This is a wonderful, touching story by dear friend and writer Gary Richards. It’s a perfect tribute for Father’s Day and for those of us who are moved by businesses that vanish, and are occasionally reborn. Thank you Gary for allowing me to share it here.
I got on the D train. Brooklyn bound. First time I’ve done that in decades. Literally. I don’t know why I chose today. Just did. Today was the day. Inexplicable. As the train inched it’s way out of the ground and over the Manhattan Bridge, I stood up and went to the door to see the view better, Manhattan to the left, Brooklyn to the right. I knew I was going home in a way. Back to a place I have many memories of, back to my family. Back to my Dad. Although I lived just a couple of miles from my destination as the crow flies, it could have been a million. Another country. Another time.
On the Brooklyn side we once again ducked underground, the way subways do. I sat there wondering what I was doing. Where I was going. What was I hoping to accomplish. Somebody, please. Tell me. When I saw the light of the sun again, I knew the next stop was the one. And it was. I got off and walked the length of the platform, up the stairs, and to the exit. With each step, I felt my heart beating faster, like a dog anticipating a bone. Everything looked strangely familiar. The greenish, peeling paint on the ceiling of the subway station, the woman sitting in the token booth, the old man in the corner waiting for another pair of shoes to shine. Didn’t I see you forty years ago? Wasn’t that you?
I got out onto the street and knew just where to go, like I was going to dig up that bone I long ago buried. My sense of direction was correct, my instinct right on. I got to the main drag, Flatbush Ave. Took a right. Just where Ebbinger’s used to be. I could still taste the Othello, that chocolate covered vanilla cake with the goop of chocolate custard inside. What a treat it was to have an Othello. 35 cents was a lot to spend on one bakery item in those days, but every now and then, my grandmother, or grandfather would spring.
I quickly sensed there were no white people on the sidewalks, walking the streets, or waiting for the bus. None. Not like before. My memory tells me it was a very mixed neighborhood, very diverse, when I was last here. Certainly, all the store owners, all the merchants were white. All the stores, the buildings, the apartment houses looked the same. Only older, much older.
As I got closer, I saw it from a distance. It was unmistakable. At least to me. The signs hanging on the side walls were the very same signs that were installed almost fifty years ago. I stopped for a moment. I couldn’t go on. My feet wouldn’t move. I just stood there and a rush of emotions overwhelmed me, pulsed through my veins. Why was I standing across the street from the store my grandfather and my father owned years and years ago? And why couldn’t I move? Why today? Why now?
I didn’t cross the street at first. I instinctively felt that I needed to keep at a distance. I took a picture. At an angle. Then closer, straight on. I continued walking two blocks passed the store down to where my Dad and I went to have our morning breakfast when I came in with him on Saturdays. What a treat! Going to Shlermy’s with my Dad. Dave, the bald, smiling ex-cab driving grillman would whip up the breakfast special for us. I always thought it was called special because that’s how it made me feel. Two eggs, potatoes, a buttered roll. This was Saturdays with my Dad. Working. Earning money, marking and bagging clothes, giving the floor a good sweep. My dad sat down at the dirty counter and called for a shmata. It sounded good. I ordered one as well. Shlermy, standing there in the always stained apron, by the register, a number tattooed on his forearm, laughed. It wasn’t Shlermy’s anymore. It was a Chinese take-out joint.
I mustered up the courage and crossed the street, slowly, very slowly. Closer and closer I inched my way to the store. To my destination. I passed the drug store, which was still a drug store. Further down was a hair salon, black women sitting in chairs having their hair washed, woven, and braided. A shoe maker next just beyond. Finally, my dad’s store.
