “I’m tired. On Friday”?

And then it dawned on me. A couple of years ago, Margaret said she was getting ready to retire and close the deli. “You can’t do that,” I said at the time. “Where would I get my spicy chicken?”.

Now today, Margaret was telling me the time had come for me to answer that question. She was going to retire on Friday and close the deli. I promised her I would come by on that day and have one last supper – or in this case lunch – since she had taken to closing in the early afternoon.

So, on Friday March 27, at 11:30 a.m. I entered the Deli Works for a final time. Now we all know that in these uncharted pandemic times, things are different. And the scene inside the deli demonstrated just how different they really are. You couldn’t see Margaret’s smile since it was hidden behind the surgical-style mask she has been in for the past 2 weeks. Lucille, her co-cook who has been working at the deli for 14 years, was mopping an empty area where a giant display case had stood the day before. The only other person in the deli was another worker, who was unhooking the soda machine. But perhaps, most striking of all, the screen on the TV which had constantly displayed CNN when the deli was open, was now blank.

While Margaret let my chicken cook, I asked her a few questions. It’s what writers who were once former reporters do.

“What will you do now?,” I asked.

Pulling down her mask, Margaret replied she would stay home and rest.

“Did this shutdown for the virus effect your decision?” I inquired.

It was clear that Margaret didn’t understand the question. So I rephrased it, this time pointing to the empty walkways outside which as recently as month ago would have been teeming with workers and residents out for lunch.

“Yes. I planned to go later. But now, nobody comes in. So I’ll go now,” she said.

Of course, Margaret is not alone in being an economic victim of the necessary decision to socially isolate, and in some locations places shelter in place or even quarantine to try beat back this death-delivering COVID-19 menace.

One of the greatest advantages in living in an urban setting like we do is all the opportunities available there.

For example, take dining options. As a writer who loves to eat good food, I have done my research. There is (or was at of the beginning of March at least) the astounding number of 184 eateries within a mile walking distance of our apartment complex.

But on the day Margaret was closing, the number still open had been reduced to fewer than 40, with all of them offering take-out service only. And this reduction had come in only the first weeks of changes here in Crystal City.

The good news is that people are working from home and only venturing out for necessities such as food or visiting grocery and drug stores. But no one knows how long these emergency measures must be in place to be effective. Another month? Through the summer? The rest of 2020? Longer? And of course, the more time that passes until some semblance of daily normalcy can return here – or in any of the communities where you live – the more owners will be forced to make Margaret’s decision – do I stay or do I go.

As Margaret handed me my last order of her special spicy chicken, I had one final question. There were a few still-in-their bag items on the lone display shelf left and some drinks in the refrigerated case that had once been filled. “What happens to that stuff?” I asked.

“I’ll give it to the news stand man down there. You know him, right?” Margaret said, pointing in the direction of a small news/convenience store nearby in the underground.

“Did you say give?” I asked, wanting to make sure that I understood Margaret correctly.

“Yes, give. That’s easy,” she said. “I’m closing. He can use my stuff. In bad times, we must work together. We must help one another. We must share. It’s the right thing to do.”

And Margaret is absolutely correct.

We do need to work together, today more than ever. We do need to help one another, today more than ever. We do need to share, today more than ever. Sometimes, it takes bad times to remind us how we should act in better times.

Now if all the people leaders in the White House and the Congress here in DC and all the officials in all the other government buildings all over the globe can just internalize, come to truly understand, and then follow Margaret’s simple advice, we can beat this invisible virus now threatening all of us.

And then who knows? If we get through this by working together, and helping one another, and sharing maybe … just maybe … we could create a world that is just as good as the best of Margaret’s spicy chicken.

And trust me, as a well-cultivated food lover, that would be a mighty fine tasting world.

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