THEIR NAMES ARE NOT important and even the city where they lived is not important, but the important thing is that for sometime after they were married they could not agree on a place to live. She wanted to remain in her place, and he wanted to move out, and he would take her reasons one by one and destroy them - sort of move through the apartment room by room, just picking the place apart. Finally, she said what was really on her mind. She would not leave her dry cleaner.
This went on for some time. He would go off and find a fabulous apartment come back with reports to sunken living rooms and stained-glass skylights and maybe something exotic like a sauna, but she would just shake her head no. She would not leave her dry cleaner.
At first everyone thought she was joking. She would do her dry cleaner number and people would wait for her to smile, but the smile would never come. She would just finish the sentence as if she had said something ordinary and her expression would not change. She had this thing about her dry cleaner. At first it meant nothing to me, but then later I caught on to what she was really talking about. She was really talking about a sense of neigborhood and the fight to be recognized - that sort of thing. What brought on that realization was simple: my own dry cleaner burned down.
It was not the sort of fire to make the television news - no flames leaping out of windows and that sort of thing! It must have happened quickly and with lots of heat. By the time I got there, my and part of the window was boarded up and the smell of smoke was still in the air. I went off feeling a bit depressed, wondering, first about the people who had left their clothes to be cleaned, and then wondering a second later where I was going to go. It struck me that I would have to break in someone new - someone who would have to learn, as they say, my last name and initial and whether I took starch and whether I wanted one-day service.
Suddenly I realized that once again I would be a stranger, just another face in the crowd. I would be putting my clothes in the hands of people who didn't care, and I was right. I went to one place that shredded one of my shirts, folded it nicely and allowed me to pay for this wonderful service. I went to another place that managed to smash a button on the shirt - always. Every morning was a new experience - another surprise. I went to places that routinely forgot the no-starch that the suit they could not locate was the only dress suit I owned - the one I was going to wear that night.
By now my friend and her allegiance to a dry cleaner was beginning to make some sense. I knew what she meant, and what she meant had something to do with the concept of neighborhood, and having to do with the constant fight to be recognized - to be treated as a person.
You can take this sort of thing too far, but the simple act of dropping off clothes you intend to wear to some important occasion is an act not without its anxieties, an act of faith surely as meaningful as a chat with a neighborhood bartender who you know will honor your confidence.
Being able to leave a dry cleaner's without a ticket surely ranks with being able to say to a bartender that you'll have the regular.
The thing of it is that no one knows you any more, and so you fight for a sense of your own individuality. At the supermarket, for instance, the butcher that used to call my mother "honey" and tell her how beautiful she was ("How about a nice steak, beautiful?"), now has to be falked to through a microphone and doesn't know a beautiful woman from a hole in the wall.
The clerks are no better. They change so frequently none of them gets to know you and just attempting to pay by check without one of those little cards can bring on a nervous breakdown. Things are no better at the bank. I'm convinced tellers are fired just for getting to know who I am or forgetting to dial downtown whenever I try to cash a check. What bothers me is that they never say anything into the phone.
You could go on like this. You could go on about the automated gas station where the attendants wouldn't even look at my wife's jammed windshield wiper when it was running, explaining that all they did was sell gas. You could talk about paperboys you never see now that the billing is done by mail. But what it really comes down to for me is that at one time in my life I used to start the day with a guy named Red. He knew how I took my coffee and how I liked my eggs and when I wanted to talk and when I wanted to read the paper. Now I start my day with a machine that lights up and says, "Exact change only." I never have it.
Anyway, one night I was driving a baby sitter home and we went past the burned out dry cleaner's and I lamented its passing. She looked at me and then said that the dry cleaner had reopened up the street. The next morning I was there. I was a bit nervous and I had my clothes with me and I sort of pushed the door open with my stomach.
I recognized the man behind the counter and he looked at me and he called to the woman whom I also recognized. He said, "Mr. Cohen is here," and then he took me around the place, showing me the new boilers and the place where the tailor would be and the space reserved for the shoemaker, and then he went to the counter where I had placed my clothes. He took out a ticket and he looked at me and he said two words that I will never forget.
He said, "No starch?"