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Monday, May 3, 2010

Steam, Clean, Press: A Dry Cleaning Story and Look at Two Great, Black Inventors Thomas L. Jennings & Lewis H. Latimer


Experienced preferred.
(Will consider training bright beginner). 
Inquire within.

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images
"Should I?" "Shouldn't I?" "Should I?" "Shouldn't I?" Good thing I don't have a daisy in my hand. It would be pulp by now. Who would've thought applying for a job could cause so much internal debate.

"I have a Bachelor's Degree. From Queens College! You know, Jerry Seinfeld's Alma Mater!!"

(But, the bills are piling up and we may not make next months rent and utilities).

"Okay. Let's say heads, yes, tails, no!" Need a coin. Need a coin. "I gotta have a quarter in here somewhere!" Damn deep empty pockets. "Lint, keys... Yes. A nickle! That'll have to do!"


"Maybe I should sleep on it. I have only been out of work a few months. There's gotta be something better out there coming my way eventually." Eventually. A word you gotta love/hate. Eventually like sometimes and maybe opening up your heart's, soul's, thought's internal universe to some possibility but probability unknown.

(Then there's eating. We like and need to eat. Especially the child). 

"But what if the job's taken tomorrow?" 

(Yeah, how many people are looking for jobs at a dry cleaner?) 

"Well, there's me. So, why wouldn't there be someone else, too? Someone with experience!"

I can't even get a part-time job as a waitress at a diner where they know me. "Do you have experience?" "Yes, I serve my family. I'm a Mom. You know I know how to multitask and stay cool under pressure. In addition, I help serve meals at community dinners." "No, I mean waiting tables." My interviewer smiles ever so compassionately. We both know how this brief interlude is going to end. "No." "Sorry." "Good luck!" "Thanks!" "I am really sorry," she says, "maybe when you get some experience we can consider you." (Yeah, like that's going to happen. I tried where they don't know me and got NO's. Heck. Now what?). Watery eyes pass around like drinks at the neighborhood pubs on pay day. The owner turns his away quickly to the cook's counter and wipes a bottle of ketchup on "Sorry." I am heartbroken, discouraged and ready to throw in the towel but not mad. I can't be mad. Her sorry is sincere. I know she's been there and understands my plight.
"No time for pride. Gotta survive!" SNAP. SNAP. Compose composure.

It's time to head to the bus stop to pick up my daughter. Kindergartners tell the best stories of their days and I love to listen to hers. So much passion. So much energy. So much color and life. "You know what Johnny said to me... and Mrs. Quincey... and then we went outside for recess and..." This is my favorite time of day. Then it comes. "Mommy can I get some candy today?" (Yikes.) "Pulee-ease!" She's getting expert at making THE FACE. The how can you say no to me face. (It's just a piece of candy). Stupid V-8 double head smacking stupid. I really should have done all my shopping before I picked her up, so we could go straight home, with maybe a short to medium stop at the park on the way. We always enjoy that! How many times must I say "later," or cover up with a "It's not good for your teeth!"? She has to know I know she knows that. Still.

A dozen eggs. A container of milk. A loaf of Wonder. Half a pound of yellow American cheese. Tomato soup. And, a quarter in the change. (To flip or not to flip it?) "Here you go sweetie. See what you can buy."

I can only imagine what is going through her mind "Wow, a quarter, but.." After scanning the inventory of sweets, with sugar and spice and a look of determination she approaches the cashier. "Excuse me. How much is a blow-pop?... And, what about the jelly fish?" She makes do with the quarter and does me proud settling on the blow-pop which is like 2 treats in one.

With two sour apple blow pops and a nickle in her little pocket, I drop her off at her best friend's to play.

Monday 8AM- Bus stop. Hugs. Kisses. Waves. Smiles. Corner Deli coffee and a butter roll. It's time.

Day one- sorting and ticketing. Coffee gets cold. Roll gets crunchy. Look at chart for tag color code. Red = RUSH (makes sense). Blue = two days. Yellow = three... Strategically staple tags so workers can spot them easily while making sure no damage is done to garments. It's all about work flow efficiency and quality. Use pins instead of staples if so written on slips and on delicates.

