It was about 25 years ago when I first met William. Our relationship began by my questioning him, asking if he was going to be good enough for me. I know, but I was much older then. Williams response was to tell me that I was free to go elsewhere. I stayed.
William was the proprietor of the Chinese Shirt Laundry. Not dry cleaners. Shirt laundry, where they only washed shirts. You have two sets of choices. Starch or no starch. Folded or hanger. My choice was heavy starch and hanger. A shirt without a well-pressed collar looked wrong. Without the starch, the collar would bend and curl. Wrong. Sure, the starch was a little hard on the neck, but that was the price one paid for dressing properly. I never thought twice about it.
When William decided that he would wash my shirts, my insolence forgiven, he gave me a letter. K. It was written in indelible ink on the collar of my shirts. No name. No monogram. No multiple letters and numbers combination. Just one letter, K. It was always K since then.
In the beginning, I would bring in shirts once a week and pick up my clean shirts. Over time, wearing a suit to the office fell out of fashion. When it wasn’t necessary, I wore a sports shirt, open collar and neck unstarched. It eventually became about once a month. Sometimes less.
I both liked and respected William. He was a good guy, and he did a heck of a job on my collars. Over the years, he was always at the counter. Whether it was me or my wife, William knew to pull out my shirts when he saw us about to come through the door. He knew which shirts they were. They were K. Always K.
It’s been more than a month since I took my shirts to William. Between the heat and circumstance, I just didn’t have enough shirts to bother. They can wait until it’s worth the trip. When I arrived, William wasn’t there. There was a young woman where William stood. I asked about him, concerned that he might not be well.
“No, he’s fine. He just retired.”
There’s no justification for this, but I was annoyed. He hadn’t told me. It’s not like he should have told me, but after 25 years, I would have liked to hear it from his mouth. Too late, however. He was gone. The young woman was his niece, and she had taken over the business. I handed her my shirts.
“Oh, you’re K,” she said. “You have some shirts here,” and she proceeded to pull a bunch of shirts off the rack. They had a size 19 neck. Mine is a 16. But on the size 19 neck, I saw it. The letter K. My letter K. On someone else’s collar.
For a while in the 90s, I was afraid that William was going to pack it in. People stopped wearing suits and ties, and nobody without a suit and tie needs a laundered shirt with a starched collar. Then there were the kids, who couldn’t care less if their collars were properly pressed or curled. It didn’t seem likely that there were enough people who cared about their shirts to sustain William. Yet he survived. After the dotcom crash, William was still there. As was I. His K.
William’s niece asked me what I wanted to do about the K. I asked her what she meant. She asked whether I wanted to use my initials, or name, or something else. I told her that I’m K. I’ve been K for 25 years and, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be K until I join William. She took my shirts.
There’s another K in town now. A new K. With a much bigger neck. Now that William is gone, my K will be gone as well.
He was a good man, that William. And I will miss my K. I hope he taught his niece how to do collars.