The Power of Love, Or How I Lost The Family Business

I inherited my dry cleaner. My mom and dad had used a particular store up the block since moving to the Upper West Side from Brooklyn in the early 1960’s. Its appearance was nondescript, but it had come highly recommended by a neighborhood maven, and my parents’ fealty never faltered. Their loyalty outlived six Mayoral administrations, three blackouts and an assortment of drug and crime waves. My parents and their dry cleaner were steadfast in their relationship.

When I returned to New York after college, I eagerly followed in the family’s dry-cleaning footsteps and, for many years, we enjoyed a cordial working relationship as I donned the requisite corporate attire. Then it happened: My charming and petite girlfriend, Hanna, moved in with me over the summer. I innocently recommended that she use my “ancestral” dry cleaner.

Dry cleaning, I was to learn, was no small matter for Hanna. She works in public relations, where appearances and impressions count as much as substance. Her wardrobe is her battle armor; it is an extension of her bodily person. Every suit, skirt and trouser has been tailored at great cost to flatter her highly aerobicized figure. Keeping her clothes flawless is, in her mind, a competitive advantage, a career imperative and an investment in her future.

To my relief, Hanna was pleased and even hit it off with the store’s staff, who, like her, were native South Koreans. Even I was winning points with the counter lady by liberally sprinkling my conversations with my newfound knowledge of the Korean language, namely ” anyong hasaeyo ” (“hello”) and ” kamsa hamnida ” (“thank you”).

But the happiness was short-lived. Hanna’s tendency to procrastinate on matters dry-cleaning meant she needed everything done the same day. The owner didn’t mind this occasionally, but with Hanna, same-day service was an everyday request. Moreover, Hanna would insist on absolute metaphysical spotlessness, ordering the removal of stains invisible to the human eye, but which, with the benefit of her hawk-like vision, were glaring to her. She also had peculiar notions of how blouse collars should be pressed. “Natural” is how she described it, a demand which was lost on everyone.

Consequently, Hanna would frequently return clothing to be redone. “This is unacceptable,” she would tell me. “In Seoul, the dry cleaners are much better. I never had this problem in Seoul.” I wondered what superior dry-cleaning technologies the South Koreans had perfected and were harboring in secret underground facilities, and why these energies were not instead being spent fending off their nuclear-armed cousins to the north.

But no matter: Hanna had her standards, and she was right to insist upon them. After all, she was a good customer and, as proof, had paid the dry cleaner hundreds of dollars-in many cases, more than she had paid for the individual articles of clothing.

But this is New York. Customers, especially of the exacting ilk, are a threat to a thin bottom line. The economics are self-evident: One high-maintenance customer takes up as much time and resources as six spineless ones.

Perhaps the adage “The customer is always right” reigns supreme everywhere else on the planet, with the exception of a few remaining People’s Republics. But in New York, a mutant capitalism mocks, “the customer is always replaceable.” In a city known for assertiveness and confrontation, truly savvy New Yorkers understand the need to frequently unfurl the white flag and suck up their pride.

Indeed, the dirty little secret is that “good” customers in Gotham are the ones that settle for mediocre results. New Yorkers talk tough and love to kvetch to each other, but sheepishly swallow numerous indignities, including distracted waiters, reckless cabbies, absurdly long movie lines, unintelligible subway announcements and, yes, an occasional spot that just won’t disappear.

It was inevitable. One bracing autumn morning as I dropped off my cleaning, I was greeted by a stern rebuke. “Tell your girlfriend we don’t want her business,” said the shop’s owner as she rhythmically wagged her finger. “She too much trouble. She cost us too much money recleaning. She too demanding, even for Korean girl.”

I was disappointed. Dejected. I felt that I had soiled a family tradition by rending the customer–dry cleaner relationship asunder. Needless to say, I never told my parents. But Hanna’s sartorial happiness was more important, and it was some consolation to know that there was another dry cleaner across the street.

Soon, we were doing business with an affable but nervous Filipino man who was clearly struggling to keep his tiny store afloat. Initially, the dry cleaner was delighted at the volume of clothes we brought during the particularly slushy winter. But, Hanna being Hanna, his happiness came at an insupportably steep price.

Within a few months, I saw a now-familiar look of exasperation. “Your girlfriend is impossible. I lose money on her. Tell her to take her clothes somewhere else,” said the owner. He subsequently went out of business and returned to Manila.

There was one remaining dry cleaner nearby. At this point, my own dry-cleaning needs had evaporated, since I had just been fired. Untouched by the economic retrenchment, Hanna’s torrents of dry cleaning continued unabated.

As it happened, I did have a beige jacket that somehow had become besmirched. Eager to wear the garment, I put it in to be cleaned. But upon its return, I noticed that the blemishes, in all their hideous glory, remained.

In general, I’m a “good” customer and am more than happy to settle for mediocrity, but this was ridiculous. The blotches were clearly visible, even for a farsighted person, and I had paid $15, to boot. I returned to the dry cleaner. The man at the counter, a dour Russian émigré flatly intoned, “I’m sorry, but stain permanent. Nothing we can do.” I told him I wanted to speak with the owner, who was in the back. He hesitated, he shrugged, he said, “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure,” I insisted. I should have taken his hint.

Within a few seconds, the owner, a 6-foot-5 barrel-chested Jewish guy from the Bronx, bounded to the counter, reached into the cash register, grabbed a $10 and a $5, held them in my face and barked, “You know what? Here’s your lousy $15-take it. I don’t need your business. I don’t need your girlfriend coming in complaining every day and making me redo everything.” He slammed the register shut.

I was angry. After all, this was my first and only complaint, and it was justified. I wanted to raise a ruckus and lecture him on his failure to achieve even passable dry-cleaning results. But at the same time, I felt sorry for the guy. Clearly my girlfriend had given him a nervous breakdown. I understood. I collected my money and left the store.

As it stands, my girlfriend (and me by association) have been blacklisted by every dry cleaner in the neighborhood. Perhaps they are circulating an “Unwanted” poster of her with a caption, “Clean this woman’s clothes at the risk of your sanity and solvency.” To make matters worse, Hanna has since confessed to having been banished from dry cleaners on the Korean peninsula as well.

I’m now looking for a new dry cleaner. Any suggestions?