jonathan joseph

WOOLITE OVER YOUR EYES

            It was 4:30 in the afternoon and the drycleaning store was quiet.  It was always quiet around this time.   It was too late for mothers with children to come for their orders, and too early for businessmen coming in off the trains from Manhattan.

          I was sitting near the counter, glancing about aimlessly.  Outside, a strong wind sent stray scraps of paper skipping over patches of ice and snow.  Inside, everything was fixed in its eternal place: the chipped counters, the holes in the floor right through the wooden planks, the canvas-lined baskets, the cubbies for boxes of shirts.  My eye landed on the poster that hung on the plate-glass window to my left: a picture of a pathetically shrunken sweater with the arresting caption, “DON’T LET THEM PULL THE WOOLITE OVER YOUR EYES.” 

          My eyes drifted to the right and I saw George Electric.  He was walking slowly on the icy sidewalk, moving toward the cleaning store.  As always, his head, covered with steely gray hair, was tilted slightly back; his belly, half-covered with a gray work-tunic, half by a button-down blue shirt, projected forward. 

          His last name wasn’t really Electric; it was really something of Greek origin, something with a “-poulos” at the end.  We called him George Electric – behind his back, of course – because that’s what it said on the sign above his little shoemaker’s shop: GEORGE ELECTRIC SHOE REPAIR. 

          Like his neighbor, Dave the Cleaner, George was a diffident businessman.  I suppose he worked hard enough hammering in taps and soles, but he never had the drive to make his business really successful.

          Dave, my mother always said, could have been a millionaire with a little brains and hard work.  With his store right next to the LIRR train station, it was a cinch.  All he had to do was open up the store a half hour before the first big train left for Manhattan in the morning, and stay open until a half hour after the last big train came back in the evening.  Businessmen would bring Dave their dirty suits in the morning and pick them up, cleaned and pressed, the same evening.  Dave could make a killing.  But Dave stuck to his ways.  He opened the store at eight in the morning, just a little too late; he closed at six, just a little too early.

          George Electric pushed open the door and came in.  He always came in around this time, and his conversation with Dave was always about the same.

          “Davey, we’re in the wrong racket,” George said in his foggy voice.  “I made a dime today.”  George spit out the word “dime” as if it were an obscenity.

          Dave smiled, a smile mixed with equal parts of bitterness and warmth.

          “Yeh, George, about the same here.”

          Dave and George talked about the weather for a minute or two, and then they parted.  George walked back to his shop, picking his way over the ice, head back and belly forward.  Dave started preparing for his deliveries.

          There was a flutter of activity as Dave and I grabbed hangers full of clean clothing and brought them outside to his car.  Above the back seat there was an iron bar that extended across the width of the car; we hung the clothes on the bar.  Then we brought out cardboard boxes full of shirts, laundered and pressed, and placed them on the back seat. 

          Dave drove off, and I went back to the boredom of the store.  There wasn’t much to think about, so my mind drifted back to some questions about the store I’d always had.  Where did Davey get that rod in the back of the car?  Where did he buy that funny-looking metal frame that we stored hangers on?  How old was the sewing machine that Maria the seamstress used?  It was electric, but it looked ancient.  And where did he get that “WOOLITE OVER YOUR EYES” poster?

          Between 5:00 and 5:30 there were a few customers, but then things got quiet again.  Dave came back, a little earlier than expected; I guess there wasn’t much doing on his route.  He dumped a small load of dirty garments into the bin behind the counter.  I moved toward the bin, meaning to begin tagging the garments and writing up the tickets.  Dave looked at me and waved me off.

          “It’s alright, Jon.  I’ll mark it up.  Go home.  It’s cold.”

          I put on my coat and hat and stepped out the door, confused.   Dave wasn’t in the habit of excusing anyone from what he needed to do.  Was he upset about something?  Was he angry that he’d picked up so little on his route?  I hopped on my bike, looked for an ice-free path and began pedaling down Main Street.  The big downhill slope near the library was treacherous but I made it safely and then sped down the flat runway of Shore Road.  I was home in fifteen minutes.

