Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Cleaners (fiction)

note: In the spirit of Rachel Ray, I occasionally see if I can write a short story in a couple hours. Usually, I do it because I have to go to my twice monthly writer's group which meets at 7:15 pm on Wednesdays. At the end of my workday at about five, I sometimes don't have anything to share with the group. I will then force myself to get something on paper to meet the deadline. Anyway, The Cleaners is one of those efforts.
The other notable thing for me about the story is that I'd been doing some work around the 14th amendment. One result was the prior post about the path from Plessy to this month's Seattle Schools Decision, the other was that I started thinking about the California Chinese and their role in legal history. It's not in the story, but Yick Wo v. Hopkins took place almost immediately after the Chinese Exclusion act, back when Asians were the immigrant peril who were going to take America down with them unless their numbers could be controlled. One of the sadder aspects of Yick Wo is that the story wasn't passed diligently across the generations. The Chinese my age who learned about it, usually found out about the case in college. In that way, it's a little bit like the obscuring of the story of Fred Korematsu. end prattle.

The Cleaners

Until I was ten, my mother had the responsibility of making sure that my Grandfather’s suits went to the Tang Brothers Steam Laundry in downtown Sacramento. The Tang Brothers Laundry was on the first floor of an old wooden building in a sadly run-down neighborhood still beyond the reach of the city’s redevelopment agency. The building looked like it got painted once every twenty years which meant that it probably had received between four and five coats of paint in its lifetime. It smelled of mildew. The front windows were covered with painted-cyclone fencing and most of the signage inside was in Chinese. The building was so old that the wiring ran in exposed conduits on the face of the interior walls. It looked like the place should have burned down decades ago.

Two buildings on the same street had burned and no one had bothered to rebuild or even move away the rubble. Bottom line, the Tang Brothers Laundry felt creepy and the neighborhood was getting scarier. When my mother drove there, she only went in the middle of the day. Because of the neighborhood, she also wouldn’t let me sit in the car to listen to the radio while she completed the errand.

“I can keep the doors locked and I won’t play with the windows. You know I’d never talk to strangers,” I would plead. “I don’t even talk to adults anyway.”

My mother would shake her head.

“It’s not about you. It’s just not safe for you to be out here in the car.”

The car was a white Lincoln Premier with electric windows and power seats, an expensive accessory at the time. The upholstery was two-toned turquoise and white.

“I don’t like going inside there. It smells bad. How can they clean clothes in a place that smells like that?”

“Lucky, don’t you want to help your grandfather?”

I always lost the argument. It didn’t really occur to me that my mother insisted that I come inside because she didn’t want to go in to the Tang Brothers laundry by herself. Going inside was like being yanked back to the days when Chinese males wore queues and women had to bind their feet. For one thing, the old man and woman who dealt with the customers at Tang Brothers refused to speak any English with either my mother or me. I say refused, because I had observed the old man deal with his very occasional non-Chinese customer. Unlike some Chinatown businesses, Tang Brothers happily served blacks and Mexicans. His English was slow, but surprisingly unaccented.

On top of that, Mr. and Mrs. Tang spoke a different dialect from my mother, so their exchanges always involved hand signals and other ambiguous exchanges. We never really knew how much anything cost or how long it would take to get my Grandfather’s white shirts starched or his gray suits cleaned and pressed. Since my Grandfather wore a gray suit with a white shirt almost every day, we had to make the trip to Tang Brothers at least once a week. Unless we came too early to pick up my Grandfather’s suits, the jackets and pants always came back crisply pressed and hung on wooden hangers tied together with a red wax-coated twine. The shirts would be wrapped in brown paper, hand folded and terminated in creased triangles, as if the paper itself had been pressed too. The packages of shirts were tied together with a yellow yarn with an odd knot that couldn’t be untied only cut with a pair of scissors. Whenever we came back, the custom was to bring the same number of wooden hangers we had left with on the previous visit a hassle that only added to the burden of going to Tang Brothers.

