The best effect of fine persons is felt after we have left their presence.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Greetings My Dear Ones!
“Has anyone seen Ernie lately?” I want to know. For some reason, today of all days, I feel his presence by his absence. We have not seen him for some time though I have not thought about it until now.
“Well, I know he’s not dead,” says another seamstress matter-of-factly. “I check the obituaries for our customers every morning. He’s probably just lost his driving license or his mind. One of the two. But he’s not dead, unless he died somewhere else, out-of-town.”
I am relieved. He is a difficult customer but one I have grown immensely fond of. He typically parks his car up on the curb across the street, opens the door without looking, and shuffles through the oncoming traffic with the posture of a question mark, yelling and waving his arms at motorists who are screeching to a halt while peeping their horns at him. Once in the shop, he collapses on the nearest chair and spends the next ten minutes telling me how there’s No Respect for anything or anyone anymore. The one-sided harangue lurches between his days in the war (the Korean conflict) and his current prostate difficulties (which he calls Prostrates), with brief breaks to complain about how rotten young people are today. He is lonely, mad, and scared and I find him totally Adorable. I make a point of saying “It’s nice to see you again, Ernie!” as he turns to go. He pauses at this, gives us each a grimace that passes for his breed of smile, and says we are “Respectable Girls.” Then shuffles back into the oncoming traffic and chaos.
When the sounds of horns and sirens fade, the shop feels quiet. We start thinking of other customers we have not seen for a while. Subsequent gossip is inevitable: “I heard she went out west to see her grandkids…So-and-so said she saw him at the hardware store in a knee brace. Isn’t she recovering from back surgery?” Some customers come in weekly with their dry-cleaning and repairs, others we see monthly, seasonally, or only for big lifetime events. Over the years, some families have come in for so many events—baptisms, bar mitzvahs, weddings, graduations, proms etc… that we come to know quite a few characters. We have our Favorites and it’s always nice to see them. Even if a person is brand new to the shop, it’s still nice to see her. What is a service industry without people to serve?
I don’t interact with any of the customers socially outside of work. I hardly know any of their names. We are not “friends” in the traditional sense but I am deeply fond of some of them. It intrigues me how Familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt. (I wonder where that phrase ever came from?) Observing an older gentleman barking about how he gets No Respect might be irritating and off-putting at first, especially if he is NOT Rodney Dangerfield and not the least bit funny. Until he does it a hundred times and during those hundred times you see the occasional little sideways shifts of his mask and glimpse an angry boy in there who just wants love. Then you cannot help but love him. Some people are just Silk masquerading as Rayon. It’s nice to see them.
So many people frequent this shop and we are getting so many new customers that we often have trouble recognizing people when they come back to pick up their stuff. “What is your name?” I have to ask… But special people are memorable. They stand out. Some stand out immediately because they are Outrageous or Unreasonable, others stand out for their sparkle, their kindness, their happy auras and easy-going manners and Interesting projects. Others are quieter, more subdued, and take many visits over many years to gain our affection. It’s too easy take for granted the ones that are just “normal.” (Except, you know that we have no such thing as a “Normal” customer!) Some people are just so special that once they enter our lives, nothing is ever quite the same—they arrive and make such a beautiful impact that Life suddenly becomes funnier, richer, more Zany or Magnificent than we ever imagined. Most often, they do this just by being who they really are. Authenticity wins out every time, whether they are cranky-pants or not. Gradually, they grow and grow in our hearts like trees grow over time in a forest. Then one day, when we suddenly learn via the grapevine that they are gone, the Space they leave behind feels like a desert. It was so nice to see them.
Working with the general public has its challenges. We definitely meet “All Kinds.” To curb Prudence’s tendency to judge, I have taken to saying to my more devout co-workers “Today I am going to see all our customers as Sacred Children—Manifestations of Divine Wisdom in search of Itself.” In walks a female version of Divine-Wisdom-in-Search-of-Itself asking me to chop all the pockets out of her clothes because she is worried that they might be adding bulk to her silhouette and making her look fat. It’s easier to think piously about the three sons who come in to get their old suits let out so they can attend their mother’s funeral, even though one spends his entire fitting looking at his cell phone.
All it takes to love someone is Really Paying Attention. When we do that, we cannot help coming to Know them. And that song is right—to know is to love. So is to Serve. We are bound together by our needs: I need money and they need to have their pants fit them by Friday. The love that becomes part of the transaction is optional. I believe there are no such things as accidental meetings. People come into our lives for a Reason—even if that reason is only to have us replace all the worn out elastic in their long-johns. I rarely know how important someone will become to me, when I first meet him or her but I am coming to see that the people I need most in my life are the people who need me in theirs, however peripherally. Sometimes the best mirror we can look into is the Joy on a happy person’s face. It’s nice to see ourselves as Useful. And I mean it when I say, “It’s nice to see you again” when I rediscover a Higher Self through service. “It’s been a while. Welcome Back!”
Oddly, our most difficult customer of all time is the one none of us as ever seen. She has been sending her stuff for many years via the satellite partnership with cleaners. Heaps of clothes arrive weekly in their van with notes pinned to them explaining in terse commands what we are to do. We have talked to this Mystery Customer over the phone once or twice but she refuses to come into the shop for a proper fitting. When things go wrong, as they often do with such an arrangement, the clothes simply get returned to us with more notes attached. I try to paint a picture of her in my mind. Judging from how much we have to hem everything, this is not a tall person. Nothing else can be ascertained from the wildly diverse collection of colors, trends, fashions, most of which are very high-end. Working on her clothes makes me nervous. It’s not just “nice” to see people—sometimes it’s absolutely necessary! I feel about as productive as a chicken trying to hatch a golf ball on these occasions.
From one of her items of clothing I remove a tag that reads: “The Irregularities and variations in the color and texture of this garment are the result of its unique manufacturing and natural dyeing process. They are not flaws.” Wow! I think, I should wear such a tag! (Seriously, I am thinking of getting these printed!) What a great tag for any one of our customers... It makes me ponder how often I remember people by their problems instead of their attributes. As we get to know our clientele more thoroughly, they stop being known as “that lady with the Alfred Dunner pants” or “Mr. Persnickety with the limp buttons issue” and actually acquire names. When I say “It’s nice to see you,” I must focus on the YOU that is bigger than your issues.
We take for granted our ability to see people. And then we don’t. Because of the recent dreadful gun violence in this nation, there are many aching families, torn apart by bullets, who will no longer be seeing dear familiar faces they may have assumed would always be there. As bystanders viewing this through media coverage, it’s easy to see the numbers as anonymous symptoms, not individual people. Such tragedies remind us how silly it is to take those we love for granted. When we get to see those we love alive and well, it’s really not just “nice,” it’s the best miracle ever.
Ironically, this blog is helping connect me to a lot of people I wish I could see more regularly, as well as some of you I have never seen, though I wish I could. When I bump into random folks at fiddle concerts or events outside the shop, it is such a delight—“an Extreme Privilege” a friend likes to say—to see someone In Person. Wherever you are, I am grateful you are here in my world—whether you are the type of customer who says “I’ve been dragging this thing around in my car all month and I never seem to get here. Any chance I could have it done by tomorrow?” or not. I love you more than I first imagined I would. Please stop by and see us again soon! It would be ever so Nice To See YOU!!!
Thank you for your Good Work and for making my day!