Artistic Dry Cleaner

The interaction most people seem to have with their dry cleaner is typically very direct and simple: the customer brings in articles of clothing that need laundering, the dry cleaner works his magic, the customer returns a few days later, the dry cleaner locates the apparel on the automated hanger-train device, customer pays and the shirts, pants and socks are ready to be donned. For six years, this was the relationship I had with my dry cleaner, and it pleased me.

Then with no warning, something changed. I went in to pick up some dress shirts and slacks, and noticed three pieces of art sitting on wood paneled walls that previously held only a Chinese calendar. Each piece of art was an extremely realistic pastel rendering. Two images were of Steve McQueen – both in color, showing his rugged face from only slightly different angles. One of the two renderings displayed his name and the somewhat awkward tagline “The Man Who Knew No Danger”. The third face was a black and white charcoal portrait what seemed to be a Chinese Kung Fu master, with an aggressive expression on display. Though the draftsmanship was incredible, the art was mounted in cheap cardboard frames, and rather than being hung, each piece was lazily leaned on an overhead shelf.

I had to get more information on this curiosity, so as I was paying, I mentioned to the owner, “I see the new art.” He responded, “Ah, yes.” His grasp of English was not excellent, so I pursued the subject a bit more.

“Where…where did you get the drawings from?” I gestured to the McQueen/Kung Fu Guy pieces.

“Ah…from me. I do.” He looked up for the first time, shyly.

“Oh – oh you drew them?” I was truly surprised and impressed.

“Yes!” was his childlike reply.

“I am an artist, too, and I really like them. I draw pictures as well.” I tried to hit upon the right combination of words that might help him understand my meaning.

“Ohhhh… oh you are artist?!” My dry cleaner was clearly delighted.

“Yes. Yes I am,” I reiterated.

“You like?!” he asked eagerly. “Very much,” I said. We were bonding – customer and dry cleaner, but more significantly at this moment – mutual lovers of art.

He hastily put down the pen he was using to write up my order and told me “Wait two second!”, then rushed to the back of the store. When he returned, the man was carrying a large portfolio, its pages overflowing with loose sketches. Luckily it was slow in the store that day, because he proceeded to show me every painting, drawing, and sculpture he’d done in Hong Kong, before moving to the United States in the early 1980’s. It turned out my dry cleaner, whose name I never managed to discover, was a well respected artist and teacher – there were several newspaper articles featuring a younger, mustachioed version of the man in front of his many students. Though it took fifteen or so minutes to view all the art, and though he hovered over me the entire time, monitoring my expression intently, I enjoyed seeing his work and learning of his talent.

“You like?!” he asked eagerly. “Very much,” I said. We were bonding – customer and dry cleaner, but more significantly at this moment – mutual lovers of art.

Seeing the wealth of work he’d produced more than twenty years before, I asked, “Do you still do…art? Draw, paint?”

“Just starting again,” he said. “No time before now. Now I do.”

This made little sense. I’d been coming to the store for six years, maybe once every week or two, and any time I’d arrived when he wasn’t standing at the counter helping a customer, he’d been sitting at his lonely desk at the side of the room, listening to the radio, staring blankly toward the front of the store. Couldn’t he have been drawing then? Come to think of it, isn’t a job like that, where 80% of your day is spent sitting around doing nothing ideal for pursuing an avocation like art? Why didn’t he stick an small art table off to the side, so he could work on some new pieces for his McQueen series during the work day? I had many questions, but didn’t feel it would be helpful to ask them.

Instead, I merely offered, “Well, I hope to see more of your work.” My dry cleaner took my payment and handed me my clothing.

“Oh yes – now, yes!” I was pleased that this man, who was certainly skilled in his art, was once again going to have the opportunity to follow his muse. Good for him, I thought. Good for dry cleaner. I suggested he have a good day, and walked out of the establishment. He was still beaming, viewing his own work, and I supposed, looking forward to getting back to the easel.

I returned to the store maybe twenty more times in the next six months. The first visit after our discussion, I boldly asked, “So have you done any more art?” He frowned at my question. “No, no yet.” The next time I asked again, more casually. He only uttered, “No time. Hard to find time.” I felt like I was making this man sad, and though I did not want to do that, I had to wonder if he needed lessons in time management. As far as I could tell, he was still spending ten hour days at his store, with ample time available for drawing. What was his problem? Did he need another macho male action star, possibly one not deceased, to inspire his vision? Should I run to the video store around the corner and rent him some Vin Diesel films? Would that help?

The subject seemed to be closed, and I never inquired again. Eventually I moved a few towns away and had to abandon that particular store. When I picked up my last dry cleaning order, I took a last glance at the unintentional triptych, now gathering cobwebs. I hope my former dry cleaner eventually found his muse.