A couple times my mother forgot to bring the wooden hangers and Mrs. Tang lectured her then charged her two dollars extra, an act which my mother resented. If it happened, she would complain to my father about it for the rest of the week.

Bottom line, I hated having to make the stop and suspected that my mother didn’t like it any better than I did. Whenever we drove home from the Tang Brothers, I would make a point of keeping an eye out for the many dry cleaners in free standing buildings outside the downtown area. There were probably half a dozen just outside South Land Park. Typically these could be spotted easily from a block away because they had big plastic-lettered signs that proclaimed their ability to do alterations, martinize, and press any cloth item cheaply, quickly, or both. The storefronts had full expanses of clear glass through which you could see modern electric machinery inside. They had dedicated parking and the insides often had a waiting area with chairs and old magazines.

Sometimes, they also included a coin Laundromat instead of the hand washing done at Tang Brothers in ancient open wash tubs. They promised a kind of American clean free of hand work that no traditional Chinese laundry like the Tang Brothers could ever deliver. After we moved to Strawberry Creek from Paperson, my mother brought anything we had of our own that needed to be dry-cleaned to one of these shops where our clothes would come back on disposable wire hangers wrapped in paper. The name of the laundry printed on kite-like paper that filled the open oval of the hanger. A clear plastic bag made from the same material that kept school lunches fresher than wax paper shrouded the hangers and the clothes that hung on them, along with a metal twist tie.

The only issue was that none of the dry cleaners near our home were Chinese owned. My Grandfather believed strongly that if you could do business with other Chinese, you had to. It didn’t matter if the same service or merchandise could be found cheaper or better elsewhere.

My parents never completely agreed with my Grandfather’s consumer ethnocentrism.

“We should just buy the best products. It seems wrong to buy something from someone just because it’s Chinese….” My Dad would say. “Besides, sometimes I’m almost certain that they overcharge us on purpose because they assume that we won’t go anywhere else.”

In their first home of their own in Strawberry Creek, they set out to fill their living room and kitchen with American goods. The furniture in the living room came from Bruner’s, the slightly upscale downtown department store instead of the Chinese import company in San Francisco that supplied their parents’ furniture. We had two sets of dishes. One was Chinese a red-green porcelain generally used when my Grandparents or other relatives would visit. The other was oval and Scandinavian and we used it for breakfast and most other meals. Our clothes came from Sears and Weinstocks and later the new Macy’s that got built into what was once part of Sacramento’s Chinatown.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time, but a new dry cleaner opened up near our neighborhood in the corner of a shopping center. The building itself was all windows and the new laundry, like the banks, had incorporated a drive through window covered with a carport to let customers do business without leaving the car even when it rained. Most exciting of all, the owners were Chinese. Within a matter of days after the opening of Atomic Cleaners, my mother started bringing my Dad’s restaurant suits and her own dresses there where she would talk to owner’s wife, a woman her own age, about schools, golf, and the unending stream of new and improved clear-plastic packaged products on the shelves of the supermarket on the other side of the parking lot.

“It’s cheaper, faster, and it’s still Chinese,” she would tell my father over dinner. “It doesn’t make sense that we should make two trips to two different dry cleaners.”

My father would nod in agreement, but he remained skeptical.

“Tang Brothers is just where pop has always gone to do his dry cleaning. He likes to do things a certain way.”

We continued to make our stop at the Tang Brothers laundry with my Grandfather’s suits and shirts. If Mr. and Mrs. Tang ever wondered what my mother and father did with their own dry cleaning, they never asked. One time we were there and I noticed that an old black and white photo of a man in traditional Chinese clothes that had always hung on the back wall had been reframed. I’d assumed that it was a photo of one of the Tang’s ancestors. Perhaps this one was the original owner of the laundry. I pointed at the picture.

“Look mom, they changed the photo.”

My mom got the white-haired Mrs. Tang’s attention and pointed to the portrait as well to tell her in Chinese that the new frame looked nice. I could tell because my mother’s limited Chinese forced her to use the English word “frame”, which she pronounced as if it were a Cantonese word.

