Fighting a McDonald’s for the Right to Sit. And Sit. And Sit.
Shortly after New Year's Day, Man Hyung Lee, 77, was nursing a coffee in his usual seat in a narrow booth at a McDonald's in Flushing, Queens, when two police officers stepped into the fluorescent light of the restaurant.
Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald's on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.
"They ordered us out," Mr. Lee said from his seat in the same McDonald's booth a week after the incident, beneath a sign that said customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. (He had already been there two hours.)
"So I left," he said. "Then I walked around the block and came right back again."
For the past several months, a number of elderly Korean patrons and this McDonald's they frequent have been battling over the benches inside. The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.
"Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?" David Choi, 77, said. "No, it's impossible."
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And though they have treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years, they say, the situation has escalated in recent months. The police said there had been four 911 calls since November requesting the removal of the entrenched older patrons. Officers have stopped in as frequently as three times a day while on patrol, according to the patrons, who sidle away only to boomerang right back. Medium cups of coffee ($1.09 each) have been spilled; harsh words have been exchanged. And still — proud, defiant and stuck in their ways — they file in each morning, staging a de facto sit-in amid the McNuggets.
"Large group — males, females — refusing to get up and leave," read the police summary of one 911 call placed on Jan. 3 at 2:30 p.m. "The group passed a lot of sit-down time. Refusing to let other customers sit."
Neither a Burger King nor another McDonald's, both within a few blocks on Northern Boulevard, has the same allure.
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Workers at the restaurant say they are exasperated.
"It's a McDonald's," said Martha Anderson, the general manager, "not a senior center." She said she called the police after the group refused to budge and other customers asked for refunds because there was nowhere to sit.
After multiple requests for comment, a spokeswoman for McDonald's said the company would address the issue, but as of Tuesday evening it had not done so.
The police in the 109th Precinct, which serves the area, say that calls to resolve to disputes at businesses are routine, though the disruptions are more often caused by unruly teenagers than by septuagenarians.
The Flushing McDonald's looks like any other. Few among the crowd there on a recent Saturday said they even liked the food. "We prefer our own Korean food," said Hoick Choi, 76, a pastor at New Power Presbyterian Church, who comes about once a week. Many come after filling up on a free lunch at a nearby senior center.
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Some say it is convenience that draws them from the solitude of their nearby homes to spend the day sitting there in the Big Mac-scented air. Many are widowed, or like Jee Woong Lim, 81, who arrived in America two years ago from Seoul, say they are in need of company. They are almost without exception nattily dressed, in suits or dress slacks, brightly colored ties or sweaters, fedoras and well-shined shoes.
Yet there seem to be no shortage of facilities that cater to the elderly in the neighborhood. Civic centers dot the blocks, featuring parlors for baduk, an Asian board game, and classes in subjects from calisthenics to English. Mr. Lee, who comes to the McDonald's from Bayside, passes several senior centers en route. One is a Korean Community Service center in Flushing, which recently changed a room in the basement into a cafe with 25-cent coffee after its president, Kwang S. Kim, got word of the McDonald's standoff.
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No one has come.
"I think I have to go to McDonald's and ask why they're there," Mr. Kim said.
Outside the McDonald's on Saturday, Sang Yong Park, 76, and his friend, Il Ho Park, 76, tried to explain what drew them there. They come every single day to gossip, chat about politics back home and in their adopted land, hauling themselves up from the banquettes with their canes to step outside for short cigarillo breaks. And they could not say why they keep coming back — after a short walk around the block to blow off steam — every time the officers remove them. They said they had each been ousted three times so far.
The two men, however, knew what they would do next time. Sang Yong Park said he would not budge, but his friend said he would dutifully obey any police order, just as he always has. "I will just listen to them," he said. "But I will come back inside after they leave."
—By The NYT's Sarah Maslin Nir and Jiha Ham