It was one of those hot days near the end of June when the pressers drank beer to cool themselves from the steam. I came into the store after school. The air conditioner over the front door was not on; I don’t remember a time that it ever worked. At least the press wasn’t pumping steam all over the store.
Dave was sitting on the stool near the high table. He looked nervous and angry.
“I don’t know where the hell is Ernie the presser,” he said. “I got all these clothes and no presser.”
I walked around behind the counter and tried to look busy. I pulled the ticket book a little closer to the cash register and straightened out the carbon paper. I rescued a pen that had wandered off too close to the edge of the counter.
A customer came in with a ticket for two men’s suits. I knew that Dave was watching every move that I made. I took the ticket over to the carousel, and pushed the little lever to spin it around to the correct place. I unhooked the suits and walked the few steps back to the counter. I hung the suits on the hook that rose from the left edge of the counter. I took the customer’s money and carefully returned the correct change.
I had done everything right, but Dave’s frustration still filled the store. He cleared his throat and walked to the back, to the press. Clouds of steam began to float from the press toward the front. Dave was pressing.
After a few minutes, he called me over.
“Listen, I’m gonna show ya’ how to use the suzie.”
The suzie was a metal frame padded with fabric. It was shaped like a person’s shoulders and torso. You draped a jacket over the suzie and then pushed on a lever. The suzie would fill with steam, eliminating most of the wrinkles. This was the first step of pressing. Later, the presser would finish the job by laying out the garment on a large ironing board and pulling it down over a second board that steamed and pressed the garment.
Operating the suzie was, as my grandfather might have said, something that any idiot could do. After a few minutes of practice, I was working quickly and easily. Dave worked the press. That was skilled work and Dave was not used to it. It is not so easy to spread out a man’s suit jacket in just the right way so that the press removes its wrinkles instead of creating a big crease where none is called for. A woman’s dress is even more difficult, and a pleated skirt can perplex even the best presser.
Dave wiped his brow and snapped, “Where the hell is Ernie?”
He walked toward the back of the store. On his left, Dave passed the urine odor from the little bathroom, and then the perclorethyline odor from the cleaning machines; sometimes Dave would send me back there to retrieve a bucket of used “perc” and pour it back into the cleaner for another cycle. On his right, he passed almost the full length of the carousel. He reached the very rear of the store. A pay phone was attached to the wall there, nestled in between the carousel and the long plate-glass window that looked out at the train station.
I continued at the suzie while Dave made a call. He came back more sour than before.
“I just called the place in Manhasset where Ernie works in the morning. They say he finished there an hour ago. They dunno where the hell he is. I dunno. He gets drunk sometimes.”
Dave pressed a jacket, then another, and then a pair of pants. He scowled, and walked away again to the phone. He returned quickly.
“Jon, help me load this stuff in my car. I’m takin’ it over to that cleaners on
Competing cleaners did that for each other sometimes. Sometimes a cleaner’s boiler would break down (Dave called it a “berler”). They would bring their garments over to another place to be pressed.
We loaded the clothes onto the iron bar that was suspended above the back seat of Dave’s car. Dave drove off.
I sat down on the stool and wondered if Dave would ever let me use the suzie again. The store was quiet. My eyes drifted from the station on the left, to the pharmacy directly across, and to the record shop on the right.
A stumbling, foot-dragging figure came into view. It was Ernie. Ernie always walked slouched over, carrying his body loosely, kind of like the straw man in “The Wizard of Oz”; his speech was always a high-pitched, singing rasp. All these features were especially noticeable in Ernie now; his drunkenness seemed to bring out his essence
Ernie pushed on the front door, failing to open it. He pushed again and entered.
“Ernie, Dave’s been lookin’ for for ya’. Where y’been?”
Ernie answered in a rasp that was slurred and pathetic.
“I know he been lookin’ for me, I know he mad at me. They tol’ me at the otha place. But I wen’ out to my car after workin’ there and I fell asleep. Oh, I know Davey’s mad at me.”
Ernie’s eyes were red from drinking, and now they were moist with tears.
“But I’m a good man, kid. Davey knows that Ernie’s a good man. Ya’ know that, you know I’m a good man. I jes’ had a couple beers and fell asleep over there in my car. But Ernie’s a good man.”
Ernie stumbled toward the counter. Not the main counter where we wrote up the orders, but a second counter, off to the right and closer to the shop window; I never quite knew the purpose of that counter that was hardly ever used. Ernie caught himself on the counter and straightened up.
“I’m a good man, kid, like I tol’ ya’. I’m gonna do the pressin’ now.”
Ernie loped around to the back of the main counter and toward the doorway that led to the pressing area. He was already behind me when I found the courage to speak.
“Ernie, there’s no clothes there to press. Dave took them over to another place, over on
Ernie rasped a sound of disappointment, of dread, of guilt. He dragged his feet to the pressing area and sat down on a chair. He lowered his head and covered it with his hands. Like the rest of his body, Ernie’s hands were the color of bittersweet chocolate; they were also long, bony, and surprisingly delicate. One could imagine those hands on a surgeon or a pianist. But Ernie was just a presser--a presser whose own faults had left him with nothing to press, and with nothing to look forward to but an angry boss.
“He’ll be back, kid, won’t he? Davey’ll come back with the clothes, kid. I’ll press ‘em, you’ll see. Ernie’s a good man.”
What was a sixteen-year old kid supposed to say to Ernie? I looked at him dumbly for a few seconds and then went back to my post near the counter.
I was just about to sit down on the stool when Dave walked in. I walked back to the counter and leaned on it, making it look like I was eager for another customer. I said nothing as Dave headed quickly toward the back. Maybe he was going to put more garments in the cleaning machine; maybe he needed the bathroom. I didn’t want to know.
It didn’t take more than two or three seconds before Dave saw Ernie.
“Ernie! Whatta ya’ doin’ here? Where the hell’ve ya’ been?”
Dave didn’t yell; I don’t remember him ever yelling. But he did raise his voice, and you could hear his anger and frustration. Ernie didn’t answer.
“Ernie, I been looking all over for you. You’re an hour and a half late. I took the garments to another cleaners. Ernie, ya’ screwed me up.”
Four straight sentences in a row was close to Dave’s limit. Now it was Ernie’s turn.
“Davey, y’know I’m a good man. I finished over there in Manhasset and I got into my car to come t’you, Davey. But I fell asleep, Dave. Ernie’s’ a good man, Davey. Don’t be angry, Davey. Bring the clothes, Dave. I’ll press ‘em.”
Dave listened silently. He turned, headed for the door and got back into his car. Ten minutes later my boredom was interrupted by the honk a car parked just outside the store. I looked at Dave dumbly. He motioned to me to come to the car.
“Jon, help me take the garments back into the store.”
I opened the car’s back door and began unloading the same garments that I had put in there not more than a half hour before. Most of the garments were still not pressed.
I took the garments to the pressing area and hung them up on the iron bar that ran between the suzie and the press.
Ernie began to press. For the next two hours he worked without a break. No drinks. No radio. Dave worked the suzie.
I sat near the counter, getting up only to tend to customers. I no longer cared if Dave ever again asked me to drain the perc or work the suzie. Those were jobs for men, men like Ernie and Dave. A kid’s place was to work the counter.