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Father's Legacy Is Labor of Love

Jae Yang was killed defending his store in a robbery. His family could have sold the business, but his son chose a harder path.

June 12, 2005|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Billy Yang's father never wanted this for his son. He didn't want him to toil behind the counter of an L.A. liquor store.

That was the job Jae Yang, an immigrant, did for 20 years -- only so his children could go to college and lead more interesting lives.

But in December masked robbers shot and killed the father. So 28-year-old Billy quit his white-collar marketing job and took over St. Regis Liquor, a bodega a couple of blocks from the Beverly Center on the Westside.

Six months later, he is there seven days a week, ringing up lottery tickets and beer on the spot where he mopped up his father's blood. He views the world through a plexiglass barrier his mother insisted on installing.

It is not easy.

His life is stuck in neutral. Ask him where he sees himself in five years, and he has a hard time answering. Jae Yang's photo portrait stares sternly at his son from a fancy wooden frame.

"I feel like a caged animal sometimes," Billy said. "Trust me, I'd like to resume my previous life.... But these are the sacrifices you have to make."

His mother, Yun Yang, is in her mid-50s. She comes in for a few hours a day to help. But she and Billy often end up bickering, usually about whether to sell the business. Billy is against it. He doesn't think it would give her enough money to live on. And something nags him about abandoning this little neighborhood hub that his father built from nothing. More than money changed hands here.

"He built a lot of genuine relationships with these people," he said during a brief lull in business. "Just like I'm doing now."

If the shooting has reversed the trajectory of a typical immigrant's tale, it has also given Billy Yang an unusual -- and ample -- opportunity to experience the world from his father's perspective. He has felt what it means to be on his feet for 15 hours. He has learned how complicated running a simple liquor store can be -- from the formal bookkeeping to the cardboard strips Jae Yang used to tally the tabs he opened for customers down on their luck.

The work can be monotonous, like the movement of beads on an abacus -- the arithmetic of basic human needs. Beer and a Hershey bar. Racing form and a pack of smokes. A $3.89 package of corn tortillas.

But from a place behind the counter, a hundred little transactions add up to a neighborhood. This much Billy can appreciate, despite anger, grief, fatigue. In the daytime, it's out-of-work actors and Latino busboys from the restaurants along La Cienega Boulevard and 3rd Street. In the evening, it's professional people, tired and looking for a good bottle of wine.

Alcoholics come in for their daily fix. Cute Hollywood girls come in and flirt. Worried regulars come in and ask after the family. Life stories are hinted at or invented, and rich characters are revealed in the time it takes to make change.

"Hey, Rog," Yang says to a middle-aged actor in a black T-shirt and shades.

"Hey, babe," Rog says, grabbing a copy of the day's paper.

An older man comes in for a lottery ticket.

"What's my cut when you hit?" Yang asks.

"I'll buy your store and take you for a cruise around the world," the man barks. "How's that?"

"Sounds good," Yang says.

Yang has made some changes to the store. This is a nice neighborhood, wedged between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Before, he said, it looked like any liquor store from here to Watts. Now he's made it a bit more upscale, adding $75 Napa Cabernets and a display for imported chocolate.

He has also had the place wired. When business is slow, he posts to a blog that once focused mainly on girls, music and movies. Now there are entries that describe his rage and confusion, and entries that describe the empty space his father left.

"He won't be there to walk my sister down the aisle when she gets married," he wrote in a January entry. "He won't be there for mine. He won't be able to play with his grandchildren.... And the worst thing about it is that there's not a single ... thing I can do to bring him back."

Jae Yang moved his family from Seoul to Los Angeles in the early 1980s with the common hope that his children would have a better life. Billy's older brother became an electrical engineer. His younger sister aced her SATs, earned a trip to the Ivy League and works in the Los Angeles mayor's office.

Billy was in a gifted program in high school. After a stint at college, he ended up at a hot dot-com retailer in the days before the tech bubble burst.

It was the kind of company where young employees rode around on Razor scooters and compulsively checked their stock portfolios. After the inevitable layoff, Billy found solid, if less sexy, work at a national flower distributor, working on its website and designing its e-mail marketing campaigns.

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