Larry: The Love of a Master

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When I opened up my front-seat console earlier this afternoon to look for a pen, I found, sitting on top of all the sundry stuff in there, an open dry cleaning slip from K & B Dry Cleaners in West Seneca, New York, where I had spent more than a year caretaking my older sister after our mother died.

My younger sister and I had taken care of our mother the last two weeks of her life, a sacred honor which has forever imprinted me. If you ever get a chance to be with someone as they’re actively dying, do it. It’s an experience you will never, ever regret.

With Mom gone, I was charged with the caretaking of my older sister. It turned out to be a monumental undertaking requiring a many-pegged hat rack:  nurse’s aide, personal care assistant, dietician, cook, personal trainer, housecleaner, occupational therapist, socialization re-entry specialist, cognitive rehabilitator, doctor liaison, health care hawk, and fun seeker.

I was also responsible for going through and clearing out all my mother’s belongings and either disbursing them, tossing them, or boxing them for later; de-cluttering the entire apartment; and rejuvenating and beautifying the apartment so it belonged to my sister.

I did all this single-handedly. My younger sister had returned to Ohio to resume her life after being the primary responsible party (long-distance and in-person) for my mother for the four months leading up to her death.

Nearly every weekend, she drove the 400-mile round-trip from Cleveland to see my mother, in the closing bookend of a still-frigid winter. This was in the winter/spring of 2021 when we were still totally in covid mode.

At the long-term care center where my mother was staying before we brought her home, there was no in-person visitation allowed whatsoever, so my sister and various other family members had to stand outside my mother’s window and call her on the phone, enduring the inclement weather conditions that have made Buffalo infamous.

Mind you, my mother was cognitively-impaired after her stroke so you can imagine how bizarre this whole scene must’ve felt to her.

Like the lobster in the pot, my own life was being boiled to death and I had no idea it was even happening.  I had gained 20 pounds from emotional eating (i.e., not feeling any emotions); had relentless insomnia; and was becoming depressed and desperate.

I had wanted to have dry cleaned the beautiful dress coat I had worn to my mother’s memorial luncheon, so a-googling I went. K&B Dry Cleaners on Clinton Street popped right outta the hopper with its billion and a half, 5-star reviews. I gathered up my dress coat and drove right over.

The shop was a non-descript building only about 12-feet high, with a flat roof. When I opened the door and walked in, it took exactly two steps before I landed midriff-high at the customer counter.

In the small room adjacent to the customer counter, a diminutive man of around 65 put down his steamer and came over to greet me. His face was happy and open and reminded me a lot of the actor who played the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger.

Larry was a friendly, warm, and easy, easygoing man. He had been in the dry cleaning business for FIFTY YEARS! We talked for a while and I told him why I was in Buffalo before he wrote out a slip for my item and handed me my pink copy. “Next week?” he said. “Sure,” I smiled.

When I went back exactly one week later to pick up my coat, I was impressed by the high level of impeccable care showing through the plastic cover.  My dresscoat looked brand-new!

When I got back to my sister’s apartment, I hung the coat up – not in the closet – but where I could look at it. There was a special energy surrounding it that wasn’t there before – or ever. Every time I looked at it, I felt happy and at peace – as if I were still somehow connected to some shard of my own life, but I couldn’t place my finger on it.

I want you to know that, over my entire life, I virtually never took anything to be dry cleaned because of all the chemicals.

A couple weeks later, I found myself back at Larry’s pushing through his front door with a huge pile of tops, pants, sweaters, and other coats, most of which didn’t even require dry cleaning. I laid the mound of apparel on the countertop. Larry reached for his pad.

“Oh, my,” he laughed. “This looks like your entire wardrobe.”

The truth is: it was nearly my entire wardrobe.

“Next week?” Larry sparkled.

Now, it was going to be hard for me to go a whole week with what little clothing I had left at home, but what could I say but yes?

Because there’s not a single upscale retailer left in Buffalo (there’s a Macy’s but it’s a mediocre one), I had to do nearly all my clothing shopping online. It turned into a part-time job ordering and returning, ordering and returning – but it at least kept me in touch with an aspect of my life passed onto me from my mother: a love of fashion.

I started finding some beautiful pieces on ThredUp, an online consignment shop. Many of the pieces were brand-new with tags and made of natural fibers that I procured for a song.

