Nothing changes you quite like spending a summer in a dry cleaners. Shopping trips are an entirely different experience as I run my hands through racks of clothes at Nordstrom’s and immediately note that this blouse is silk, that’s an extra $2.25, these pants are linen—that would be a $1.75 upcharge. When I grab dinner with friends, go see a movie, or buy a new dress, I no longer pay in dollars and cents, but in hours of sweat blood and even tears. My hands have never been as swift as when my sweat-soaked fingertips safety-pin and staple tags to clothes as fast as humanly possible lest I have to stay for hours after closing. My smile has never been quite so forced as when a customer demands an impossible service, my eyes never as sharp as when I desperately search for the tag number of the missing blouse that Mrs Herkowitz NEEDS to wear tonight. My heels have never been quite as sore as after seven hours on my feet, my chuckle never quite as dry as when a customer who comes in for all of four minutes complains about how hot the building is, my frustration never quite so tangible as when I have to pick up a coworker’s slack. My ego has never been quite as stroked as when my boss trusts me enough to leave me alone with the store for three hours while she gets her hair dyed, and my pride never quite as all-encompassing as when I deposit my paycheck.
Nothing makes you fake it quite like spending a summer in a dry cleaners. As soon as I step into view of the customers, I’m a calmer, kinder, and more knowledgeable version of myself. No one can suspect the jabs my coworkers and I make at ugly clothes or the seldom flattering nicknames we give to the most anal regulars. My smile beams welcomingly, whether reciprocated or not, my feet saunter with a spring in their step, no matter how tired I may be, and my fingers dance across the cash register, no matter how stiff they are. No labored breathing can hint that moments before ringing someone up I was darting through a maze of nearly identical plastic wrapped shirts desperately hunting for the right order. No tremulous fingers or widened eyes can relay the blind panic I feel when a customer’s orders aren’t where the computer says they’ll be, and no sigh of relief can expose the knot in the pit of my stomach that unravels each time a customer is served without incident. No businessman can suspect that when I say his wife’s pants are still being treated, I mean they’re hopelessly lost and most likely gone forever. No middle-aged woman can know that moments before coolly reassuring her that everything’s fine with her late dress, I was in the back explaining the situation to my boss over the phone in a frantic whisper. No stilted explanations or darting eyes can reveal to the customer how ignorant I am of the inner workings of the business. There can be no crossed arms or rolled eyes to show how irritated I am when I’m yelled at for something that isn’t my fault. No lobby full of busy and important people can feel my stress as I struggle to serve them all in a timely manner without making a serious error that will cost my boss her livelihood. The moment I cross back behind closed doors, I let my face relax and my shoulders fall.
Nothing teaches you quite like spending a summer in a dry cleaners. I can tell you exactly how many seconds it takes for the blood from my pinpricked finger to soak into the white cotton shirts I’m tagging. I’ve learned the art of keeping trainees in check, even the ones who are older than me. I can figure which customers want to chit-chat, and which want to get in and out as fast as possible. I can hold the same conversation about today’s weather 45 times in 5 hours without sounding canned. I know exactly how much change I need to fish out of pockets to afford an Arnold Palmer and a small cheese pizza from the pizza parlor three doors down, and I can tell you exactly how long it takes me to sprint over and buy my dinner. I can tell which patrons will be grateful for help carrying their orders to their car, and which will be insulted by an offer of assistance. I can spot expensive brands from a mile away, and feel when a sweater is six percent cashmere. I can refine my voice over the phone so that callers won’t know they’re speaking with a minimum wage earning teenaged girl in lieu of an informed adult. I know exactly what to do when a credit card reader goes down, or a stapler jams. I can craft the perfect playlist that will appease the oldest and snootiest of patrons, while also ensuring the employees keep their energy up and their eardrums intact. I can intuit exactly which customers will demand to speak to the owner when something’s gone wrong. I can detail exactly what will happen if you leave a pen in the pocket of a jacket that’s destined for the spin cycle. I can explain what stains will and will not come out of customers clothes. But wouldn’t you know it, four months working at a dry cleaners, and I still couldn’t tell you what dry cleaning is.