Should I? Should I go in? I mean, what was a doing out there if I wasn’t going to go in? Why had I come if I wasn’t at least going to make an attempt at getting closer to the source of my bewilderment. I hesitated for what seemed like hours. I opened the door and entered. I listened for the bell to go off triggered by the “seeing eye” my dad had installed in the doorway alerting him to customers (which I thought was so electronically cool). No bell. No seeing eye. I then noticed why no “seeing eye” was needed. There was a Plexiglas barrier separating where the customers stand and where the counter man stands. Like in a bank. Like as not to be robbed. Like bulletproof. That was not there when I worked here. The wall to my left was a yellow and white mosaic tiled wall. Exactly as it was forty years ago. The wall to my right was mirrored. Exactly as it was forty years ago. For a moment I wondered if the fingerprints I noticed were mine. I remembered when they re-modeled the front. It was a big deal, a huge step. Very fancy-shmancy. “Maison Charles French Cleaners” was moving up. My grandfather was determined to be the best dry cleaner on Flatbush Ave. Always prided himself on being good with the delicate stuff: silks and satins. They even got into the tuxedo rental business. The dark-paneled fitting room was right where it always was. Where it will always be. I recall changing into my bar mitzvah suit for a fitting by Edgar, the trusted tailor. Even though the store was extremely busy and Edgar had a pile of clothes to fix and alter, my blue bar mitzvah suit took precedence, a mandate from a proud grandfather. The same fitting room I copped many optic feels from all the women changing for fittings and alterations. I always hoped the front door would open, the wind would blow the curtain at precisely the right moment as to catch a woman in her undies. In front of the mosaic-tiled wall was the bench with the worn plastic red cushion over the radiator where my grandfather and his brother, Benny, another dry cleaner from down the avenue, used to sit and demand kisses from all the female customers that entered. (I always wondered if dry cleaning ran in the family. Is there, in fact, a dry cleaning gene?)
No one was minding the counter, all the workers were in the back, out of view. No one has to mind the counter when there is a bullet-proof Plexiglas partition separating the public from the private. I noticed a bell on the corner of the counter. Dare I? I tapped it lightly. I thought it made a noise. No one appeared. I tapped again. I thought it made a noise. Again no one appeared. Should I leave? Why was I here? With all my might, what little there was of it, I hit the bell again. It worked. Instantly a short, pretty oriental woman approximately forty, appeared. My guess, Korean. She nodded politely and noticed instantly I did not have any dirty clothes in my possession. After saying hello, I tried to explain as best I could that my dad and grandfather had owned the shop from the early fifties until the late seventies. I proceeded to try and tell this woman that when I was a young boy, I grew up in this store. I would rise very early in the morning, hop into my Dad’s VW Bug, the one with the emergency gas tank and the sun roof, and motor along the Southern State. I’d come to the store every Saturday to help my Dad. I started doing this as early as eight years old, almost forty years ago. The more she understood, the larger her smile grew, and the more courage I found within to ask for admittance. “Can I please look around, take a picture or two, maybe go into the back?” The woman hesitated a bit and felt the need for back-up. “I go ask my husband.” She turned and disappeared.
Standing there, I began to remember the details, the sights, the sounds. My grandfather’s sweaty kisses, the brand new motorized conveyor belt that, at the time, I thought to be downright space-age, and the smell, (WHERE’S THE SMELL?) of the cleaning chemicals. The smell of the chemicals that somehow cleaned the clothes in a huge tumbler I’d help my Dad fill. Where was the smell?
The woman reappeared with a bigger smile than before. She welcomed me by opening the thick Plexiglas door and inviting me in. I passed through, entering the territory of my history, the very territory that makes up who I am.
The floors were now tiled, when, who knows. When they were the old wooden floors, my Dad would give my brother and I big magnets and we’d comb the well worn planks for all the errant straight pins and safety pins that had fallen. I asked the woman for permission to take some snapshots. She was gracious and accommodating. I walked back past where I used to bag the clothes while listening to the Spiral Staircase sing “More Today Than Yesterday.” I walked back past an old work table covered with tickets and buttons and zippers and such. Was that the table where I’d written my mash notes to my very first girlfriend? Was that the table where Allie stood, laughing her big toothy laugh, wearing skin tight pants, her backside, like a pin cushion, accepting the pinches of my grandfather as he passed by her?
I walked back to where Buster used to stand, wearing a white bandana wrapped around his glistening, bald pate, sweating over a hot, steamy clothes presser. He had the biggest laugh, the whitest teeth. I walked back to where Flo used to standing ironing. Ironing. Ironing. The woman ironed other people’s clothes her entire life. She would nod to me courteously, smile, never ever stopping. She ironed expertly, and as expeditiously as she possibly could. She got paid by the piece. Flo, with the big white dress, her warm manner, and her drug-addicted daughter, ended up working for my dad forty-something years, a faithful and dedicated employee.
