“I’m moving home to Chicago.”
And so I broke the news to my dry cleaner, ending our relationship. He frowned. It had been a long time coming.
Over nearly a decade in Manhattan, where rent gobbled the majority of my paycheck, a curated wardrobe became my greatest asset (and indulgence). There were prized possessions like a Rachel Antonoff zebra-print frock and a swingy plaid number from a Lower East Side boutique that I wore to every holiday party.
Each week, I went across the street to the dry cleaner, another extravagance, to drop off a beloved bundle of dresses, skirts and shirts, and pick up the previous pile. My dry cleaner—who emigrated from Iran—was in his fifties, with toffee-colored skin, striking green eyes and graying hair. He was gentle. He handled my clothes—my children—as if they were his own, and he never judged the ridiculous items I acquired. For example, a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of children’s book character Madeline and her Parisian classmates. “That’s cute,” he confessed, holding up the adorkable hand-me-down.
Come again? This man had seen hundreds of T-shirts, but singled out mine as cute. Forget Vogue. According to my dry cleaner, I had style. All sorts of men had given my quirky ensembles the side-eye. Not him. He appreciated my look, and by extension, me. And he saw the real me, too—the parts I kept hidden from all but a few confidantes.
In my cozy East Village neighborhood, where I rarely ran into work colleagues and Match.com dates, I could be myself. I considered myself my dry cleaner’s best customer. I liked to think that he admired my eye-catching oddities amongst all the black.
Eventually, I’d had enough of New York. I was exhausted from the nonstop hustle. I packed my clothes into 20 large cardboard boxes, sent them off to the Windy City and hailed a cab to LaGuardia. The taxi zipped past my world. I was too tired to feel a thing.
Cut to August 2016. My fiancé and I flew to New York for a wedding. We fell in love in Chicago and moved to San Francisco. The last day of our long weekend, I took Dave on a tour of my old ’hood. Mom-and-pop storefronts had changed; bodegas were turning into bottomless brunch spots.
My pulse quickened. Was he still here, or had the transforming city pushed him out? What a relief to discover his familiar face behind the counter. We ran toward each other and hugged.
“How’s Chicago?!” he asked ecstatically.
“I’m in San Francisco now!” I replied, just as excited.
I introduced him to Dave, who snapped our picture. As we walked away, Dave remarked it was like witnessing a family reunion. Hot tears streamed down my face. For the first time since leaving, I truly missed New York.
I now love that photo of my dry cleaner and me more than my closet of designer dresses, and that’s saying a lot.
Erin Carlson’s book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, is out Aug. 29.