I’m heading off to the Sewanee Literary Conference in a week or so. In honor of that, I went through my shirts and decided to opt for Browns iron and fold and card boarding. Browns is the most expensive, but also the most impeccable dry cleaner and shirt place you can imagine.
A few noteworthy facts about Browns. I once took a little schmatte in there and the dry cleaning bill cost more than the dress itself! A favorite cashmere sweater with paint spilled all over it was also offered up to the proprietress, someone who could be a social secretary to a socialite, or the socialite herself. Her hair is super neat, her diamonds are real (as well they should be with those prices) and her chin is always lifted just a little bit higher than yours or mine. She reminds me of a female Jeeves. And like Jeeves, you can tell she’s highly intelligent, world-wise, cannier than most of her clients and up on the protocol of whatever the occasion calls for. People go there and get their wedding dresses embalmed. Movie stars send their personal assistants to drop off their crap. When you are inside, it’s like a library or the bank used to be, there’s a hushed quality, one would not raise one’s voice in Browns. The time I went in with the paint stained cashmere, I was a little ashamed. I took it out of my shopping bag and put it down on the counter.
“Do you think you can do anything with this?” I asked softly.
She took it up in her perfectly manicured hands ran it this way and declared, “Why not?”
The bill was huge, but there wasn’t a stain left on the striped cashmere. And afterwards the sweater seemed like new.
Today, when Henry and I stood at the counter, the proprietress was wearing an Art Deco diamond lavaliere. And a beautiful starched cotton blouse. The kind with darts and a stand up color. She reminded me of the ladies I used to know back in Shreveport, mothers of my friends, customers of my mother when she had her store. My mother would have liked it, if I had been one of those local ladies, married to some prosperous someone or other, writing an occasional book but mostly socializing, playing bridge, reading best sellers…
I took out my shirts: my striped be-spoke that used to belong to Esteban Vicente. When the painter died, his wife who called me one of her daughters didn’t give me a picture as I had half-way hoped, but a few of his shirts. I love them all and save them for special occasions. The one I’m taking to Sewanee I call “my famous artist shirt.”
I took out a few more and handed them over, and finally the last one: some cheapo lavender linen thing, no doubt made by slave labor, but I love the color. The proprietress fingered the shirt; her lips sort of curled.
“Linen,” she declared resentfully. “The minute you put it on, it wrinkles.”
I nodded. Looking down, I saw Henry had settled onto the mat in front of the counter in his dog version of the Sphinx Pose, front and back paws out, belly down.
“You don’t wear linen, I take it?”
I was very aware, just then, of my wrinkled shirt, jean shorts, held up by a raggedy ass belt; my thin white legs, bright sneakers, stained socks. Henry was still in Sphinx Pose. How I envied my dog’s perpetual good looks and invincible style!
“Of course, not!” she replied.
I met her eyes: “As to be expected of the proprietress of the best dry cleaning establishment on earth!”
That made her smile.
I decided not to leave the linen, or another one that had a little stain on the collar she couldn’t promise to remove, though she suggested perhaps dry cleaning it first then laundering.
How much does it cost to do that? I once posed such a question to the person who takes the New York Times obit by phone. “Madam,” he declared. “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be calling the New York Times!”
“A week from today, next Thursday for your shirts?”
“That’d be great! Thanks!”
Henry got to his feet in his effortless way, shook himself off and we headed out into the sunlight.
Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levyby