For many adults dry cleaning must be an inconvenience. I imagine, for those who don’t have the luxury of a personal assistant, that they would much rather it was a drive-thru service. Unfortunately for them, there were no drive-thrus in the late 1980s. For a little boy, however, a day spent at my mother’s place of employment, Flamingo Dry Cleaners, was an adventure!
I vividly remember the first time I accompanied my mother to the large Westgate main branch, in bustling downtown Johannesburg. When we entered the shop I recoiled like a frightened kitten. I had never heard noises like that, rumblings and swooshing. “Wow…” I thought to myself. “What is this place?” Were it not for my head being tilted slightly backwards as I marveled at the large industrial machinery, I’m sure my eyeballs would have fallen out my head. I’d never seen washing machines that big before!
As I was transfixed by the sight and sounds of these large drums with glass lids for faces, all lined up just behind the long glass and wooden counter, my fascination was broken by a booming voice from the other side.
“Ah Kingsley! How are you?” bellowed Mr. Morphis, the owner of the shop.
He was a short balding man, with a strong Mediterranean accent and a gregarious voice that sounded very much like the Father Christmas on T.V. –except this Father Christmas was Greek, wore black loafers, grey formal trousers, and a formal shirt, with the top button undone. I shook his hand as firmly as a little boy can and said “Hello Mr. Morphis!”
He grinned politely and then greeted my mother: “Hello Violet! He’s getting big eh?”
“Ya! Too beeg hey?” she smiled back.
I wondered if they were referring to the circumference of my stomach or my height.
Behind the counter my mother opened another door that led to the back of the factory-like building. It was an introduction to another world I didn’t even know existed. Before my nostrils could adjust to the smell of chemicals and lubricants used to oil and maintain more large industrial machines, unapologetically loud mechanical sounds of “Ka-ling-ling!” and “Gi!” announced themselves. I jumped back with a fright, ready to arm myself with whatever I could find. My mother, on the other hand, had no time for my theatrics. “Woza wena! Asambe.” she called. As she took me by the hand and hurried to the tiny staff room in the right-hand corner upstairs, a loud and threatening “Pshshshshshshshsh!” was followed by billowing steam. My mother reminded me to keep my hands to myself and stay far away from the machines.
After I was introduced to everyone, they all dispersed to go about their daily duties. I stepped out onto the little balcony at the top of the stairs overlooking what would become my kingdom for the day. It was home to all these loud and rather intimidating beasts, alive with sounds that made you approach with caution. I observed as everyone stood by their stations. Some dumped large bags of dirty clothing on the floor – the thought of a mountain of smelly sweaty socks made me wrinkle my nose in disgust. Others manned the large machines, pulling levers, pressing buttons and stepping on strategically placed pedals. It was a strange partnership between man and machine, but these humans seemed to operate these beasts with confidence. Along at least two walls, hanging headless on multicoloured wire hangers, was what looked like hundreds of items of clothing all dressed in clean transparent plastic sleeves, awaiting collection.
Lunch, for a boy with a healthy appetite and a stomach to match, was always a treat! My mom and I walked to the corner café where she bought me a Cornish pie, Tropika and a small carton of Ultra Mel Custard. Mmmmmmmm! Delish! On the way there mom kept introducing me to all these smiling friendly people. “Hooo! Ukhulisile Vi!” some would say as they marvelled at how much I had grown. Smiling for no reason always made me feel a little silly, but I just couldn’t help it!
Not long after I finished refilling my tummy with a pastry pregnant with a stew-like filling, dripping with warm brown gravy that made you want to lick your fingers, it was off to the barbershop! It was located on the same block as the dry cleaning store, also upstairs. Upon arrival we were welcomed by a man only ever known to me as Mkhulu. There was no guessing why he was called Mkhulu. His puffy white hair, wrinkled steady hands and a slow shuffle amongst bobbles of discarded hair were a dead giveaway. Something told me that he would rather be wearing warm slippers than those uncomfortable stiff-looking brown leather shoes.
You could tell that Mkhulu had been a barber for a long time, because all you had to do was tell him what you wanted, and for R15 (in my case) you were assured to walk out satisfied. My mom once took me to a barber whose hands were too hard, and kept jerking my head in different directions as if I was a crazy owl searching for mice to eat. Mkhulu, on the other hand, was gentle. His hands moved with care, tilting my head to get the right angle, as my chubby body relaxed under the large black cape that covered me. At one point I started getting sleepy as the soothing buzz of the clippers gently vibrated across my head. The result? A clean well-manicured German cut –what we called a two-room-and-garage, back then.
On the way home, my neck must have seemed longer than usual as I showed off my fresh haircut to anyone who cared to notice. As I reflected on the adventures and characters of the day, I turned to my mom and asked “Mama when can I get a haircut again?” She just laughed.
As we grow older, somewhere between hating the boss and paying the bills, we lose our sense of adventure. Imagination withers like a neglected orchid, and the magic of childhood fades. Somewhere between the loss of innocence and oppressive societal expectations, we let the child within slip away. This memory reminds me how an ordinary day can be an adventure, if you are looking through the eyes of a child.