Working at a dry cleaners doesn’t exactly seem like a hotbed of excitement. But in my three years staffing a Florida cleaners behind the counter, I handled cocaine, got sick from noxious chemicals and routinely got cursed out by customers who’d go ballistic over a Banana Republic blouse.
My high school friend had a job at a cleaners down the road from my house, so when there was an opening there, I joined her. The pay was your typical retail wages in the late '90s: around $7.50 an hour. I worked about 20 hours a week on nights and weekends from age 17 on, and then I did at least one summer of full-time work.
So, what actually happens when people trade their clothes in exchange for a paper ticket?
First, we’d sort their items by dry clean (most tailored clothes) and laundry (cotton shirts). We washed the cotton shirts in regular laundry machines, but we had to manually pin ID tags with the order number to the tags of dry cleaned clothes. Occasionally a customer would complain when we ruined the tag on their Ann Taylor skirt by pinning a safety pin through it.
That kind of stuff made me snicker, but we didn’t exactly handle clothes with delicate care. Every item got stuffed into laundry bags that we’d drag along the floor. If we spilled water or stain remover on the counter, we’d wipe it up with some banker’s Brooks Brothers button-down. Period stains, soiled men’s briefs, yellow armpit residue, the ripe stench of body odor: I saw it all. When I took clothes in and a customer pointed out a stain, I’d have to ask what the stain was, because we had special chemicals for getting out different substances. Awkward! Some middle-aged bachelors had no idea how to do laundry and they’d bring us literally every article of clothing, so we had to dry clean their jeans. Once we got a comforter in that reeked so badly of cat pee that I almost barfed trying to put it in the machine.
I saw all kinds of brand names — Gucci, Versace, Prada. And we cleaned people’s wedding gowns, which was stressful. But most of the clothes were mass market workwear — Banana Republic shift dresses, polyester blazers from TJ Maxx, Men’s Wearhouse suits. Sometimes I had to do the actual dry cleaning, which I hated. I'd put clothes in a big washing-machine type machine which — instead of flooding them with water — sloshed them around in perchloroethylene (perc), a toxic chemical that’s a known carcinogen (fun!). More than once, I got nauseous and headache-y from breathing in the fumes. The perc didn’t even clean all the stains — occasionally we’d have something encrusted that we couldn’t get out, and customers would get furious. But really, what could we do?
After the cleaning process was done, the pressers would iron the clothes using industrial steam irons and pressing machines. Now, I worked in South Florida in the sticky swamp of summer, and we couldn’t have air conditioning because with the giant billows of hot steam escaping from the pant presses, trying to cool down the place would have been like setting cash ablaze every day. I wore my uniform shirt and the shortest shorts I could get away with. I definitely almost passed out sometimes, lugging heavy bags of pants from the front of the store to the back.
The customers were mostly pleasant, but as it turns out, dry cleaners can really bring in the image-obsessed douchebags. The men would flirt with us, because we were wearing next to nothing in the heat. People would get really worked up about clothes, which I get because you have sentimental value attached to your outfits, but I can’t even count the number of times customers would curse at me or flip out because they had to go on vacation and we hadn’t pressed their pants in time. As the counter girl, there’d be nothing I could do but just let people go ballistic. The worst would be when we’d lose clothes — every now and then, someone would forget to put an order number tag on something, and it would disappear into the void. We ended up with a slush pile of garments in the back that no one ever claimed, some that lingered there for five years plus. (We still weren’t allowed to take anything home.)
My co-workers were a constantly rotating crew of mostly women. There were three young “counter girls” like me who were kind of the face of the store. One of the pants pressers was an alcoholic, and she mixed vodka in her Gatorade bottle and drank from it all day. My boss knew about it, but because she was a whiz on the pressing machine, my boss let her stay, even fetching her Gatorade cocktail from the fridge for her to keep her pressing pants.
The real jackpot came in what we found in people’s pants pockets. ATM receipts were my fave, because like every other person on earth, I was nosy. Expensive gold cufflinks left jutting out of shirt cuffs; a spare condom. I found tiny bags of weed every now and then, which we’d just dispose of, but who knew if someone dug it out of the trash. The biggest score was cocaine, which I found in the pocket of a pair of pants belonging to one of our biggest customers. My boss promptly flushed it down the toilet, but not before one of the pants pressers begged her to let her keep it. If we found cash, we were supposed to stick it in a paper bag and staple it to the ticket to be returned to the customer. I definitely found $100 bills. Although I was tempted, I never pocketed any cash that I found — I was paranoid about getting caught. My boss would test new employees by taking a $10 bill from the register, tucking it in a pant pocket and putting it in their intake pile to see if they’d pilfer it. If they did, she’d fire them right away.
Dry cleaning is a lucrative biz — a few items could easily add up to a $50 ticket. My manager let some people have credit accounts, so they would come pick up their shirts and just tell me, “Put it on my tab” and rush out, and I would have no idea who they were. I’d have to track down their accounts in the computer, and they were hundreds of dollars in debt to us. Imagine what they owed Visa.