City Journal: Through the Plexiglas

Some see Philly's Asian-run delis as magnets for crime. Bill Chow sees his as a ticket to the American Dream (as long as he doesn't get shot)

The response of a stop-’n’-go owner might be that customers sitting inside his store aren’t exactly something he can control, and neither is the degree to which they are or aren’t savory. He’d also argue that the city and state’s response has been a particularly harsh one: The law known as Act 39 allows a panel nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by City Council to review, on a regular basis, that new “takeout beer” permit all restaurants are required to have. In other words, a stop-’n’-go can be shut down even if there hasn’t been a single case of illegal activity proved in court, by an unelected panel run by a city famously unfriendly to any sort of private enterprise. Sorry, Mr. Asian Immigrant. A hundred thousand spent on the building: gone. ­Thirty-five thousand spent on the liquor license: wasted. One of the few paths to financial success open to you: closed.

It might seem like a big leap to call this anti-Asian racial targeting, but in a city  where Asians have next to no presence in politics or media, in which a Daily News columnist called for stop-’n’-go’s to take down their bulletproof barriers (not banks, not the post office, not the gas company — just stop-’n’-go’s), it sure feels like targeting.

At least, that’s the conclusion of Bill Chow. And that’s why by the time you read this, Kenny’s Seafood and Steaks will be owned by somebody else. In late November, Bill sold the business. He’s now working as a real estate agent in Chinatown, and living with his wife’s parents in Upper Darby. He’s hoping to save enough money to open another retail shop — in Delaware.

KENNY’S CHANGES AROUND midnight. The job, as performed by Mike, Bill and, at times of extreme boredom, me, acquires an air of danger as the customers become younger and tougher.

“Mixed Fruit Special Brew,” a customer says. I walk to the cooler and try to find it among the Hurricane, Country Club, Hennessy, Olde English and Coqui 900.

“Look where you’re standing,” Mike says after the customer leaves. I’m directly in front of the rectangular hole in the barrier. “If you duck down, they can still physically stick their hand in and shoot you. But if you’re on this side” — he’s about two feet away from the opening in the barrier — “they can’t get you. Maybe that’s why I can’t hear so well.”

Two guys, hoods up and scowls on their faces, stroll in.

“It’s a white dude!” the shorter one yells. His name is Razul. His friend is Marl.

“You the new owner?” asks Marl.

“No, I’m a reporter.”

They tell me they want to be interviewed. I activate my tape recorder and ask whether it would make customers feel better if there were no bulletproof barrier.

“Y’all take this glass down … ” says Marl.

“ … Niggas gonna jump over that counter,” says Razul.

“There will be a gun in your face,” says Marl.

They bang on the barrier.

“This is good,” says Razul.

“This is good,” agrees Marl. “This keep the ’hood level. We don’t want to come through. But if y’all tempt a motherfucker to come through, motherfuckers gonna come through.”

So much for the theory of improved community relations via barrier-free stop-’n’-go’s. The conversation turns to how one can avoid getting shot in a time when getting shot happens rather frequently in Philadelphia.

“Round these days and these times, you just got to be careful,” says Marl.

“What’s the sort of mistake you can make that will get you in trouble?” I ask.

“A mistake? I’ll tell you how you can make a mistake these days. Minding somebody’s else business.”

I take that as a sign the interview has ended. They say goodbye and take their beer.

As we get closer to closing, the customers keep coming in. Some of them look like any other working people buying beer on a Saturday night. Some of them could probably use anything in their lives besides another 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. You’ll likely see much the same range of customers at any bar or restaurant, but here, in so deprived a neighborhood, the clientele seems to encapsulate the entire debate about stop-’n’-go’s. Would the Hollow be better off without any places to buy alcohol? Maybe. Should families like the Chows and the Trans have their path to the middle class choked off by a zoning regulation? It depends, perhaps literally, on your perspective.

Just before 1 a.m., I decide to leave. It’s been a long and tedious shift. I shake hands with Bill and walk outside. Inside, Bill Chow sits alone, waiting for another customer.

A Philadelphia native, Gregory Gilderman wrote Philadelphia magazine’s November cover story, "The Dead of Night."

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