Taken to the Cleaners
Autumn always brings me back to the dry cleaners. As a child, I was in thrall to the glamorous modernity of these establishments where stains are removed by a sophisticated chemical process yet, as an adult, when I go to collect my Winter coat each year I confront the inescapable melancholy of dry cleaners.
I cannot ascertain whether it is the queasy smell of chemicals, or the plastic shrouds upon the clothes, or the utilitarian anonymity of these places which renders them as temples of sadness in my perception, but – recognising that this is a subject worthy of closer examination – Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie and I set out on a bright October morning to visit some of the choicest dry cleaners the East End has to offer. And, in spite of my preconception about the emotional timbre of the profession, every one managed to raise a smile for the camera.
We began our safari in Aldgate High St at “City Slickers,” strategically placed at the boundary with the City of London, where softy-spoken manager Azim Nazir has his work cut out, turning round the dry cleaning in an hour for office workers who expect a rapid service. Even as we were there, a red-faced corporate gentlemen ran in clutching a rumpled shirt and enquiring anxiously if the garment could be ironed at once. “It’s my emergency shirt,” he confided to me breathlessly, by way of explanation – wiping the perspiration from his brow as he waited impatiently at the counter – before declaring, “It’s brilliant, this place!” in childish delight, as his shirt was handed back to him on a hanger with a plastic cover over it and he disappeared out the door again before I could blink.
Such histrionics are all in a day’s work for Azim who remained admirably unperturbed – the calm frontman of this streamlined enterprise tricked out in a sporty livery of yellow and black, where a whirlwind of dry cleaning activity is discreetly hidden from public gaze at the rear of the shop.“My family, my uncle and my cousins are all in dry cleaning,” he told me proudly, revealing the source of his phlegmatic nature and uncovering an unexpected clannish side to the business.
Returning to Spitalfields, we met Shafaqat Hussain at the dry cleaners in Whites Row, just as he was about to leap into the van and make his deliveries. Despite its modest size, this is a shop with large reputation on account of its celebrity customers. “We are Tracey Emin’s dry cleaners,” announced Shafaqat cheerily, his eyes gleaming with excitement indicating that she was a good customer, and then speeding off down Commercial St.
By now, we had reached the mid-morning lull, and over in Whitechapel at “Rebel Dry Cleaners,” we found Shahin Ahmed, amiable custodian of the rails, burning incense to dispel the chemical aroma, and accompanied by his pal from the shop next door. “I enjoy it because of the community that is here,” he confessed to me, “but when it is empty, my friend comes in so I am not alone.” It was a touching admission of the emotional challenge of working in a dry cleaners, where customers mostly drop off their orders on the way to work and the shop can be lonely for hours through the day. In the City, constant activity dispelled such emptiness for Azim and, in Spitalfields, Shafaqat’s deliveries avoided the issue by taking the clothes back to the customers but, in Whitechapel, Shahin faced the void with fortitude and patience.
Our next stop was in the Hackney Rd at “Nazal Dry Cleaners,” where Mrs Mustapha works six days a week, rising at six to leave home at seven and open the shop at eight, then staying until six each night. You might think it a punishing routine, but Mrs Mustapha was unqualified in her enthusiasm. “Any job is something these days, so you should appreciate it if you have one,” she declared , batting her eyelashes with emotion as she stated her personal manifesto, “and as long as you have a job, you must try to make the best of it – it doesn’t cost anything to smile and be polite, and sometimes you get to be friends with the customers and it’s good for business.” With her immaculate make-up and stylish jewellery, Mrs Mustapha is a passionate ambassador for her dry cleaning shop where she always keeps fresh flowers next to the fish tank on the counter. In the over-heated world of dry cleaning, she is a breath of fresh air.
The final destination in the tour was the extravagantly named “Champer’s Dry Cleaning” in the Roman Rd where, when I asked Parvez Malik, the proprietor of this family business, why he got involved in dry cleaning, he declared, with stark yet endearing self-deprecation, “There’s nothing else I can do.” It was apparent that Parvez was a natural comedian, with a droll humour savoured by his loyal customers in this corner of Bow.
Dry cleaners operate on trust, making a undertaking to restore your clothes – an undertaking that is mostly unappreciated, except on the rare occasion it is broken. As the sign in “Champer’s Dry Cleaning” promises, “We spoil out customers not their clothes.” Yet such is the nature of contemporary life, those who work in these places are unacknowledged beyond the inconsequential transaction of passing clothes across the counter. Each one accommodates to the endless waiting and sustaining a professional bonhomie with customers for just a modest financial reward – overcoming the inescapable melancholy of the dry cleaners in their own way.
Mrs Mustapha at “Nazal Dry Cleaners” in the Hackney Rd
Shafaqat Hussain at “Spitalfields Dry Cleaners” in Whites Row.
Shahin Ahmed at “Rebel Dry Cleaners” in Vallance Rd, Whitechapel.
Parvaz Malik at “Champers Dry Cleaners & the Crafty Cobblers” in the Roman Rd.
Azim Nazir at “City Slickers” in Aldgate High St.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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