I passed where my Dad’s station was. Besides putting all the clothes into and out of the machines, my dad was the “spotter.” He inspected every garment to make sure there weren’t any foreign stains on the garment. There wasn’t a stain he felt he couldn’t remove. He called himself an “artiste.” Oddly enough, it’s where I found the woman’s husband, pretty much doing the same thing, spotting the clothes before they go to the pressers.
The rush of memories was staggering, irrepressible. Before we even went to Shlermy’s, I’d enter the store, race to the back of the store, and wait diligently for my dad to open up the little trap door of the big green industrial-sized dryer. If there was any loose change to be had, it was there I’d find it. Somehow, whenever I opened that little trap door, there were always a few coins hiding underneath the mound of lint. Gone were the dry cleaning machines as I remembered. Now they are replaced by new, improved, environmentally safe machines. Gone were the bags of chemicals, the white powder, white as Buster’s teeth, that my dad handled everyday of his life for forty-five years. Gone was the stench of those chemicals that used to cling to his body like a cheap roll-on deodorant.
I went into the back of the store. I pointed and asked the woman if that’s where the bathroom was. It was. I saw one of their workers sitting on the steps. I snapped another picture. We stopped and chatted with her husband a bit. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the basement steps and remarked as such. The woman asked me if I wanted to see the basement, almost proud of the building and business she and her husband had bought only one year ago. I was reluctant and told her there was no need. She wanted to show me the basement. Almost insisted. She procured a flashlight and proceeded to lead the way.
The steps were just as steep as they always were. Maybe steeper. The air was uncannily the same. The woman managed to find the light and flipped the switch. There I was, in the basement, in a place, in an era of yesterday. And there was the big old green industrial-sized dryer, long ago abandoned. To my left I pointed and asked her if the two doors I saw were still storage rooms. She was amazed that I had remembered.
Between the two doors was the sink. The sink that no longer worked, long ago disconnected. The sink that used to work. The same sink that had a pipe dribbling water from its spout and steam rising from it. The moment vividly came back to me. My dad grabbed my hand, threatening to scorch it under the scolding water. I got scared and recoiled. “No! No!” I shouted. My dad started to laugh and showed me the water coming out of the spout was indeed cool. “Do you think I’d ever do something like that? Do you think I’d ever hurt you?”
Tears filled my eyes, silently dripping down my face. In front of this sweet, kind woman who spoke little English, I fought back the floodgates. I couldn’t speak. I mumbled an apology. I began to weep. I don’t know what she was thinking. But the room was so filled up with my dad, his spirit, his soul, his essence, his being, his love. His love. Every day he would get up before sunrise, before his wife, before his children, and go to work, to a job he abhorred, to a vocation he felt he was chained to. Although it was a skill he made money from, it was a daily reminder he was not living out his dreams of being an opera singer. I wept because those dreams were inhaled in the form of those carcinogenic chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency no longer allowed to be used, the very stuff that eventually killed him. Those dreams were spent cleaning clothes in order to raise a family. Those dreams were going to be lived out by his progeny, three sons and a daughter. I wept for I knew then, as I know now, he wanted a better life for his children, and was sacrificing his to that end.
The basement hadn’t changed a bit. Not an atom. And, in a strange way, neither did I. I was still my father’s son. And I will always be. There I was standing in the middle of my history, forty years later, like it was yesterday, loving my dad; the spirit of my dad filling me, filling me, filling the well till it began to overflow. The spirit of my innocence and the memory of touching the cool water dribbling from the pipe as my Dad laughed. And the spirit of this woman’s hope and pride, filling me, filling me to the point I knew I had to leave.
We climbed the stairs up to the ground floor. I was embarrassed by my state, and knew I needed to leave quickly. I thanked them profusely for their generosity, and said my good-byes. The kind-hearted woman told me to come back any time I wanted, that I’d always be welcomed. I wished them the best of luck and told them I hoped this establishment was good to them, as it was to my family, if not my Dad.