I walk through the doors, and the seamstress waves to me from her table by the window. I greet her and walk up to the counter, where the man operating the laundry conveyor asks me how I’ve been. I drop the load of clothes my parents asked me to bring on the countertop and tell him everything’s going well. He’s wearing a blue-checkered button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. He likes to leave the top few buttons undone, and underneath his plain white t-shirt is clearly visible.
“How’re your brother and sister?” the man, David, asks in a slight hispanic accent.
I reply that they’re busy in college but doing well from what I can tell. We’ve been going to the same dry cleaners for as long as I can remember, and David has worked there the entire time. From what I can tell he’s somewhere in his mid-30s, always energetic and efficient in his work. My sister, as the oldest, was the first to run errands for our parents and as such the first of the siblings to interact with David on a regular basis. Then the role was passed on to my brother, and eventually to me. I don’t know much about David, but our interactions had always been friendly and engaging.
As he sorts through the clothes on the counter, he asks what I’ve been up to. “School just started up again last week, so I’ve been getting back into the rhythm of things – thinking about college and classes and whatnot,” I say with a tinge of dejection.
“Tell me again what grade you’re going into?” David asks. I tell him 12th, and his surprised reaction captures my own feelings about it as well.
I explain to him that I’ve been given an assignment in school to learn more about a person in my neighborhood, and ask tentatively if he could describe to me a little bit of his background and how he got to where he is now. A little confused but willing to talk a bit about himself, he starts off by saying that he grew up in Miami. Both his parents were Puerto Rican, but moved to Florida shortly before he was born. He grew up and went to high school there, learning to speak English as a second language as his community was almost entirely Latino. For reasons not made entirely clear to me, he moved to Queens in his early 20s and found a job working at a hotel in Manhattan. I imagine he moved to the city for job opportunities that Miami didn’t necessarily offer, or perhaps he had extended family living here that encouraged him to find work up north – I didn’t think to ask in the moment. He met his wife seven years ago, and they have two kids together; one is three years old and the other is five. Around the same time he met her, David got a job at the dry cleaners, which he said he liked a lot better than his work in the hotel. I was surprised at this because I would’ve thought working in the hotel would be a more stable career, but from my understanding the treatment of employees there was sub-par, and he said he liked his interactions with customers more working at the dry cleaners.
I’d always been on what I viewed as relatively friendly terms with David, but I learned so much talking to him that I would never have known about in the far briefer conversations that we normally had. The success he found in New York was inspirational to say the least, and I would have gladly kept talking to him save for the fact that another customer walked through the door as I was about to ask him another question. I thanked him for his time and paid in advance for the laundry I had dropped off before saying goodbye and heading out the door.