Off to Larry’s I skipped to drop off my hot-pink, J.Crew wool capris; a couple merino wool sweaters, a silk skirt, a floral wraparound blouse – all of it brand-new with tags

Mind you, none of this stuff fit me because, by now, I had gained 20 pounds and nothing at all fit me. I “jokingly” said, “I came to Buffalo a fox and I left a box.”

“I’m finding some really beautiful pieces of clothing online, Larry,” I beamed.

“I’ll say!” he said, picking up the chocolate-brown silk skirt to give it a gander. “This is a beautiful piece of silk.”

“And get a load of these hot-pink wool pants!”

“Oh, wow! Do you want a crease in these or no crease?” he asked.

Hmmm…crease or no crease. My whole life, I’d never been asked this question.

I held the pants up to my body and turned to the only other customer in the shop – a man who might’ve known something I didn’t.

“What do you think? Crease or no crease?”

He smiled. “Oh, boy. Those are really a nice pair of slacks. Go with the crease.”

So I did. I went with the crease, mainly because I never had pants with a crease before.

“See you next week, Larry!”

And this is how it went all throughout the year: I had Larry dry clean clothing that could’ve been machine-washed. I had Larry dry clean all my online finds. I wished I could find more items so that I could have Larry dry clean them.

Each time I picked up my order, I felt uplifted, energized. There was something about how Larry hung my order on that hook, the plastic billowing about, that captivated me. When I paid and walked my clothing to the car, I felt like a million bucks.

Larry’s work was impeccable and I couldn’t get enough of it.

One time I took in a woven poncho that I hadn’t even worn for 10 years. Why I took that to Buffalo, I don’t know. No. I do know. When you go to Buffalo, you take all kinds of clothing for all kinds of weather conditions. Or you might live to regret it.

“Larry,” I said, sliding the poncho across the counter. “I love this poncho but I haven’t worn it in years cause it looks ratty with all this pilling. Do you think you could get the pilling off?”

“Well, I have this little tool made specifically for that,” he said. “I’ll do the best I can.”

The next week when I came to pick up that poncho, it looked brand-new. “You’re a miracle worker, Larry,” I smiled.

Each time I returned home, I’d put my dry cleaning up around my bedroom as if it were an art installation. Every time I gazed at the impeccable care and mastery of Larry’s handiwork, my mood lifted and I felt…

LOVED. That was it! I felt loved.

Seems that the only occasions when I felt loved or cared for that whole year was when I picked up my dry cleaning from Larry.

The pink slip I found in my console today was connected to my final order before leaving Buffalo:

3 blouses, press

1 sportcoat, press

2 skirts, press

1 sweater, press

18 scarves, clean

1 blouse, clean

1 jacket, clean

The 18 silk scarves represented every scarf I had taken with me to Buffalo. I like wearing silk scarves. It’s a habit I picked up when I lived in Paris as a young woman.

Larry had dry-cleaned and hand-pressed each and every one of those scarves with exquisite care, laying them out side-by-side in a two-layer formation on the hanger. It was so beautiful, I wanted to frame it.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here?” Larry smiled as I gathered up my final order.

“I think I’m ready to go, Larry. I think I’ve been here too long already.”

He looked a little wistful.

“I want to thank you for taking such impeccable care of my wardrobe this year. The love you put into your work made ME feel loved. And I appreciate you for that ‘cause I really needed it.”

Larry smiled at me like humble people usually do, seemingly not knowing the impact they have in this world and the mark they leave on people.

My car was jam-packed when I left Buffalo on July 5, 2022. Items were stored under each seat, in the door spaces, in the space between the back seats and the doors. Things were packed inside other things. There wasn’t a bit of space in my Mazda 3 that wasn’t fully occupied.

I gingerly laid my dry-cleaning bags on the flattened back seats of my car and secured them with a blanket so they wouldn’t slide around. I wanted to protect and preserve Larry’s work from getting messed up and wrinkled for as long as I possibly could.

When I returned to Atlanta on July 5, it was already quite hot. I wouldn’t be needing my silk scarves until fall. But I kept my scarf hanger – still in plastic – in full view. Many a time over that summer, whenever my eyes landed there, I thought of Larry.

When fall came, I gently slid a small, square pink scarf from the corner of the collection, taking care to preserve the two-layered formation as much as I could.

I folded it, folded it again, then tied it around my neck.

Suddenly, I was filled with Larry’s love all over again, and my heart sang with gratitude for that humble man who had given me so much over one of the most difficult years of my life.

Penultimate

Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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