Old Dominion Cleaners, 1987

A squirt of liquid soap mixes with my sweat as I push the hard brush bristles into the shirt’s collar. No breeze in the stuffy backroom of the Arlington, Virginia cleaners on a July day, just the whir of plastic encased blouses, pants pressed and starched shirts as they creak by me on the ancient conveyor belt. During pauses I can glimpse the inked names of lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the FBI on cotton, Gant, Ralph Lauren, Van Heusen, Arrow. “Jack, Jack,” Mary Lou the manager, yells out to her elderly white servant of a man. Jack drives the shirts back and forth an hour each way to Richmond to be cleaned off site. Jack will be dead by the end of summer, and to look at his shaking hands and wizen face, his countenance is a walking premonition.“Danny, anything you find in the pockets under twenty dollars is yours to keep, anything more, we hold onto for two weeks, then we share it 50/50,” Mary Lou tells me on my first day. I only break the buttons of the assholes, the ones who shove the shirts at me, their garments reeking of dickness. A snap of the stapler and the circular plastic splits in two. One morning a blind man finds his way to the cleaners, I see him tapping bricks around the door. He dumps a pile of shirts on the counter; they smell like mildew and urine. I count each shirt, feeling the moisture, wondering how many times he wore each one until he finally decided they were dirty. “Thank you, thank you,” he says, scraping the ground outside into the darkness, as I watch him shuffle out. Garments arrive in jumbled stacks, leave on hangers straight. We all do our part, Mary Lou, Jack, the facility down south, and me.

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