The old woman nodded.

My mother asked again in Chinese “Neh Baba?” which I understood to mean “Is that your father?”

She shook her head.

My mother shook her head along with her. “Ah, Tang Cow Hoo ge Ba Ba?”

She pointed at Mr. Tang, sure that the photo was of one of his relatives.

Mrs. Tang shook her head again.

“Ye Ga Lee Yick.”

My mother look puzzled.

“Lee Yick?”

Mr. and Mrs. Tang then began telling the story of the man in the portrait while pointing animatedly at the laundry’s wooden walls and their faded paint. I could tell that my mother had gotten lost in Mrs. Tang’s explanation which involved two names Lee Yick and what seemed to be that of another man, named Yick Wo, by the way she just nodded her head randomly and the fact that she wasn’t stopping to translate for me anymore.

At the end of her explanation, Mrs. Tang put her hand over her heart and said in English “Proud to be American.”

My mother smiled. I smiled. Mr. Tang handed me the perfectly creased paper bundle of shirts and handed my mother two suit jackets and three pairs of pressed pants on five wooden hangers. The only problem was that my mother and I had only brought three wooden hangers in with us. Mrs. Tang held up her index finger signaling that she expected one more dollar for the hanger deposit.

My mother started to argue back then just shook her head. Once in the car, she said in my presence for the first time, “I’m sick of going there, tired of the hangers thing. They’re so old-fashioned.”

One time I was in the store when a black customer came in who had forgotten to bring in the right number of hangers. I saw Mr. Tang point to the one English sign inside the store “Hanger deposit .50 cents/hanger, no exceptions.”

“Man, you’ve got to be kidding me. Those hangers couldn’t cost you more than a couple cents a piece.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Tang answered, “Is our right. This is America. Is our right.”

The man fished through his pocket, found the coins, then slammed the door behind him. I was certain that he would never return. Oddly enough, I saw him back there weeks later.

Over the next three weekends when we had dinner at my grandparents in Paperson, my mother made a point about talking about the new laundry near our house with the drive up window. “It’s half the price, they do a better job, and they’re Chinese too. The wife was even a Tang.”

My Grandfather shrugged, “But her husband is a Wong.”

“You can drive right up, there’s no waiting Pop. Times are changing,” My Dad did his best to support my mother’s endorsement of the new laundry.

My Grandfather shook his head, drank down a shot of whiskey, and made a clicking sound between his teeth, but said nothing for a few minutes then finally muttered, “Time change, but no one remember.”

“Seriously Pop, I don’t know how long Tang Wo can stay in business even if we keep going there.”

My Grandfather shook his head again.

For several more weeks my mother and I continued to make our stop at the Tang Brothers. Sometime since that dinner, my mother had figured out that she could buy the same wooden hangers a dozen for a quarter at a shop during one of our trips to San Francisco. She bought five dollars worth and kept them in the trunk of the Lincoln, but my mother was as stubborn as my Grandfather. She decided to make her case by just happening to take half of his shirts and one of his suits to Atomic Cleaners.

When she returned to Paperson that weekend with one of his suits in a plastic wrapper, he refused to take the plastic wrapped ones upstairs with him. Instead, he hung them in the downstairs closet. The rest he took up to his room but said nothing directly to either my mother or myself. A few days later, the suit and pants still in their plastic wrap were put in a shipment for the China Relief fund. After that, he simply began taking his own clothes into Tang Brothers when he drove into Sacramento himself.

At first my mother was concerned that she had lost face with my Grandfather and through my father she explained that she just wanted him to see what a good job Jet Cleaners could do with its suits and that they were run by Chinese as well. She insisted that she would be happy to keep taking all of his suits and shirts back to Tang Brothers in the future, but my Grandfather just shook his head.

“I’m not blaming you,” I heard him tell my parents in English. “I understand.”

“Pop, seriously.” My mother said, “I even bought dozens of wooden hangers. I bought them, I should use them.”

