June 15, 2007

Lucky Me

For years I've brought my dry cleaning to Lucky Cleaners, mostly because of the name. I figured maybe if my clothes were lucky, some of it would rub off on me. This is just about the same reason why I wash my laundry with Cheer - if I can keep my clothes happy, then maybe...

Not to perpetuate too much of a stereotype, but Lucky Cleaners is owned and operated by a nice Korean couple. Mind you, they're not the Korean couple that originally founded the fine Lucky Cleaners establishment. The founding Koreans ended up selling the business about five years ago to this new and completely separate and distinct Korean couple. I'm not going to say that all Korean couples look alike, because they don't anymore than every triathlete looks alike - but trust me, these two couples kinda do.

The original Korean founders were very nice people. Hank was the husband's name. Hank was a grade A guy. Still is, I'm sure. He was always happy (he must've washed his clothes with Cheer as well) and always friendly. It was nothing short of a pleasure to bring my clothing to Hank.

Hank remembered my name from the get go. The second time I walked in to Lucky Cleaners, I got a big personal Hank hello. It made me feel special. A little bit lucky, even. On top of that, we never had to do that quasi-uncomfortable dance where he would be forced to ask for my name every time I show up, despite the fact that I'd been a weekly customer for about 5 years.

I think of Hank and I smile. That's the reaction he arouses.

So you can probably imagine my surprise and dismay when I walked into Lucky Cleaners one day and was greeted by people I didn't know.

You're not Hank. Where's Hank? What did you do with Hank?! Hank is my Lucky Cleaner.

My shirts and slacks are quite particular, they only like being dry cleaned by Hank. Hank makes them feel lucky. I want Hank!!!

OK, maybe I didn't say all of that out loud - exceptin' for the "Where's Hank?" part. Either way, I didn't get much of a response. Which quickly led me to believe that this suddenly wasn't the Lucky Cleaners I've known and loved and felt so Lucky about.

Life had changed. I may need to start using a double scoop of Cheer.

Thing is, if you hadn't been paying close attention to the inner workings of Lucky Cleaners like I had (we'll hope you refrain from comment on that one), you probably would have never guessed that the business had been sold.

As mentioned above, the new owners are fairly decent replicas of Hank and his wife, but maybe with a bit fewer spark plugs in the ole engine block, if you know what I mean. I'm a-guessin' that they probably recognized Hank's critical role in the community and decided to capitalize on that by making people believe Hank was still around and, in so doing, trying to pull over the greatest dry cleaning con in history since that infamous "ancient Chinese secret" fiasco of the 70s.

The Lucky Cleaners store name was never changed by the new owners. Smart move, I guess, understanding the enormous equity that had been built into that name. However, the old decrepit sign that hangs on the front of the building - the one that Hank never bothered to repair - well, that still remains as well. Still decrepit.

As a matter of fact, all of the other run-down postings throughout the dry cleaners have stayed exactly the same as Hank had left them. As if owning a dry cleaner is like a 4 x 400 relay - just hand off the baton and keep running.

The well known Lucky Cleaners' hand-written signs, like "$10 minimum credit card" and "$.10 refund for return hanger," are still posted prominently throughout the waiting area. Though they are all barely legible at this point. The ink has faded like they'd been scotch taped to the wall for ten years, which they probably have been. Heaven forbid the new owners should bother to update them.

There are even a variety of other signs and notices hanging around the dry cleaning premises in the chicken scratch that any Lucky Cleaner aficionado can discern is clearly Hank's handwriting. You can't pull one over on us so easily. No siree Bob. (or, rather, No siree Hank.)

One would think that when you buy a new business, you'd at least change the handwriting on the signs. That seems to me as if it'd be in the first or second chapter of the Dry Cleaner ownership manual.

One of the more popular activities practiced by Los Angeles dry cleaners is to prominently display autographed photos on the wall. This is Hollywood, after all, where just about everybody pretends to be a celebrity, even the celebrities. More often than not, the signed headshots on dirty dry cleaning walls are of third-rate actors who few of us ever recognize.

More often than not, one or two of the headshots are of faces that look remotely familiar. And when I say remote, I mean by a long long distance. Like maybe it's a photo of an extra who was roaming the streets on the set of Schindler's List for a quick scene. And perhaps if you could just see them eighty pounds lighter, dressed in tattered rags with a gun in their face and the distinct smell of sauerkraut in the air, maybe then that'd help you remember who the hell they are.