                             *                              *                              *

          The next day at school was about the same as all the others.  Who can remember?  Was it the day that Mr. Bocarde, the A.P. English teacher, gave us a half-hour to write an explication of some poem about two pianos?  Was it one of those days that Mrs. Marshall went in over our heads with a story, in the original Spanish, by Jorge Luis Borges?  Was it one of those days that I spent my Study Hall period in the library, researching Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, his failed attempt at changing the world?  Or was it one of those endless, yawning days when nothing at all seemed to happen – no learning, no laughter, no agony, no change?

          Somehow, eventually, the final bell rang and I set off for a few hours of work at the cleaners.  I tramped down Campus Drive, past the stationery store at the corner; I turned right onto Port Boulevard, past the music store; I reached the corner of Port Boulevard and Main Street, where one side of the street housed a competing drycleaners, the other side the Post Office; I turned left onto Main Street, past the pizza shop that was owned by Chris Columbo's father.    As I walked past George Electric’s place, I looked inside and saw George, scowling as he hammered on a sole.

          I pushed open the door of the cleaner’s and saw Dave-–sitting on the stool near the counter; his right leg was in a big white cast, resting on a folding chair.  Dave smiled, this time a smile of straight bitterness.

          Dave spoke before I had a chance to ask a stupid question or offer an awkward word of sympathy.

          “Yeh, I broke my ankle, Jon.  Last night, after you left.  I was going out to the car and I slipped on the ice.  I’m gonna be six weeks in a cast.”

                   I never attempted to find out how Dave had made it to the hospital or how he had gotten home after being treated.  I’m also not sure how he cleaned the clothes for those six weeks.  By the time I came in, a little after three, the actual cleaning was usually done.  Maybe the presser helped him, or maybe George Electric.

          The delivery route was taken over by a guy named Ernie.  Not Ernie the Presser, but a different Ernie, whose last name I can’t remember.  Ernie was a quiet, young, black man with a goatee who drove a van for Hostess Laundry.  That was the big place on Haven Avenue that did shirts for us.  Sometimes Dave would send me over there with a Santa Claus-sized sack of shirts.  Hostess was only a couple of blocks away, but that sack made it seem like a mile.  I would shift the sack from one shoulder to the other; I would try carrying it across the front of my gut, on my head, any way possible.  Eventually I would make it to Hostess where I would drop it off right into the main laundry room: a huge room full of Spanish-speaking women sweating in puffs of starch-scented steam.

          Ernie became a frequent visitor to the store during Dave’s recovery.  So did Mrs. Dave.  The first time I met her was that first afternoon that I found out about Dave’s accident.  It must have been about twenty after five when Dave sent me to the back of the store to pour a bucket of spent perc back into the cleaning machine.  When I returned to the front of the store, there was company.

          George was in his usual spot near the front of the store.  Not more than ten feet across from George, closer to the counter, stood a middle-aged woman with blonde-dyed hair.  George was sneering silently as the woman spoke to Davey in a vivacious, motherly tone. 

          Dave introduced me to his wife.  After I mumbled hello, she continued talking to Dave. 

          “Davey, you haven’t fixed anything here since the last time I came out fifteen years ago.  Davey, it looks terrible here.”

          Dave raised the corners of his lips in a little bemused smile, the smile of the henpecked husband who can’t answer back in public. 

          Mrs. Dave continued.  “Dave, you must put down some carpeting.  And get rid of these dreadful counters.  Look how chipped they are, Dave.”

          George excused himself and walked away, head back and stomach forward.  While I tended to a customer who came to pick up a box of shirts, Mrs. Dave spoke about a paint job, about a new cash register, about taking down some of those awful signs and posters on the plate-glass windows.

          Mrs. Dave came every evening now, to drive Dave home.  And every time she came she had a new idea about improving the store’s appearance.  Within a week, some changes actually took place.  I came in one afternoon to find the store’s furniture slightly out of place—and a brand-new blue carpet laid out on the floor.  A few days later, new counters arrived.  Fresh linoleum, unscratched and unchipped, with gleaming new chrome-plated poles for hooking packages of clothing before giving them back to the customers.

