by Richard Tornello
It was just luck when one of my customers broke the glass on the door of the Laundromat. I purchased the replacement glass from an old glass store just around the corner.
CUSTOM/ANTIQUE GLASS & MIRRORS
Est.: A While Ago
Thatís how the gold lettering painted on their display window read.
I like to keep my business local as much as I can. Itís good for the community. Beside, I was hoping to avoid traveling to a big box just for a simple piece of tempered glass.
I went in and saw what looked like a close fit and asked the young man who was busy dusting and rearranging the stock how much the piece I'd found would cost.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm really just filling in while my uncle is away..." He looked around and said, "I think it would be a hundred bucks, from the size of it and the type of glass. But you can come back tomorrow to make sure I haven't overcharged you. My uncle will be back then. Just tell him that Kit Sune sold you the piece -- I'll leave him a note along with a copy of the invoice."
Kit pointed out that this piece had been in the back storage area under a cover before he moved it out front. "I don't know why they don't make better use of their display space," he said. "In my Marketing class, they said a small business has to 'stackíem high, stackíem deep, and sell íem cheap'" to survive."
I smiled and nodded -- it was rather endearing that he still respected his teachers -- gave him the cash, and went back to my store.
I have a good eye for fit and the newly purchased glass slid into place with no need for any trimming or shimming. The clarity between the old and the new pane in the two-paneled door was a tad different, just enough to look a bit odd, but I liked something about this new piece. It seemed to just grow into the opening and thought I would purchase a matching piece when I went back there to thank them and even things up.
As I was walking past my "new" glass on the way to the coffee shop, it seemed to behave like a half-silvered mirror. It must have been the relatively dark interior of the Laundromat that allowed for the reflection.
But what I saw was not an exact replication of my here and now. There was a strange blurred image behind me of the outdoor restaurant across the street. I go past this place every day on my way to the coffee shop next door for my morning dose and friendly chat with neighbors. The strange part was that I could see myself entering the restaurant in the company of a well-dressed, professional-looking woman. But I was standing in front of my own door, not across the street entering the restaurant, alone and not with any attractive anybody. I turned to see if my long-lost twin brother (so long lost that I'd never heard of him) was across the street on a date, but either I'd imagined the whole thing, or the couple had vanished inside the restaurant while I was turning.
I chalked it up to caffeine-deficiency syndrome, and continued on my way. When I returned with my coffee (two shots of expresso with a splash -- strong, but not too fancy), I again passed the new glassed door. The light was different now and there was less reflection due to the sun's position.
This time I didn't see my twin on the other side of the street, but the same attractive woman was there. I turned around, and she was gone -- if she had ever been there to start with. Apparently, coffee alone hadn't done the trick of clearing my head...
The next day I returned to the glass store to finalize the sale. I entered and was greeted by a friendly hobbit like person, quite affable and with a smile/twinkle in his eyes. Youíve met this type before, Iím sure.
"Welcome to Alice White Glass. I'm Fred Speigel. How can I help you?"
"My name's Richard," I said. "I run the Laundromat around the corner. I bought a piece of glass yesterday from -- your nephew? Kit?"
He nodded. "Yes, yes, I found the note Kit left. That nephew of mine never listens. He was not supposed to sell anything except what was out front, no matter what business model he prefers. That item was not for sale. But done is done, and you appear to be a nice person."
That seemed like an odd thing to say -- I'd purchased a piece of glass, not an assault rifle. "Was it a custom piece, already spoken for?"
"No -- it was just -- not for sale," he said.
Hoping he wasn't going to ask me to return it, I asked him about the window sign and the "established" date (or lack thereof).
"Oh," he laughed, "That dates back to the original owners, Alice and Blanche White. They were cousins, making a go of it as businesswomen before it was fashionable. This place was one of the first businesses in Old Town."
From what I know of our town's history, that must have been around the 1850s.
"Alice and Blanche made all their own glass," he continued. "Being the only locals in the business, they succeeded in spite of any fuss about them being women doing men's work -- and they found ways to confuse the issue of who was really running things. The daughters and granddaughters have kept the business alive, with a little help from relatives of the male persuasion. Keeping us out of trouble, I guess."
"Most of the work we do now is custom restorations, antique work and occasionally some commercial high end enterprises. Things being what they are we purchase most of the run-of-the-mill stock from overseas. But we still have our own refectory for our custom work."
He showed no signs of offering to exchange the glass for a piece from regular stock, or asking for a premium price, but I figured this was not a good time to inquire about buying a second piece so the door panels would match. Since I was in no real hurry I asked him if he would like a drink from XYZ, my caffeine dealer of choice.
