I’ve been going to the same drycleaner for many years now. Owned and operated by an elderly couple, he’s usually in the back, cleaning and pressing the clothes while she greets the customers and, if needed, takes you behind the counter, draws a small curtain and does measurements and alterations.
Neither speak much English but they both speak the universal language of kindness.
When taking my clothes, with a big smile she would say,
“What day you need?”
With a freshly sharpened HB pencil she’d circle the day on a slip, placing a copy in her wooden rolodex.
They’ve been in this same location for decades, the small desk in the back corner must be 50 years old, the small wooden shelf is covered in old ceramic coffee cups patterned from the 70s, a rice cooker and small bowls evidence they eat lunch, and maybe even dinner at this small desk every day.
That’s the other thing, the neon ‘OPEN’ sign in the window always seems to be on. Not unusual for a mom and pop run business.
A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday I rushed to the dry cleaner to drop off some things I needed for a flight on Monday. Running across the parking lot I noticed the husband outside taping a notice to the door at 12:30.
I thought it was odd as there’s never a sign on the door. He turned around and began walking away but saw me and quickly pulled out his keys and unlocked the door to let me in. I didn’t read the sign.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He just smiled and nodded.
Once inside I looked around for his wife but she wasn’t there. In fact, the place seemed eerily dark and quiet. He took my items and asked,
“When you need?”
“Is there any chance I can pick up on Friday? I’m going away, need to pack…”
“Afternoon is OK?” he said.
“Sure. Thank you!”
He handed me the slip and I forget about it until Friday 4:00.
I race over there and notice the neon OPEN sign is turned off.
What?! How can they be closed so early? It’s not even 5:00 yet.
I race to the door and sure enough it's locked. About to turn away I notice a sign near the door, 'Vacation notice'
Vacation! Vacation? They're on vacation! Why didn't they tell me on Wednesday?! Why didn’t they say get here early because we’re going on vacation? I’m going on vacation too and now I don’t have the clothes I need!
Under the vacation notice it reads,
In case of emergency contact our son at X number and he will come and meet you.
Well yes this is an emergency, I. I begin to dial the number to tell son to come meet me and open the door.
As the phone is ringing I continue to read the sign,
We will be closed for vacation from Friday until Tuesday.
I am saddened to say that my wife’s battle with cancer ended on Wednesday.
That's where he was going on Wednesday when he stopped to open the door for me and take my clothes. My stupid, unimportant clothes.
Ashamed, I quickly hung up the phone and continued to read.
She thought of you all as her extended family and loved you all very much.
We are sorry for the inconvenience of having to close but will reopen again in a few days after the service.
I returned to the drycleaner a couple of weeks later. Now it was just the gentleman and a dark, heavy feeling inside the shop. I handed him my drycleaning slip and said I was very sorry for his loss and that I missed his wife’s generous smile.
I asked him how he was doing, OK, he said.
The coffee cups, rice cooker and even the vintage alteration mannequin looked sad.
And I was reminded, by the universe, that whenever I think I have a pressing issue, or a problem, it’s insignificant compared to the problem the person standing right in front of me has. The person who is putting on a brave face, who is being kind to me.
And this man, despite losing his wife that very day, who was maybe even on his way to the hospital to say his final good-bye, stopped to help me.
It’s usually in those times when we think our needs are so important that the universe gives us a reality check as to what’s really important.
A reminder to always be kind and to always remember that everyone is dealing with something.