Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning was a small store, about a ten minute walk from my apartment. The proprietor, a lady who was in her mid-fifties when I first began bringing my clothes there was a Taiwanese woman who spoke very little, broken English. Her name was Chan Mei. I used her services for a very long time.
When I say a long time it was over a period where I saw her son Peter grow from a toddler, playing in his play pen in the store; watch him grow old enough that he would help out with the ironing; graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in electrical engineering; get married and have his first child, a daughter whom he named Doris.
After Doris was born I asked Peter how he had decided on her name, thinking this was perhaps a close approximation of a Chinese name. He answered me, “She has no Chinese name. We’re Americans, so she has an American name. Besides, I like Doris Day and her movies. She seems very nice and very happy. I want my daughter to be very nice and very happy.”
Every Saturday between noon and twelve fifteen I would show up at Chan’s, armed with a bundle of soiled clothes and some wire hangers which I was returning so they could be reused and would pick up my clothes that had been expertly cleaned. It got to the point when Mei was so used to my schedule that she always had my clothing up front shortly before noon so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the hanging clothes that were ready and waiting for pick up.
When my mother passed away, I left Chicago and spent four weeks in New York, dealing with all the things one has to do after a family death. Needless to say, my last load of clothing languished in Chan’s until I returned to the Windy City.
When I came in that next Saturday, Mei sighed as though in relief and said, “I worry about you, Missee Juwanna. I thinkee maybe something happen you – no see for long time.” I explained what had occurred and the reason for my absence. A look of great concern and sadness came over Mei’s face.
“You fatha die and now you motha die. You orphan now.”
With that statement, Mei raised the wooden hinged board in the front counter that allowed access to the back of the store, came over to me and gave me a big hug. “I be you motha now,” she said as the tears welled up in both our eyes.
After a few minutes in this embrace, Mei released me and before giving me my clothes which I could see waiting in their usual place, she said, “You waitee here.” She went in the back of the store and I could hear oil sizzling in a wok. About ten minutes later she came to the front of the store with a little plastic lined white Chinese food takeout box and presented me with my lunch.
I thought that was extremely sweet but was completely taken by surprise when the following Saturday I was again presented with a take out container. That continued every Saturday for the next twenty years. This loving woman had voluntarily taken on this responsibility and never failed to deliver on her commitment. When she finally returned to Taiwan at the age of 78 to take care of an older brother who’s wife had passed away, I could tell that Mei was concerned that I would be able to carry on without her. But I assured her that I would be okay – and she hesitantly seemed to believe me.
About five years after Mei began making my Saturday meals, I walked in as usual and could see that she was very upset. I asked her why she was so distraught. She said, “Man come in and wavee gun at me – steal money.” I was so angered that someone had stolen the little amount of money this woman had and who worked so hard to earn it, I was determined to do whatever I could to see that he was apprehended.
I asked Mei, “Was he tall or short; fat or thin; black or white?” If I happened to see him while doing my Saturday shopping, I wanted to be able to flag down one of the police cars that regularly cruised the neighborhood.
Mei looked at me and said, “Missee Juwanna. All you black and white people lookee same to me.” I had to bite my cheek to prevent an involuntary smile from spreading across my face. I did not want her to mistake my genuine amusement at her statement to be mis-interpreted for minimizing the seriousness of what had happened.
I thought about Mei and Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning the other day because of what has been happening in Ferguson, MO. I wondered to myself whether Ferguson had a Chinese laundry there. And I asked myself, “If they did have a Chinese laundry in Ferguson, after all the protests, looting and rioting, is it still standing?”