Tom was pressing clothes in the back, singing along with the radio: “The first time ever I saw your face.” I was sitting on the stool in front, looking at the paraphernalia on that strange, high table. It was not the first time I had looked over that odd collection, but something about it was catching my attention. A square cardboard box full of safety pins, another of straight pins, another of those little clamps that we used to attach tags to clothing. An ancient ledger in which Dave occasionally made a notation. A few pens, a few markers. A razor blade, a tailor’s square of soap for marking clothing. A small pair of pliers. This was the pliers I once used to pull a needle out of Maria the seamstress’s fingernail. But that was another time. Now I was just looking at the desktop.
The front door swung open. Dave was back from deliveries. Cold, damp air rushed into the storefront. Dave walked past me and dumped his sack into the big canvas-lined bin.
“Jon, make some hangers.”
I made no sign of resistance. I didn’t like this job of making hangers, but I knew that I had to do it. In one box was a pile of plain wire hangers. In another box was a pile of long, narrow cardboard strips; I think we called them “stays.” You had to place the stay over the bottom of the hanger and then fold it down. Now the hanger would hold on to a pair of pants; without the stay, the pants would slide off the hanger.
Making hangers wasn’t hard work, but it was annoying. The stays would cut your fingers. The worst part was the way the completed hangers were stored. As you made each hanger, you dropped it onto a kind of metal frame that stood on the floor.
The more hangers you made, the closer they came to the top of the frame.
But just when you thought you were almost finished, Dave would come by and push the pile back toward the bottom of the frame. Now there would be plenty of room for more hangers, and plenty more work for you to do. I don’t think I ever mentally cursed Dave for doing this. He was too good of a guy to curse. But I wished that just once he could walk by the hanger frame and not notice that the hangers were loosely packed and could be pushed down to make more work for me. And maybe just once he could interrupt my hanger-making with some other task, and later forget all about the hangers.
I began making hangers. Fold the stay, grab a hanger, slide the stay onto the hanger, let the hanger fall gently to the bottom of the frame. Again and again, until the frame was about three-quarters full. This is when Dave would come by and push down the pile. Dave appeared from the back, holding three or four suits, already cleaned and pressed.
“Jon, wrap these up and take them over to Ezio.”
This was good news. I could put aside the hangers and take a walk over to Ezio; he was a tailor a few blocks down Main Street who sent us dry-cleaning work. Ezio might tip me for the delivery, and I could stop and buy a drink at the deli near his store.
I put the suits onto the hook at the top of the long iron pole. From the overhead roller, I pulled down a length of clear plastic wrap and draped it over the suits. I tore off the bag at the perforation. I fasted the hangers at the top with a twist-tie. I put on my coat and my hat, a Greek fisherman’s cap that I used to wear.
Out the door with the bundle for Ezio. Past the split-rail fence in front of the train station, the fence where Tom Barnes use to perch, as still and dignified as an owl. Not there now. Past Dr. Katims’s office, where I’d had my eyes checked since I’d been in third grade. Past the jewelry store where a girl from my class sometimes helped her father. Not there now.
The hangers were beginning to dig into the flesh of my hands. I tried holding the bundle in front, over my right shoulder, over my left shoulder. A bundle of dry-cleaning on hangers is one of the most uncomfortable things in the world to carry.
“Ezio’s Expert Tailor,” said the sign, along with a picture of a man in a tuxedo and a woman in an evening gown. Ezio was there, nattily dressed and talkative as always. I gave him the suits; he paid the bill of $19.25 with a $20 bill and told me to keep the change. Things were going according to plan. Now it was time to steal a minute or two of Davey’s time with a quick stop at the deli near Ezio’s.
Outside, the rain was coming down a little harder, and the air was a little colder. The deli was warm. I picked out a small glass bottle of Tropicana orange juice. The bottle top was a little like the top of a beer bottle, but you didn’t really need a special opener for these juice bottles.
I stepped outside again and pulled up the collar of my coat. I twisted the bottle top as I walked. My hands were wet from the rain, so it wouldn’t open. Should I go back to the store and ask the guy to use a bottle-opener? Too embarrassing. Should I carry the bottle back to the cleaners and try opening it with the pliers? What would Davey say?
I kept on walking and twisting without success. I saw a door that was set back from the sidewalk a couple of feet, probably a door that led to a few dingy apartments above a store. I stepped into the recess and turned my back to the street, so that my hands would be out of the rain. I dried my hands on the insides of my coat pockets and gave a strong twist to the bottle-cap. Voila’--the deed was done.
My back was still to the street when a voice called to me.
“Excuse me young man. Port Washington Police Force.” The voice was polite but firm.
I turned around and saw a uniformed officer.
“We’re investigating a bank robbery that occurred a little while ago at the Chemical bank. The perpetrator was roughly your height and weight, and he wore a cap. Where’ve you been in the last hour?”
Where have I been? Where would I have been, and what kind of crime would I have been committing?
“I’ve been working at the cleaners since three o’clock. Port Washington Cleaners, next to the station. I just made a delivery to the tailor’s over there.”
Was he going to believe me? Was he going to walk me back to the cleaner’s to see if Dave would back me up? Was he going to handcuff me?
“Okay. I just wanna take your name, address and phone number.”
The officer scribbled my information in a leather-bound pad, said “thank you,” and walked away.
I took my first swig of orange juice and began walking back toward Dave’s place. The rain was lighter now, hardly raining at all. Back past the jeweler’s. Back past the station. This time Tom Barnes was on his perch. He waved slowly and drawled, “How you doin’, buddy?”
“Okay, Tom. Pretty good,” I answered.
I pushed open the door to the cleaners. The steam from the presser was warming the room. I put Ezio’s money in the register and sat down on the stool by the high table.
Would the cops call home? Would they find me at school for questioning? Think about something else! What is there to see here?
The cracked linoleum on the floor, the bits of exposed floorboard worn down smooth. The chipped formica topping on the counters. The ticket-books, the carbon paper, the broken cash-register that was nothing more than a box with a bell. The half-wall on the side with the cubbies for holding bundles of laundered shirts. Maria’s sewing machine; the scissors, thimbles, spools of thread, buttons, a tape measure.
Dave came in from the back and pushed down the hangers. Tom was singing in the back again. WNBC-AM had come around to his other favorite song: “You’re gonna miss my lovin’, gonna miss, gonna miss...”
I returned to my hanger-making, this time without complaint or wishes.
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