I was interested in hearing more of the history of the odd little shop. I noticed the dust on many items I assumed there was not too much traffic this time of year. He accepted my offer of a drink, asking for some kind of tea I'd never heard of.
I returned with my coffee, and the special tea for him. The staff at XYZ knew exactly who this was for -- "a Spiegel Special" they called it. I guess he must be a regular there too, although I never noticed him.
As we sipped our beverages -- his smelled sweet, but a bit like medicine -- he continued:
"Many years ago Alice and Blanche started out making glass beads, glass doll figurines and small mirrors. Later on they made custom replacement glass for churches and government structures. They had a talent that allowed them to duplicate almost anything. On top of that both of them must have had similar DNA. They both loved science, experimentation and the arts. In temperament, they were slightly different, but not by much. It was said that the replacement glass they created was better than the originals and the glass seemed to give the object a feeling of life.
"Back then it was illegal for a woman to be in business or own anything outright. The story of how they did it is still a bit dusty. They initially staffed the store front with men in the family. But, THEY were the bosses and everyone knew it. They made all the business decisions, had the formulas for tinting or hardening glass, 'potions' if you will, and skills that they only passed on to the girls."
I nodded, wondering how they'd found men in those days who would agree to terms like that. Maybe some of their 'potions' and 'skills' weren't for working with glass!
Speigel continued, "Alice and Blanche seemed to come into their own when they added the mirrors to their collection of offerings. Their success was due in part to being the only mirror makers in the area, but they knew how to run a business, too. We still make small mirrors that people take a real shine toÖ.when they come in. I see you noticed the dust."
I hastily removed my hand from a shelf where I had been tracing the words "Please clean me" in the dirt.
Speigel laughed. "No, we donít have a lot of business at this location any more, except during the school seasons. Students break things -- like your door, but windows and mirrors, too. We have enough to maintain and keep busy during the rest of the time. Summer is usually time to restock take inventory as well as project any trends that may affect us."
This is a college town. A Laundromat is almost as important as a library, gymnasium and a bar. I strive to keep all the machines in good working order, the place clean and the prices high enough to make a profit but not a rip-off.
Business is naturally good during the main school year and drops off somewhat in the summer when the campus is quiet. It was during the summer when I installed the glass pane in the door that had been broken by a college student.
I paid for it. These kids donít have money and it was an accident anyway.
I previously ran a consulting company. The type really doesnít matter except to say I had had enough of that line of work. Once I "retired", I indulged my long-standing desire to move back to a college town. But they are lively, full of new ideas and concomitant enthusiasm, so any out-of-the-ordinary experience would have to continue for a while before I really noticed.
My customers claimed that the feeling here in the Laundromat had changed. They felt that it was part of them and they were a part of it. I wrote off that sentiment to too many drugs -- they are college students, after all. All I had done was to install a few new machines, touch up the paint, and replace some broken glass and one of the door panels. The funny thing is that I have warmed up to the place too.
Yes, it is next door to the XYZ Coffee shop. That may have a lot to do with it. But a few of the locals said they would rather do their wash here and put off purchasing a new machine at home. They can always get coffee at XYZ. Oh wellÖ as I mentioned earlier the place seems to reflect the mood of the people here in the store and the town in general. Itís just a feeling; I canít be specific as to why.
Iíve begun to notice that people walking down the street look into the Laundromat, stop for a moment or two, shake their heads or smile, and move on.
One couple, just married, said they were coming home from a movie and as they walked past the store they thought they saw sparks in the glass. But it was a dark moonless night.
Little kids just stand in front and giggle. When I ask what's so funny, they give strange answers or look at me like Iím nuts, laugh and run off. Kids and cats see things "regular" people donít, I suppose. What sort of filters do we have in our minds as we grow?
You know whatís odd? One other person, a regular, claimed that the day he received a notice of audit from the IRS the glass seemed to darken as he looked out the window. One of my other customers came to complain about the door today. She said it seemed to be sticking, making it difficult to open. She said it took a good thirty seconds to get it open, and then a car ran the stop sign where she would have been if she hadn't been delayed. "Lucky for me," she said, "but you still need to fix that door!"
The regulars all say there is something about this place that is comforting, something in the color of the light. They claim the establishment reflects them some how!
I think itís the coffee next door! Thatís what makes me feel comfortable. Trimethalzanthine, transfats, the paper and conversation. The proximity of the two establishments, the nature of the task at one and the coffee at the other is what I suspect gives everyone a good feeling, that casual friendly air. I mean you are airing your dirty laundry for everyone to see.
This day I stopped in the glass store. The old man was there. He smiled as I entered. "Mr. Speigel, good day to you" said I.
