On Background

During the pandemic, The Counter took many different approaches to storytelling, but one of the most enduring features was the as-told-to. These single-subject stories allowed people on the front lines of food—Whole Foods employees and produce truckers and National Guardsmen managing food banks—to tell their stories, in their own words, to one of our writers.

The most popular one was the story of Tewelde Debessay, an Eritrean immigrant who opened a wine and liquor store in East Harlem just a few short weeks before NYC entered its first lockdown. I live a couple of blocks from his shop, and I popped in a few times shortly after his grand opening. We talked about his initial anxiety about whether customers would find the store, and his optimism as business started to grow.

I circled back to Tewelde last fall and asked for a socially distanced morning interview before his shop opened, in a small park next to the Triborough Bridge. He was a loquacious subject, with lots on his mind: the joys of dusting off his bike after months of taking the crowded city bus to work, or his melancholy when regular customers started moving out of the city.

As published, Tewelde’s as-told-to mostly focused on the experience of running his first business during the pandemic. But he had more to say, on opening a business in a gentrifying neighborhood, on last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and on his complicated feelings about the NYPD. The following is additional material from our conversation:

It’s a funny thing, with the police. There’s a police station around the corner, but I almost never see police come in the store. They don’t know me, and I think that is maybe a problem. I’ve had to call 911 five or six times since I opened, and it’s very slow for them to come. I know what they say about police and people who look like me, but I am alone in this store—I can use help!

My neighbor John owns the pizza place, and he is friends with some police. I think this is smart for me, I want them to know my name. I maybe will go to community meetings with police, introduce myself, when I have time. This neighborhood, we have problems with people smoking the K2, acting crazy. They are not themselves, you know. They came into the store, but they don’t know where they are and what they are doing. If I can’t get help from police, what can I do?

Last summer was hard, with the [Black Lives Matter] protests. All these people outside with the protests, they want justice. This cause is important, I believe. But don’t shift your aim, you know? All these small businesses, like me, we are nervous. I see what happened [in downtown Manhattan]. Don’t smash a door, we cannot call for help so easy.

I know, this neighborhood, it is changing. The bus stops in front of my store, people come from Randall’s Island, with homeless shelters and problems and things. But also we have big new apartment buildings coming in, and the neighborhood will be different. I have different feelings on this. It is a good place, and I know my neighbors. I know what happensrent gets too high, people leave, this I do not like.

But I also worry for my business. If the neighborhood changes, maybe good things happen too? I don’t know.

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Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.