06/06/2008 10:29 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

America's Front Porch: Living The American Dry-Cleaning Dream

Last year, a Washington D.C. judge sued his neighborhood dry cleaner for $67 million over a pair of lost pants. Roy Pearson lowered his request to $54 million and eventually lost. Stories like this force us to look at the state of the American neighborhood. Is a pair of pants worth so much that you would punish your neighbor for their loss in such a way?

Matt Katz assures me that the American neighborhood is alive and well. Cultures collide. Friendships form. And we still treasure the people who pursue the American Dream.


By mattkatz

My unlikely bond with a dry cleaner began because I'm a sucker for the quaint idea of "neighborhood."

When I moved to a new neighborhood in Philly two years ago, I used the "Where's the local dry cleaner?" line to break the ice with the old lady next door who used to bang her cane against the wall when we played music after 10 pm. She directed me to a range of different places, but I went around the corner. It was closer.

As soon as I walked in, a Korean-American dude with a smile larger than the Pacific extended his hand and said: "I am Hong!"

Yes you are.

Hong welcomed me to the neighborhood. He said he would deliver my clothes to my building. He said all the high-class people in the neighborhood used his services. And he promised to remember me each time I came in.

Sure enough, on my second visit, he remembered me (sort of). "Kitz! How are you today?" he said, putting a Korean-accented spin on my last name, Katz.

This was awesome. I had found my dry cleaner.

A few months later, I appeared on a regional TV talk show to talk about dating (I was writing a newspaper column about dating at the time). Hong happened to see the show.

"Kitz! I see you on TV! You are VERY important man! You are VERY rich man! How much do they pay you?!?"

"Uh, nothing, actually. I don't -- it's for free, I guess," I said.

"No! In Korea they pay $1000 to everyone on the TV!"

In America, I thought, people pay to get themselves on TV. That didn't matter to Hong. He was overwhelmed with my television appearance and convinced that I was a hugely significant cultural entity.

And then my girlfriend came in to pick up my clothes one day. After a brief period of confusion because she was there picking up "Katz's clothes" not "Kitz's clothes," Hong welcomed her into his store. The next week, when he saw me, he pretty much went ape shit. "Kitz! You have very fancy girlfriend!!! Very fancy!"

My girlfriend (now fiance) is many wonderful, amazing things. But fancy she ain't.

Hong doesn't see things at face value, however, he looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, which is why I -- seriously -- love him.

For example, last year the owners of Hong's rented storefront told him that there would be scaffolding covering his sign for many months. But don't worry, they told him, a new condo was going up above his store, and once it opened there would be many new customers.

"Kitz! New condo upstairs going to be very fancy! Apartments are $500,000 for one-bedroom! Business is slow right now, but soon Hong will have many fancy customers!"

But neither customers nor fanciness followed. Hong got bamboozled. The owners of the building squeezed a few last months of rent from Hong before evicting him without notice. They never planned for him to stay. They planned to put a new fancy -- literally -- bistro in his place.

Simply put, one day I walked by, and Hong and his tiny store were gone. No sign with a forwarding number, no explanation.

I was sad, and pissed. I told everyone I could about how the Man had destroyed Hong's drive and dreams. Hong used to tell me about how his brother made a boatload of cash as the owner of a dry cleaner on the Jersey Shore. Once the new condo came in, he, too, would make said boatload. Instead, I thought, now he was probably working the counter for his brother, unable to take care of his three kids.

And then last Saturday happened. Last Saturday was more than six months after I had last seen Hong. Last Saturday was the first time I had been in a particular part of South Philly that I have never set foot in before.

My fiance and I were walking from a street festival to a friend's BBQ when I was jolted by a "clang" sound from across the street. I looked over. A shopowner was closing his store for the night. The shopowner felt my gaze, turned toward me, and our eyes locked for what seemed like minutes.

"Hong!" I screamed.

"Kitz!" he yelled.

I shit you not, I ran across the street. Hong talked a mile a minute, explaining how he got booted out of the old place and this was his dry cleaning plant that he had turned into a store. "Come in!" he said.

He reopened the shop, turned on all the lights and took us around the place, explaining how each machine in the dry cleaning operation worked. The store he had in my neighborhood was just that, a store. Here is where the action happened, where the clothes were pressed and the pants were put through crazy creasing machines. Now that he got evicted from my neighborhood, his store was operating out of the plant.

Despite the setback, Hong was more optimistic than ever. He expressed not a single iota of bitterness toward the Man. He felt that his new business would pick up in South Philly in no time, and he gave me two business cards, saying he would pick up my cleaning at my apartment and drop it off.

This morning, I dropped off my first batch of clothes at the new store. Hong smiled wide, just like the Pacific, and held my hand tight. He was thrilled to see me.

By evening, the clothes were delivered back to my apartment.

Our relationship, and maybe even the American dream, continues.

This story was originally posted on Tokoni, America's virtual Front Porch.