The bins just keep filling to the brim. "Wow that's a lot of clothes!" (Are they going to keep me at the counter? Counter work and light cleaning is not so bad for $300 bucks a week that comes to... maybe not so good but still.. Who can press all this stuff anyway?) Six hours later. It's time.

"Look at the picture I made! That's me and you cooking... And then Samantha said that Linda said..."

Day two- End task of Classifier start job of Finisher. The mystery of the overflowing bins is solved as I walk to the back of the shop and hear thumping of presses closing while bursts of steam rise above the revolving racks of bagged linens and his and hers things. "Shauna is in charge of finishing women's clothes, coats and jackets," I am told, "You'll be handling linens, pants and shirts." "Ready?" (No time for pride. Gotta Survive! SNAP. SNAP). "Yes, I'm ready!"

I learn how to use the puff irons on the seat of the pants and shirt shoulders. Steam, press, iron cuffs and collars, creases and seams. Layout garment on board, bring cover down. Steam press. Vacuum steam. Release lever and repeat. Right side, left side, right leg, left. A hundred pressed items, and three good flesh burns later. It's time.

Hugs. Kisses. "Momma you tired?" "A little." A pair of little arms extend an extra warm hug. Screen door snaps close as we take our Beagle out for a walk before the tired Dad comes home from work and we settle down to grilled cheese, soup and the Simpsons.

Day three epiphany- I am told I HAVE TO press everything in ALL the bins for my station each day before I CAN leave. "Say what?" (That's like 300 pants plus. Who picks up the daughter at the bus stop?) The "OR" is implied subtly in the inflections of the owner's voice. Yeah, we know were this brief interlude is going too "IF" I want to keep this job. No breaks except for the absolutely necessary bathroom breaks. I can now understand the use of depends by line workers in high pressured environments. But while I gain some time doing this it is not enough. I need to become a pressing machine. The solution was simple- time to dance. Press 'n dance. Dance 'n press. Left foot to peddle down. One-two-three press. Vacuum steam, then cover up. Un-dos-tres. Left foot off peddle, back. Then, swing cuff right. Press. Press. Then, swing cuff left. Press. Press. Fold. Hang. And, 1-2-tres. Repeat.

Shauna had an almost 2 hour commute each way, each day (I just walked a couple of blocks). She worked most days until the gates came down. If the loads demanded even later. Sometimes, we would sneak through the small side gate and bring her something from the Deli. She never complained. She earned her keep as a Finisher. I didn't learn until week one was over that her silence while we worked was because of a disability not lack of desire. There after we communicated with knowing smiles and occasional notes on paper like two school girls.

My pressing stint lasted from the tail end of winter, to spring's blossoms and the Fourth of July weekend. After pressing thousands of pants, shirts and assorted linens, learning how to spot, laundry and dry clean, it was time to flip the chapter of one of the most difficult but rewarding times in my life.

Life does not always offer up a million and one choices or even just two and we have to depend on our own sense of ingenuity and will to succeed. The impact of the recession has many Mama and Papa Bears today pondering what is the best path to take to secure the future of the Baby Bears. Whether a dual income is necessary. What expenses can be cut. What is the bear minimum in resources they can manage with.

Hardships force one to look inwards for the strength to succeed outward. Not fun. A must do. It's time.

Lewis H. Latimer

Lewis H. Latimer (1848 - 1928)
Photographer: Unknown

I couldn't imagine blogging about the city I love and call Home Sweet Home, Hogar Dulce Hogar, without recognizing all celebrations, and the great accomplishments of NY'ers. Each group brings something wonderful to the table to share at the feast. 

Living in Flushing for over 3 decades, it seemed fitting to write about Inventor, Lewis H. Latimer, son of fugitive slaves, Civil War Veteran and his contributions in recognition of Black History Month, which was celebrated in February. I remember what an amazing feet it was to move the Queen Anne-styled home he lived in from 1903 to 1928 in 1988 from Holly Avenue to Leavitt Field where it stands and serves as a Museum today. 