          A week later, new signs arrived.  They were white plastic rectangles that were hung on chains descending from the ceiling so that they could be seen through the plate-glass windows.  “Port Washington Cleaners,” read one; “Expert Tailoring” boasted another; others announced “Storage,” “Spot Removal,” “Competitive Prices,” and “Same Day Service.” 

          Ernie the driver came to start his deliveries and helped hang up the signs.  George came by and watched quietly.  He never seemed to like Ernie very much.

          As Ernie twisted his slim body to hang the “Spot Removal” sign, his arm brushed against the “Woolite” poster and loosened the ancient Scotch tape that held it to the wall.  George scowled, but Davey didn’t seem to mind.

          “Jon, y’could throw away that old poster.  We don’t need it any more.”

          I pulled the rotting paper off the window, crumbled it up and put it in the garbage.  Ernie hung the last sign—“Same Day Service”—and began gathering packages for delivery.  George raised his bushy eyebrows toward Dave and walked out silently.

          A little while later Mrs. Dave came by to pick up Dave.  It was only about twenty to six, but Dave decided to close a little early.  I retrieved my bike from the little area behind the shirt cubbies and pushed it out the door.  It was one of those chilly, windy March days that make you wonder if winter will ever give up and let itself be changed into spring. 

          As I pedaled down Main Street I thought about that “Same Day Service” sign.  Did we really have same-day service?  Sometimes Dave did it as a favor for a really good customer, but did that justify putting it on a sign for everyone to see?  Was Dave thinking about changing some things when his leg healed?  Was he going to open the store a little earlier and close it a little later?

                                    *                              *                              *

          The next afternoon I was back at work.  The store looked great.  Customers came in for their orders and told Dave how nice it looked and wished him good luck.  It almost felt like we were working at a brand-new store.

          At four o’clock Ernie came by to start the deliveries.  He was talking to Dave about the new looks in the store, and about Davey’s cast; it was going to come off in another week. 

          I looked out the front window and saw George approaching.  I didn’t notice it at first, but he was carrying a cylindrical cardboard package in his right hand, the kind of package that a poster or a wall-map is sent in.  George came in and tapped the package on the new carpet, the way a gentleman might tap a cane. 

          “How ya’ doin’, Davey?  I forgot to bring ya’ this yesterday.  It came to my place yesterday.  It was a different mailman yesterday.  He musta mixed up the two stores.”

          Dave motioned to me to take the package from George.  As I carried it to Dave I saw that it came from the NCA—the National Cleaners Association; the recipient’s address was George’s, not ours. 

          Dave took the package and used a scissors to pry open the plastic cover that plugged up the end of the cylinder.  He pulled out a poster about three feet long and two feet wide.  He glanced at it without much interest, and then looked at me.

          “Here, Jon.  We got a new poster.  Take some tape and hang it up over there.”  Dave looked over at the plate-glass window on the side of the store that faced the train station.  “Over there, next to those new plastic signs.”

          I took a roll of Scotch tape from the high table behind the counter.  I walked over to the window and furled open the poster.  It was a picture of a pathetically shrunken sweater, with the caption, “DON’T LET THEM PULL THE WOOLITE OVER YOUR EYES.”  The same exact picture that Ernie had knocked down; a little shinier, but the same picture, the same caption, the same NCA logo in the top right-hand corner.

          I must have looked at the poster for a moment too long, because Dave spoke up in an annoyed tone.  “C’mon, Jon, just hang it up.”

          I blushed with embarrassment, having been put in my place in front of George and Ernie.  I slapped the poster to the glass, nudged it a bit to the right, and then an inch or two down. 

          “That’s it, kid,” George said.

          I began taping the corners.

          George must have remembered that he’d forgotten to say something.

          “I made a dime today, Davey.  In the wrong racket, buddy.”

          “Yeh, George.  You’re right.  Same old wrong racket.”

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