There is a dry cleaner near me that I walk by every day, and mostly I admire the smile of the endlessly cheery woman who works there six days a week. Otherwise I rarely have anything dry cleaned, such is my distaste for wearing suits or even dress shirts, after a traumatic period in my 20's when I sold suits for a living. The collar of a shirt is a chokehold I have wriggled out of more or less, so dry cleaners aren't on my daily radar.
However, about a year ago, I indeed needed a dress shirt for an occasion, and I found myself walking by a dry cleaner that seemed modest and therefore inviting. An older man and his wife were behind the front glass, doing the tightly choreographed moves of placing and removing articles of clothing in succession. I had never seen an actual customer in the shop, but the owners always seemed very busy, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company in such tight quarters. There was no doubt this was a Mom and Pop shop, as they oozed ownership in some mysterious signalling way I picked up.
So in I went.
The man waved me off. "Sorry we're not accepting new customers," he said quickly.
"Huh?" I stammered. Are we at an opening of Drake's new club, I wondered.
"I'm sorry, but unless you know someone, we're not taking new customers," he added.
"Well I know a lot of people in the neighbourhood," I said, instantly, suddenly desperate.
"Can you name someone I might know?" he challenged.
"So-and-so at such-and-such restaurant (imagine a real person who owns a real place on the Danforth). She's my friend.
"What's her girlfriend's name," he presses.
I tell him.
With that, oxygen comes in to the room. Cue the sound of heavens opening. Literally, and without delay, he entirely changes his attitude to that of the welcoming hose. "How can I help you my friend!"
I hand over my shirt, feeling the relief of the ages, like I've been hazed and then raised up on my back legs by circumstance. His wife compliments the jacket I am wearing.
"It will be ready by Thursday," he offers officiously and finally.
"Great I'll see you then," I call back. Then as I turn to leave, his voice follows after me. "Sir can I ask you something?" His voice lowers an octave. "You seem like a man who enjoys nice clothes. Do you have a moment to let me show you something?"
There's a strong moment of pregnant pause. Intrigue and fear collide in a strange mix inside of me. Then curiosity wins out.
Within seconds, he ushers me out a side door and we're on the street again. This time, though, he unlocks a second door, which is not the dry cleaner. He starts to go up some stairs and asks me to follow. Only the geniality and age of his wife standing in the dry cleaner as we do this makes me feel secure enough to follow the old man. I'm safe, I think, so something either cool or mildly irritating is going to happen next, but nothing dangerous.
He pulls out a second ring of keys and selects two. He unlocks not one but two locks on a powerful door. I can still here the street noise, so I can still dash if something does happen.
Then the door swings open and another world appears. Away from the dry cleaner and its modest front is an entire second shop that is filled with clothing. Not just the clothing itself, but the full trappings of an entire store, complete with mirrors, change rooms and fixtures. There's a glass display case, thickets of hanging racks, and carefully arranged finery. None of this is betrayed in any way in the street. No signage, no hint at street level that this world exists, but simply a bejewelled vision created by this old man of what could be described as some sort of timeless boutique.
Within seconds of my panoramic scan of the place, the dry cleaner now puts on his other hat as salesman, and whirls into action. Softy, but firmly he begins to tell me what I might need, pushing and prodding me gently to get clues of how my taste and his taste might intersect. My delight at this hidden world suddenly turns into the sheer possibility of being the only one in a store of merchandise, without anyone else in my way. I have no idea what anything costs, but he keeps assuring me it will be cheap, and so all the clothing id energy I have stored from years or retail coming welling up.
Not to mention that I am in the hands of the best salesman I have ever encountered, a kind of perfect mixture of assured charisma and the soft genuflect of someone that's seeing life's hardships and appreciates how simple pleasures such as nice pair of pants can make it all a little easier and more pleasurable. There are stories of his and his wife's struggle to assimilate in Canada ("the greatest country in the world!") from life back in Eastern Europe peppered in with "this is a beautiful colour don't you think?" When I turn down a choice he has made for me, his charm mutes somewhat and he recoils philosophically: "Well, what makes us all different is that we have our own preferences. Isn't is great to be in Canada?"
Within minutes, my hands are filled with reams of stuff I would never buy elsewhere or even felt I needed. Really I just needed my shirt cleaned. But I am so dazzled by how insane this whole mise en scène is, and how incredibly assured and polished this old man tailor is at selling clothing, I realize I am rewarding him for being so damned good. In a world where service hardly exists anymore, the notion of your local tailor being the best clothes salesman you've ever encountered is deliciously remote.
We come to the pricing. He lays it all on the table and pauses. He tells me he wants me to come back, wants to make me happy. He references my friend used to get me in the door. "She's a lovely person and a good customer." I feel half way between feeling I am about to be hosed, and strangely certain that I'll get some proper pricing.
He settles on a price, not ridiculously cheap, but reasonable given the quality of the stuff. The subtext of the pricing seems to be: "I'm very good at what I do, so I need to make a little bit of money." The mature part of me agrees. We shake hands, he whisks over the Interac machine, and I'm on my way home with $500 worth of clothing.
For hours, the haze of this happening is all around me. I call my friends, incredulous, telling the story in a rotisserie fashion, adding or subtracting details depending. Every friend laughs uproariously and how deviously good fun this is. I run my fingers over the clothing and inspect it carefully, making sure both that it wasn't an abstraction I generated for my own entertainment, or that the clothing was after all cheap and worthless. Instead, I love my purchases. They're monuments to some level of ingenuity and intrigue this man has created.
To this day I have worn one shirt I bought and have since given the rest away. For a year or so, I would return the clothing, put on the jacket and slacks, and silently return them to the closet. It's almost as if there's no need to pretend I was ever going to wear any of it, such is my usual casual day wear. Rather it's to return to the magic of the experience, where something is not only what you think it is, but better, richer and crazier.
I have never been back to this tailor, even though I walk by it almost every day, where him and wife still sit behind the glass doing silent mime for me. I don't know whether they notice me, or whether my exclusive membership has lapsed, but I do know I have no interest in writing anything over this memory in my head, so it is that the mysterious clothing store and its alternate reality are safely tucked away in my brain forever.