Joe Pisani (opinion): Dry cleaners deserve the shirts off our backs

A dress shirt is handed off via a drive-thru window.

A dress shirt is handed off via a drive-thru window.

Cindy Schultz / Albany Times Union

We got an urgent call last week.

Most of our urgent calls come at 2 a.m. when I’m asleep, cavorting in dreamland and doing things I can’t do in real life ... until the phone rings, bringing me back to boring reality.

When I pick up the receiver, I expect the worst because only the worst happens that time of night, when I’m in my pajamas and totally unprepared to deal with an emergency. As I press the phone to my ear, a gruff voice growls, “Is CRYSTAL there?!? This is Axel!” (Last week it was Chaz.)

I’m afraid to respond because I’m convinced Axel, or Chaz, will show up at the front door, brandishing a tire iron.

“Ahhh no, there’s no Crystal here. In my entire life, I’ve never met a Crystal, and I don’t want to,” I mutter. After Axel slams down the phone, it occurs to me that Crystal never showed up at the pot party, or worse, Crystal isn’t at home in bed with Axel ... because she’s at the pot party with Chaz.

From time to time, we get urgent calls like that. We also get urgent calls from the dentist: “You’re overdue for a cleaning and you probably have cavities we should fill.” And the neighbor: “Those #*@%&*! wild turkeys are pecking at your Prius again!” And the pharmacy: “Your prescription has been sitting here for two weeks!” And my daughter: “Gabriel just lost a tooth. I have to call the tooth fairy ASAP. Do you have her number?” And from family members who need a ride to the emergency room, and from politicians who desperately need more money to make the world safe for democracy.

Anyway, this particular urgent call was from the dry cleaner, who politely informed me that my shirts had been waiting four months to be picked up, and even though I may not need the shirts, he needs the cash. I apologized profusely. You see, I haven’t worn a dress shirt in a while.

In the olden days when I was still respectably employed, I wore a suit and tie to work every day (shoes too), and I’d drop my shirts off at the cleaner’s on Friday and pick them up the following week.

But like everything else in America, our standards have been declining ever since some visionary CEO invented “business casual,” which devolved into “casual” and ultimately into a style best described as “business grunge.”

Then COVID came along and we worked from home in our BVDs and pajamas, which can be classified as “business slob.” So nowadays, people rarely dress up for work, church or special events, and prefer wearing T-shirts, running suits, jeans, sweat pants and leggings. As a result, America’s dry cleaners are being taken to the cleaners.

I’m always amazed when I look at family photos from the ’40s and ’50s and see my father and his friends on the East Side of Bridgeport outside of Bill and Eddie’s Bar on Pembroke Street, dressed in snappy suits with shirts and ties and well-shined shoes. In those days, you wore a suit whenever you left the house. I can’t imagine anyone wearing a suit to go to the bar now. It would be a tank top and shorts — with fashionable tears in them.

Anything goes in fashion, and less is better. Disney World, that paragon of family values, got a black eye recently when they made a TikTok influencer change her top to cover up excessive skin. Nobody told the Disney fashion police that going semi-naked in public is protected under the First Amendment as freedom of expression or the right to privacy or something like that. Hey, it’s perfectly legal to walk around topless in New York City so Disney better get with the program.

Every school principal dreads enforcing the dress code and having to send a student home because too much skin is showing. And pity the poor airline attendant who has to police passengers in skimpy outfits and make them change into something respectable for the sake of in-flight safety. (If they’re not fully clothed, they should cover up with their face masks.) The media usually jump all over those stories and make the enforcers look like puritanical tyrants.

I don’t want to debate the Puritans or the progressives. I just feel sorry for my dry cleaner, whose business has been taking a beating for 15 years. Here’s my suggestion. After we send much-needed aid to Ukraine and after we forgive every student loan since the turn of the millennium and after we rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and after we pay for the coronavirus stimulus payments, Congress needs to put together a relief package for America’s dry cleaners, who’ve done a lot for this country. It’s time for another bailout.

When I picked up my shirts, I gave my cleaner a hefty tip, which amounted to about $6 a shirt. And that’s still cheaper than a gallon of gas.

Former Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time Editor Joe Pisani can be reached at