The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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THERE'S A LITTLE NEWSPAPER STORE in my neighborhood my family and I have grown very fond of. It's the kind of place that brings memories of your own youth -- filled from floor to ceiling with comic books, miniature cars, whiffle balls, all the impossibly desirable amulets of childhood.

The owner is a Korean immigrant named Jim. He gives our kids so much candy I sometimes hesitate to take them in there. Still, nothing excites them as much as a trip to the place they call "Jimmy's store."

Jim is my age. Over a decade we've exchanged enough tales about politics, schools, and homework assignments that we've become friends. Like many immigrants, he is quietly appalled at America's social chaos and amazed that the elites seem to take little or no notice. "How come the New York Times never says anything good about President Reagan?" he once asked me confidentially. "How come they catch criminals and let them go again?" he still asks. I rarely have satisfactory answers.

Running a candy store in Brooklyn is a daunting task. Within five blocks of my house, two small-business owners have been murdered in the last five years. Only last May, the Indian newsdealer three blocks away was shot when he hesitated in handing over the day's receipts to an armed robber. The next day, along with several dozen other people, I stuffed fresh flowers into his shuttered security gate. The family couldn't afford a funeral and the place still hasn't reopened. A few years earlier another young Indian storekeeper was killed in a street robbery. And one morning I walked into the Palestinian grocery and found them all sobbing over a brother who had just been killed behind the counter at his own store a few dozen blocks away.

According to a July report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, murder is now the principal cause of death on the job for women and third among men, behind auto and machinery accidents. Retail clerks of all stripes rank behind only cab drivers and police officers as likely victims. The NIOSH report identified "exchange of money with the public, working alone or in small numbers, working late at night or early morning hours, [and] working in community settings" as risk factors to be minimized. In other words, every shop owner is a sitting duck.

The most common confrontation in my polyglot neighborhood is between the immigrant storeowners and the young black males who are constantly harassing and robbing them. Just a few weeks ago an Israeli shoemaker was hit over the head with a two-by-four by a group of young hoods walking home from John Jay High School. This is the trade school, used to film The Blackboard Jungle in the 1950s, which now attracts 3,000 minority kids from all over the city. They lounge on everyone's front stoop, smoking pot and getting a good start on teen pregnancy. Police cars seem to arrive at the school every other day. Still, these are the good kids, I tell my neighbors, since the bad ones aren't even going to school at this age.

Jimmy's store is twelve blocks away, and he doesn't get the John Jay traffic. His neighborhood is less upscale and much meaner. I walked in one afternoon and found him pale as a ghost. He couldn't speak for a few minutes but finally told me he had been robbed at gunpoint only seconds earlier. It's happened a few times. The worst was when thieves armed with freon gas broke through his security gate at 1 a.m. and cleaned out his weekend receipts. Jim slept on the floor the rest of the night to ward off looters. He hurt his back and couldn't get out of bed for six weeks.

On an ordinary day, Jim arrives at 5:30 a.m. from his apartment around the corner to guard his newspapers. One of the favorite pastimes of petty thieves in New York is stealing bundles of papers and selling them on the street. The truck drivers care little and refuse to take precautions. Jim finally got a lock-box for the papers but it was broken into as well. "Easiest thing to do is be here when the trucks arrive," he says.