"Good to see you, in fact it is always a pleasure."
Iím sure it was, since I always came with a pastry and his favorite tea. We sat and spoke about the weather, the school teams, the comings and goings of people of distinction. We never spoke of politics. The one time I did bring up the subject, his mood seemed to darken; he muttered about seeing "the same damn things" too many times.
I donít know how, but we got on the subject of his life and such.
"I never told you much more about the founders of our dear shop did I? Blanche was the originator. Then with her cousin Alice it expanded...
"Blanche's mother died when she was young. Her father adored both of them. Blanche had the best tutors and went to the best schools out side the country. A girl who could read was odd. A girl interested in the sciences, math and such was an anomaly in those days. In addition she had an incredible love of the arts and was drawn to glass making. She claimed later that the local sand was the best in the world and used it exclusively in the beginning, only importing other silica as the business grew. But her sand, where ever she got it, was reserved for special projects later on.
"One day she decided to make some mirrors for the doll collections and as a gift for her father's current lady friend. She slaved over books and methods. Eventually she discovered some formula that allowed her to make mirrors that possessed a quality not found anywhere else. Most people who looked into them seemed to be attracted to the way they reflected their image. Her future step-mother loved her enterprise and encouraged her to pursue even more study and experimentation to the point of building her a small lab. Itís difficult to imagine a traditionally bred woman encouraging Blanche to step outside a woman's usual role to undertake schooling and this trade! Blanche took to it and never looked back.
"A little while after Blanche's mother died, her cousin Alice came to live with them. Medicine not being what it is today the mortality rates were so much higher. A similar fate befell Aliceís mother and her father could ill afford to keep her. That aside, the bond between the two girls was electric. They fed each other with challenges and encouragement. It was as if they were made of the same DNA. They finished each other's sentences, knew beforehand what needed to be done. They almost seemed to communicate without speaking..."
Another day, another coffee for me, "Speigel Special" and pastry for Fred -- and another chapter in the Alice White saga.
"The girls hit it off. Alice too had an interest in similar subjects, but she was more a scientist than an artist. She was a bit more of the loner. She would bound off into the woods, wander around for hours -- but always come home for dinner. Sometimes she arrived home somewhat disheveled, but with a smile. We never got the whole story of where she went or how she spent her time. Alice would sometimes mention something about playing cards with friends or something to that effect. At that I do remember the girls would both break out into uncontrollable laughter."
There was something odd about the way Fred talked about the girls. The shop had been established by Alice White around 1850...
"The two of them would work in their work shed in back of the main house for hours on end. One day they almost burned the place down. They claimed they were attempting a new metal to glass bonding technique but never spoke more about it. Would we have understood? Not likely."
But Fred talked about them as if he had been there from the start -- even before the shop had been opened... It had to be just his way of telling the story. Otherwise, he would have to be -- how old?
"These incidents I mention are not in any particular order of events. The mirror bonding process, I do believe, came before Aliceís woods wandering. But I do know Blanche's step-mother just loved the mirrors they made for her. She thought it was "magic" the way those mirrors reflected everything. They seemed to talk to her, she would tell them. They -- all three of them -- would fall over in laughter." Fred shook his head. "There is just something about the women in this family. They seem to have a form of communication and or understanding that is beyond the ken of us men."
"One day they asked if they could sell their glass trinkets and such. Girls and women were not allowed to own or run businesses, although they could be clerks and such, with the approval of their fathers or husbands. However, Blanche's dad had no backbone where Blanche, Alice or his wife were concerned, especially when Blanche would bat her eyes and pout, so he figured a way to get this fledging business off the ground. The boys "ran it". But as I mentioned before, everyone knew who the bosses were."
"Eventually all the local girls wanted Blanch and Aliceís glass beads and mirrors for their dolls. The mothers were also taken by the clarity of the mirrors and requested adult sized products. So as the girls grew into women so too did the business mature. It matched the age of the customer base. But they never forgot the origins of the business, and as you can see, we still carry doll stuff."
A quick glance confirmed that there were indeed boxes of glass beads, faceted and smooth, colored and clear, on some of the shelves, along with miniature framed mirrors suitable for old-fashioned dolls. They were among the dustiest things in the shop -- not the kind of thing that college girls and the boys chasing them were likely to buy.
"The mirrors got bigger, the jewelry expanded into a glass making business. We made glass for Church restorations, older building restorations, custom pieces for artists and other here and there things. They claimed the best sand was from this area. The business managed to purchase huge tracts of land, each of which -- they claimed -- had sand with different properties, that when mixed properly for a particular project produced the ideal glass for that purpose.