Photo: Queens Tribune                      Photo:

(Left to right) Lewis Latimer house on the move 1988. Lewis H. Latimer House Museum Today

Latimer was a self made man. He learned mechanical drawing on his own, later becoming Thomas Edison's Chief Draftsman, and Engineer in his research team "Edison's Pioneers." He invented and patented, a carbon filament and the process for manufacturing it in 1881 and 1882 respectively, increasing the amount of time that incandescent bulbs burned and a step closer to where they are today.

In the course of my research I discovered many other great African American inventors among them a native New Yorker, Thomas L. Jennings, which conjured up memories of my dry cleaning days.

Thomas L. Jennings' Patent for "Dry-Scouring"

Thomas L. Jennings ( 1791 - 1856)
Photographer: Unknown

You want to look sharp for the big event. You spend a lot of time and effort selecting your costume. Whether it is made to order or off the rack you want it not to be fine, but THE F-I-N-E-S-T!! A little tailoring at the shoulders the hips the waist the legs the sleeves the bust the butt the inseam. To cuff or not to cuff? What's in? Ask your tailor. They are in the know.

The big event is over, there's a little spot of gravy on your tie, a grease stain on your dress that didn't fully spot out with the soap from the ladies room and some how the little one got splatters on the back of his pants, though it wasn't raining he managed to find a puddle to muck in. You leave the clothes in the corner, junior stores his under the bed. A week later you remember. "I gotta go to the cleaners!" And your interlude with your friendly neighborhood cleaners begins.

Dry Cleaner with a head shake and a tisk: "You really should have brought these in sooner."

You, eyes bowing. Sentence followed by a sigh: "I know, I have just been so busy."

Dry Cleaner looking at little boy pants, eyes aghast, tone alluding (how could you let this happen?): "I'll see what I can do with these." Pulling a squished Hershey's kiss and piece of cookie from a pocket the Cleaner continues. "I can work on the bit of gum on the cuffs, the oil on the back, but make no promises on the smell of cat."

"Necessity, who is the mother of invention." 
- Plato (427 BC- 347 BC), "Republic"

Thomas L. Jennings was born a free man in New York City. He held many jobs before becoming a well regarded tailor with clients traveling long distances for his service.

Much time and effort goes into crafting a fine piece of menswear or ladies wear for it to be soiled without remedy and end up in the trash or worn with stains. So Jennings went in search of a solution and on March 3rd, 1821 at the age of thirty he becomes the first African American to receive a U.S patent for the dry cleaning process he developed. Patent number 3306x "Dry Scouring of Clothes." He saved his customer's clothes and used the profits from his invention to free the rest of his relatives from slavery and support abolitionist efforts. Neither a small feat by yesterday or today's standards.

There is little published regarding Jenning's invention in comparison to that of other Black inventors such as Latimer because the details of his invention were unfortunately destroyed in the great fire of the U.S. patent house on December 15, 1836 along with thousands of other "Name and Date" patent records. But what can be said is that along with other inventors he laid the foundation for the science and business of dry cleaning as we know it today; saving wedding gowns so they can be worn for several generations, our fine wools and silks, suits and dresses until we part with them because closets are too full, or tastes change.


By Frank S. Horne
(Brooklyn Poet: 1899 - 1974)

I am trying
to learn to walk again...
all tensed and trembling
I try so hard, so hard...

Not like the headlong patter
of new and anxious feet
or the vigorous flailing of the water
by young swimmers
a new element
into submission...
It is more like
a timorous Lazarus
to take up the bed
on which he died...
I know I will walk again
into your healing
outstretched arms
in answer
to your tender command...

I have been lost
and fallen
in the dark underbrush
but I will arise
and walk
and find the path
at your soft command. 


I started this writing back in February but as I say "Life Happens!" And while this may be late in posting for Black History month (and so many other wonderful celebrations have come and gone) by the same token I would like to think that every day is Black History or Other Day, and we all stop and take some time to learn about one another. Savor the riches each group, each segment of our societies brings to complete the course at the table. It's time. Feast.

Links of Interest 

Historic House Trust.Org: Lewis H. Latimer House

Lewis H. Latimer House Museum
34-41 137th Street
Flushing, NY 11354
(718) 961-8585
Hours (New hours):  Tuesday-Thursday & Saturday, 11am-4pm.

: Subway: Subway #7 to Main Street Roosevelt. Take Q25 to Linden Place and 35th Ave. 

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