Sam’s Cleaners is a dry cleaning and tailoring store on the sunny Southeast corner of Kearny Street at Clay Street. Sam hunches over his black Singer sewing machine that sits smack dab in front of a glass counter whose shelves are filled with blue paper bags of fresh-pressed, starched shirts neatly tied with white string, each package waiting hopefully for is owner to come reclaim it. Sam looks through the windowed entrance door opening onto Kearny Street, waving, shouting hello to every passer-by he knows, which is a considerable amount of people. He can even see diagonally across the intersection to Portsmouth Square, a friend strolling down the park path, kids waiting to cross the street.
Sam wears a plastic green duckbill cap, elastic-strapped to his head, like the kind poker dealers wear. It shades his eyes from the light over his Singer as he’s sewing and the afternoon sun streaming through the display glass of his shop and entrance door. His round spectacles are thick, making his eyes bigger and yet blurrier at the same time. Like a frog’s eyes. His jaw is a grizzled, unshaven growth of salt and pepper. His blue sleeves are rolled up to just above his elbows; and he wears a gray pin-stripe suit vest that is unbuttoned. Sam pulls at his gold-chained watch as he delicately holds the neck of a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle between his thumb and the second finger, hoisting it up carefully to his uplifted head. He takes small sips.
Molly is a blonde, full body woman. She has very red lips, big rounded chest, hourglass figure, and full calves, and moves like she knows she has all of the above. She looks as if she stepped out of the cover of a detective dime novel, like the ones on the racks at Jackson’s Bookstore, just around the corner from Sam’s Cleaners. Those books have titles like Fallen Angel and She Was Bad But He Had to Have Her. I think that Molly probably posed for a few covers herself.
Molly sits across from Sam, on the non-working side of the Singer sewing machine, which is to say the left side looking if you’re coming in from the street. She moves casual and lazy like a shop cat, delicately holding the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as Sam sews. Today, as they often do, they share the same bottle. Molly holds a Lucky Strike - her very red long fingernails poised in the air as she moves the cigarette to and from her luscious very red lipstick mouth. The two blow smoke rings at each other. One of Sam’s smoke rings goes through one of Molly’s and then they both look at each other and laugh. A Giants baseball game blares in the background. Steam presses hiss, then blare, in a secret rhythm known only to the pressman.
Molly isn’t there to work, for it’s Sam who gets up when a customer comes in for their dry cleaning or to have a pair of split pants sewn up along the seat. Molly just slowly sips her beer, smokes her Lucky Stripes, and carefully examiners her nails. She doesn’t even look at customers. One customer carefully says “Hello, Molly”. Molly slowly curls her eyelashes up, takes a moment as if to remember the face, then the name, and finally responds languidly, “Hi, Al. How’s life treating you?” She doesn’t say anything else even though Al says, “Umm, fine. How’s by you?”
Sam’s two Chinese employees work the steam presses in the background, wrap up cleaned shirts in the blue packaging, and hang up cleaned suits and trousers. Another customer enters and Sam hollers for one of them to find an item on the rack. Sam rings up the cash register and makes change. The workers don’t say much and then it’s usually in Toisanese dialect.
Sam speaks American perfectly. He doesn’t speak like Chinatown Chinese, with their pauses between phrases, stretching two-syllables into four, or in a high scratchy accent. Sam speaks American like a smart private eye in a black and white movie playing at the Hub Theater on Market Street.
Molly seems to always be there, sitting with Sam all day long. Sam and her, they seem like husband and wife, except they’re not married. They‘re Siamese Twins, except they look so different. They’re bookends sitting on different sides of Sam’s sewing table, emitting smoke endlessly. They so like each other, spend all their days together, but yet, I’ve never seem them kiss each other like sweethearts do in the movies.
