Recently on my way to coffee I walked by the back of the neighborhood dry cleaner and laundry. They had the door propped open as it was hot in there, what with all the steam and hot presses going. As I walked past the open door someone gave a suit coat a big shot of steam and a rush of hot air greeted me warmly.
We’ve all heard that smells can instantly transport you back to childhood. That smell of that blast of hot air and steam took me back to Denver, 1967. My mother had recently remarried and moved there with my three brothers, while I stayed back in Jamestown, ND. The following summer I came out to stay with the family until school started again in the fall. It was my first experience living in a big city, Denver was huge compared to the little burg of Jamestown.
Grace worked for a dry cleaners in the strip mall next to the apartment complex. It was a little place, with only a handful of workers and equipment. As I recall, the name of the place was the Spot Shop. Besides dry cleaning, they did alterations and repairs. My mother was a skilled seamstress. The boss would take some measurements, order fabric, and Grace would custom sew men’s suits to fit, so the shop was a good match for her skills and it got her a job there for a while. Until things got weird and she left. You’ll understand shortly.
Their apartment was just east of Sheridan Blvd on Kentucky Avenue in west Denver. The apartment is still there, as is the strip mall. Looking at Google Maps, it looks like not much has changed except the signs on the strip mall. I recognize the neighborhood precisely.
As a typical sixteen year old, I needed money. I also loved to drive, so somehow my mother convinced the owner that I should take the delivery boy job for the shop. They had a little English Ford truck, just a bit bigger than some of the Smart cars you see on the road today. It was a stick shift, so I got to learn all sorts of things.
The boss, a Mr. Fuller, took me on a couple runs right away to teach me the delivery route and the neighborhood. He taught me a lot more than where his customers lived.
The whole run was maybe two or three hours at most. It was a big neighborhood, and there were many stops. Most of the stops were to deliver clean clothes to people and small businesses. The other stops were a little more interesting. I was driving, listening to “Turn left!” “Turn right!” and other instructions, usually a little lost, and trying to get my bearings. The unusual bits were when he’d say “Pull in here, I need to talk to a friend.” That would happen two or four times on each delivery run. I would spend the next few minutes looking at street signs and the map, trying to figure out where we were and how we got there.
A few minutes later, he’d come running out, hop in the passenger seat and holler “Take a left at the light!” Some more deliveries and then a visit to another business friend. I was clueless. After a couple of days of this I asked my mother what was the deal with all the friends he had to stop and see. It turns out that I hadn’t really paid much attention to the kind of establishment we had frequented. Bars. Apparently, he had a little drinking problem. Another clue: A bottle hidden in the men’s room in the back of the shop.
My brother tells me that Mr. Fuller had a number of unique behaviors. One time Mr. Fuller took him up to the mountains, gave Linn a chain saw and said “Get started building a log cabin.” Then he walked off, opened a vodka bottle and Linn cut down a couple of pine trees.
Linn reminded me about the advertising trick Mr. Fuller used to get attention to his shop. Traffic on Sheridan moved pretty fast, so it was a little tough to see the little dry cleaners in the strip mall. So he picked up a used mannequin (probably on the cheap), put a red bikini on it and stood it out by the road. That waving beauty caught a lot of eyeballs. Suits Cleaned 59 Cents!
The boss was also a little cheap. As in it was tough to get him to put gas in the truck. On one of my early delivery runs, I was cruising around on fumes. The engine quit. Fortunately I was moving at the time, and there was a gas station just ahead. I literally coasted down the street, up the apron, and to the pump, stopping at exactly the right place to get some gas, all without touching the gas or brake pedals. From then on I checked the gauge before leaving the shop, and asked for gas money when necessary. He was so cheap there wasn’t a regular phone in the shop, only a pay phone. Outgoing calls were a dime, even for him.
That job didn’t last long. Maybe he couldn’t afford to keep me on. There may have been some legal issues with a sixteen year old kid driving the truck. Maybe I wasn’t the best worker. Then my mother left for a two-week vacation and I stayed behind to continue working. I should have gone with them. But that’s another story.
My brother Linn contributed to this story.
Dry cleaner photo courtesy Flikr/Rocketboom