Needless to say, the definitely-not-Hank Korean couple who recently purchased Lucky Cleaners decided to keep the same faded headshots on the wall that Hank had originally displayed decades ago. These actors are probably dead by now. Or at least waiting tables in much finer restaurants. There are only three of them on the wall at Lucky Cleaners. For the past ten years that I've been frequenting Lucky Cleaners, there have never been more nor less than these three headshots taped to the wall. They must be very important non-recognizable people. I suppose that may be why they've decided to keep the photos displayed.

Maybe one day these actors walked in to get a rush dry clean job for their shirt so they could wear it for the next day's audition. Maybe when they walked in, Hank smiled his friendly grin as he told them that he wasn't able to turn their cleaning order around so quickly. Really busy. Busy time of year.

I really really need it for my audition, the actor might've said.

Audition? You actor? You good actor? You famous actor? Give me headshot, I clean clothes.

I can imagine that is how the scene may have unfolded.

That probably wouldn't happen with the new owners though, they don't seem to care about this autographed headshot tradition. Which is perhaps why they haven't had any new photos on the wall in the years that they've owned the place. Then again, maybe it's because the new owners don't speak English, aside from three words:

Hello. Thank you.

That about covers it.
You walk in and get a happy-but-not-Hank smile and a somewhat uncomfortable "Hello!" from the wife. (It's always the wife that helps the customers. It's her job. I suppose they're old-fashioned like that.)

Somehow you mumble through your information, detailing your order... six shirts, dry cleaned please.

Thank you, she'll say as she types the information into the computer.
Thank you she says again for no apparent reason.
Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

There comes a point when it just becomes uncomfortable. How many times can I really say, "No, thank YOU" in response? You're welcome seems so darn inappropriate. So I stand in silence and look down at my hands. I tiddle-dee-wink. I look at my Blackberry and make believe there are important messages that need to be read immediately. All the while, I wonder how long it will take to hand me the ticket so I can turn and leave.

Finally she hands me the ticket. But this, my friends, is the signature dish of Lucky Cleaners. This is the reason I keep going. The Lucky ticket handoff. THIS is the coup d'grace of the dry cleaning experience.

The method in which the wife hands the ticket to customers is, well.... nothing short of brilliant. It's a three stage act - a full production that leaves you wanting to clap and cheer and demand an encore.

Like a cross between a stouthearted steward of a medieval English king who kneels in front of his liege to deliver a missive, and the dainty tenderness of a fifteenth century geisha, dutifully spending her life in the selfless service of others, the Lucky Dry Cleaners ticket is presented with such flare and panache, you can't help but feel a little flutter of specialness deep inside.

After you hand over your clothes and the order is entered into the computer, the ticket is printed. With the graceful flare of Dry Cleaners On Ice, she'll swiftly and casually rip the ticket off of the printer. For all I know, she's lifting one leg off the floor at the same time, like a Korean version of the FTD florist.

In the same balletic motion, she will wind up her arm, twisting her right shoulder back in perfect posture. When her right arm starts coming down with ticket in hand, it is as if gravity may cause it to smash right onto the countertop. And seconds before you reach out to save her dainty fingers, like Copperfields magic, her left hand miraculously appears to catch the fall. In what may very well be a deleted scene from the Nutcracker Suite, she is left standing, right arm fully supported by left hand, arms at perfect right angles, shoulders squared, eyes wide, mouth smiling and a pick-up ticket stretched out towards you.

You want to clap. Maybe even scream hurrahs. You want to cheer for the Lucky Cleaners ticket presentation.

It makes you feel like you are King. As if Lucky Cleaners is handing you the winning lottery ticket and you're life has suddenly taken a turn for the even better.

As you take the ticket and turn to walk out the door, you glance at the autographed headshots on the wall and suddenly notice that they are smiling. Were they always smiling? I don't remember them smiling. I thought it was just Hank that smiled before.

Perhaps, you realize, that something HAS changed at Lucky Cleaners. Maybe the old handwritten notes haven't been dusted off in decades and perhaps there are no plans to change the sign out front. And, yes, Hank is no longer here, gushing with his cheerful, ebullient charm. But the autographed photos on the wall know. And when she hands me that ticket with her artistic delivery, I can't help but feel it too... Life is good. I AM lucky.


Amy said...

I eat Cheerios in the morning for the same reason. They make me feel cheery. Or at least I hope they will leave me with some extra cheer. And during a race I visualize each cheerio giving me some energy and it makes me laugh.