We like Sam’s Cleaners because Sam lets us play there. Sam’s collie looks a lot like Lassie the wonder dog, who we’ve watch on TV rescuing his boy owner from trouble all the time. Sam’s collie is named Lucky. Lucky is always chained to the corner fire hydrant and this makes it easy for us to pet him and feed him. Only unlike Lassie, Lucky doesn’t seem as smart. Is it because he’s gotten so bored tied up all day by the fire hydrant? Is it because the noise and smoke of all the cars, trucks, and buses passing through all day long, and the endless people and their chatter, have damaged Lucky’s mind in some way? Anyway, Lucky is no Lassie.
Behind Sam’s counter are racks upon racks of suits and pants and overcoats and dresses and blouses and shirts. Many of them seem to have been there a
long time, like the people who brought them in to be cleaned up had forgotten about them, or maybe couldn’t afford to pay for them. We can play hide and seek back there and pretend we’re lost on a strange planet and have to wade our way through this thick atmosphere to find the space ship. Like one of those planets we see in the movie houses on Market Street.
Sam is real cool with this, I mean our hanging around his shop and playing behind the counter, in front of his store, or just talking with him and Molly. He likes having us kids around. Once in awhile though, he gets angry and shouts at us to get out. But the next day, he’s fine again.
Sometimes Molly or Sam slips us a dime or a quarter. With a dime, Dickie and I’d run over to Benny’s Smoke Shop for a coke. With a quarter, we’d go next door to Henry’s father’s restaurant to share a full size hamburger, fresh sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and onion and mayonnaise on both sides of the grilled bun.
All for 20 cents.
One night, as customers go in and out the swinging door of Smokey’s Bar, I see Molly hanging out by the bar. Smokey’s bar is on the next block of Kearney Street, right next to Benny’s Smoke Shop. Lots of people have drinks there at night, even the police and Charlie the Bail Bondsman. Molly is tipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with her upraised, long, red finger nailed hand, laughing loud with the men sitting and standing along the bar. We’re playing four square using the sidewalk squares in front of Benny’s Smoke Shop, when who comes out walking down the street with a guy, one of his arms over her shoulder and one of hers around his waist, but Molly. She’s moving towards her room at the Hotel Justice, a couple of doors down from Smokey’s. Molly sees us but ignores us like she doesn’t know who we are. But to us, she’s Molly our friend, who we see everyday at Sam’s Cleaners. She’s Molly, who hugs us if we’re crying, washes and bandages our scrapes, and gives us change for snacks to make us smile.
And so we shout “Hi Mollies” to her. There’s a hard look in her eyes, then she looks away but says a soft “Hello, kids.” and keeps walking with the guy.
We keep continuing playing four square until it’s time to go home.
One day, years later as an adult, I’m reading a column in the daily paper called The Answer Man. The Answer Man (who is sometimes a woman reporter) walks around the streets stopping regular people with “The Question of the Day”. The Question of the Day isn’t ever anything like “What Is the Meaning of Life” or “Is God Dead”? It ‘s usually more like “Do you think the waterfront freeway should be torn down?” or “What do you think of them Giants?” There are usually 4 or 5 thumbnail size black and white square photos of the answer people, with their name and jobs under the photo and then their answer.
The Answer Man column this day says the Question of the Day has been asked around Kearny Street and Clay Street. I don’t remember the actual Question because that isn’t what’s memorable about this day’s column. There is a photo of a Molly O’Reilly, much older but recognizable. She’s our Molly all right. Her occupation is listed as “Hospitality Hostess”. Although I can guess now, then I wouldn’t have known what a hospitality hostess is and don’t know for sure what Molly O’Reilly did or does for a living,
But never mind and regardless, for I can tell you now - as far as that goes for the 600 & 700 Blocks of Kearny Street and for Portsmouth Square, Molly is the Queen of my Neighborhood and Molly holds court at Sam’s Cleaners.
PORTSMOUTH SQUARE STORIES
MOLLY HOLDS COURT
AT SAM’S CLEANERS