"One day there was an accident and some of the specialty mirrored glass sand got mixed up with the regular glass stock. They were very upset and instructed that this finished glass was never to be sold by anyone to anyone. They never destroyed it either. Why? We still arenít sure. But you, because of our "dear nephew", managed to purchase a piece for your Laundromat door. And I can see no harm done."
I decided that Fred was a great teller of tall tales. His recounting of the history of the shop was like a fairy tale and corporate history all rolled into one, with Fred himself as the immortal family retainer. Maybe he caught me rolling my eyes -- he ended that day's story by saying that had some paper work to do.
"After all, the women still run the business -- I'm just the bookkeeper and manager."
I stared at and through the "special" pane of glass from the inside looking out. Nothing unusual to mention. It was a bit wavy, either due to age or because it was cast in a mold whose bottom wasn't quite level. People walking past appeared a bit different when viewed through that piece rather than through the other door glass panel. They seemed to tint a shade or two to the light or dark side of the spectrum. I assumed again that this was caused by the refraction of light and the position of the sun. The hue change was interesting, whatever the cause; I wondered if that was what the little kids laughed about?
Just then the Laundromat seemed to lighten up. A well dressed woman was walking by. She was new to this part of town, yet strangely familiar. I had seen her somewhere before. That much I knew. She looked at the glass, looked at me, looked at the glass again and then came in.
I said, "Did you forget your laundry?"
She smiled, looked around, and said, "No -- I was here on business, and when I glanced at the reflection in your door --"
I said, "Yes, it seems to affect most everyone differently. Most people like what it does."
Her eyes narrowed for just a second and then she smiled and dropped a bomb. "Our work seems to do that," she said. "Itís The Art."
She said it just like that. I could hear the capital letters.
"Even our flat panes have a bit of The Art to them, especially this piece of glass." She pointed directly to the new pane.
"I was looking in and couldnít believe you had one of our oldest custom pieces in your door! Iím here on business, possibly making some changes, some physical alterations to our operations, and couldnít believe what I saw. I just had to come in.
I told her the story about Kit -- her brother? cousin? nephew? -- selling me the piece some time ago, and her uncle being very upset but trying not to show it. I also told her how people seemed to take to the glass panel especially the children. The kids love it.
She said again, "Itís The Art. Our work, especially some of our older work, does that to people, especially the children". She finished up with a smile.
She was blushing a bit -- or was it the reflection of light off the glass?
"Iím sorry I was so abrupt earlier. I was taken aback when I noticed you had one of our Custom Pieces". She held out her hand and shook mine and said "Iím Dr. Louisa Karol White. I head R&D operations, Mirror Works in upstate NY. Weíve actually done work for the space telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory and weíre working on new projects that will bring more of the universe to light, pardon the pun. You may call me Louisa."
"Hello," I replied, "Iím Richard, no Ph.D, former business consultant from the Capital area, and now owner of a sadly non-profit laundry operation, located in a pleasant college town. I'm also the owner of a piece of glass that seems to have magnetic qualities. It brought you in."
She smiled again, this time without the hint of tension around her eyes.
"Politics, satire and sarcasm still play in your world," she said. She stopped suddenly, patted my orange tabby, Spud the Cat (full name) who by the way was going nuts next to her as if he was getting something special, making all sorts of wacko cat noises.
What a strange family. Did they always say things in a weird or cryptic manner? Her uncle did, she did. I wondered what her cousins are like?
"If you're going to be in town for a while, I've heard so much about the family business from your uncle, I would love to have lunch or dinner with one of the current principals -- if you don't mind the company of sarcastic, semi-retired men, that is."
Again her eyes narrowed, but then she said, "Yes. I love Italian or Japanese food, if you know of a place -- I haven't been here for a while, so my favorites may have changed ownership."
However odd she was, she was definitely attractive. "Hmm," I said, "There are some okay places in this town, but Iím a better cook then any of the establishments here. After all, they mostly cater to the palates of college kids. Maybe I could make you dinner?"
"Let me get back to you," she said. "I do need to see my uncle first. Iíll call you in an hour or two regarding that invitation. By the way this is a nice establishment you have here."
Then it came to me, a rocket-through-the-brain type thought. She was the woman I had seen reflected in the glass the day I had installed it, my non-existent twin's date! "The Art" indeed.
© 2007 Richard Tornello
Bio: Richard Tornello is a business owner / consultant / technical recruiter (he doesn't say whether his business is a laundromat...) with more than 28 years experience. A Rutgers University graduate in Asian Studies, he is currently owned by Stella, "one very neurotic cat" (as if there is any other kind). A number of his poems and stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Let's Do It (October 2007) and Transport By Design (September 2007).
E-mail: Richard Tornello
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