“Just give me the hangers. I can use them,” he told her. “I’m not mad, it’s all right. I just want to do this.”

He hugged her and me. “Things change.” He murmured. “You young, so you like the change.”

Over the next several months, my mother and I were quietly relieved that we no longer had to make our weekly trip to Tang brother cleaners. A year after my Grandfather started driving his own laundry to Sacramento, the Tang Brothers closed up shop. A few weeks after that an arsonist got the building and burned up all the wooden hangers and the framed photo of the mysterious Lee Yick.

I was in college when I learned who Lee Yick was. He was a San Francisco laundryman who hired a lawyer to oppose an city ordinance that required wooden laundries to get permits to operate from the city because they were supposed to be fire hazards. As it happened, most wooden laundries in the city of San Francisco were run by Chinese immigrants. No permits were granted to Chinese-owned laundries including Lee Yick’s Yick Wo Laundry.

The case went to the Supreme Court. The Chinese Laundry men won a few years later in 1886 with the help of money raised across California to pay for the lawyer through various formal and informal Chinese laundrymen’s associations. The court held that wooden laundries weren’t really a fire hazard at all and that the ordinance had been enforced in a discriminatory fashion and thus violated the 14th amendment. It was the first time the 14th amendment had ever been applied to protect an ethnic group in America.

Many years after that, I went to the library to look it up in old editions of the Sacramento Union. While Chinatown news seldom made it into the English newspaper, I found a mention of the fact that Sacramento laundrymen led by Shih Tang had raised a thousand dollars for the cause. I looked for, but never found another picture of Lee Yick.

Had my Grandfather tried to tell my parents the story? Did he know the story? Perhaps, his loyalty was more personally based than historical. Did he try to tell the story of the Tang Brothers and their tie to Constitutional History, but just couldn’t translate it into mutually understandable Chinese or English with his own children because of the complex legal terms? Did he tell his sons and daughters and did the story not get remembered because it simply didn’t fit their notions of what the elders who preceded my Grandfather and Mr. and Mrs. Tang had been like?

A couple years ago, I drove into town and discovered that Atomic Cleaners had long since disappeared. I figured that they would have changed the name in the seventies, but assumed that the building still existed. Instead, the entire shopping center had been bulldozed in favor of a Target Store, which mostly sold heavily-discounted goods made in the People’s Republic of “China. I made a point of driving a few miles across town to look for the site of the Tang Brothers laundry, but sadly I had no idea where it was. For some reason, I had assumed that I would be able to follow the smell.



At 7/15/2007 12:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's odd to contemplate when what facet of one's life gets stuck in one's own ground like a post. People of a certain age want to always hear the Rolling Stones sing "Satisfaction." The Rolling Stones who may have been innovative in their say-heyday are pretty much forced to sing the old favs rather than be allowed to foment new favs. It's wooden hangers no doubt for us all in various areas of our lives.

The hiphoppers don't realize that they too will be dinosaurs one day to the young to come. It's an interesting phenomenon.

At 7/15/2007 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

That's a nice bit of history mixed in with a nice bit of fiction Chancelucky. I'm amazed that you Rachel Ray'd the thing!

At 7/15/2007 11:17:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I think it's just as interesting that we sometimes develop customs or ways of doing things without remembering the original reason you started doing it.

thanks...Well Rachel Ray is one of these inspirational icons in our culture.

At 7/16/2007 12:49:00 PM, Blogger Elizabeth McQuern said...

CL - this is so cool. I keep thinking about knocking out a piece of short fiction just as an exercise. Your efforts inspire me.

At 7/16/2007 01:35:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

First, thanks for taking the time to read it. I know we often like to create an aura about how long and hard we work at things, it's sometimes interesting to put some very tight time constraints on a project. Obviously, you can't be as nuanced or as precise with stuff, but it forces me to work a bit more directly and let my subconscious order the different elements in the story, etc.
I don't know if it necesarily works, but it does turn off the whole business of "overthinking" that can be bad for anything creative.


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