Old Dominion Cleaners

The 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 Virginia cleaners on a July day, just the whir of plastic encased blouses, pressed pants and starched shirts as they creak by me on the ancient conveyor belt. During pauses I catch glimpses of the inked names of lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the FBI on cotton fabric; Gant, Ralph Lauren, Van Heusen, Arrow.

I only break the buttons of the assholes, the ones who shove the shirts at me, their garments reeking of dickness. One snap of the stapler and the circular plastic splits in two.

Danny, anything you find in the pockets under twenty dollars is yours to keep, anything more, we hold onto for two weeks, then we split it 50/50, Mary Lou the manager tells me on my first day.

Jack, Jack, Mary Lou 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.

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 the shirts, feeling moisture, wondering how many times he wore each one until he finally decided they were dirty. Thank you, thank you, he says, tapping 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.

The 2-Hour Attorney

I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.

No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.