I HAVE BEEN GOING to Jerri’s Cleaners since I moved to New York in 1993. I maintained a friendly but detached relationship with the staff there for the first twenty years. Then a serious stain threatened a favourite pair of trousers and the relationship changed. Through several rounds of – ultimately successful experimentation, I gained a sense of the lengths to which a true professional will go to avoid failure and please a customer. Recently I invited my dry cleaner over to discuss his working method.

Mike Pagano left his father’s Brooklyn watermelon business to partner with his brother-in-law Lou Vieni in their own business. In 1989 the pair became the new owners of Jerri’s Cleaners, at 444 Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Established by the eponymous Jerri in 1964, the dry cleaner remains a beloved neighbourhood business.

We Humans, 1974, Spinach and egg white on moire by Ed Ruscha, 91 x 102 cm, Courtesy Sprüth Magers / Gagosian Gallery
‘We Humans,’ 1974, Ed Ruscha. Spinach and egg white on moire. Courtesy Spruth Magers / Gagosian Gallery

I went to dry cleaning school at The NCA, the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, where I learned how to operate a dry cleaning machine, which is difficult. Cleaning chemical, if not handled correctly, is potentially hazardous. When I was there the NCA was run by Dan Eisen, ‘The Sultan of Stain.’ Dan taught me things about dry cleaning I still use to this day. We would work at a spotting table, which is shaped like a small ironing board. You put a garment on it and you have a steam gun that you operate with your foot. Another pedal is for air. When you steam something you’re wetting it a little bit and then you dry it out with the air. You learn how different stains need different kinds of solvents.

There are two kinds of stains: wet side and dry side. Wet side includes coffee, juice, wine, blood, anything from the body, which has to be taken out with water or water-based solvents. The dry side is lipstick, paint, nail polish, grease; those can’t be taken out with water, which will only set the stain. What you’re trying to do with stain removal is kind of cool; you dilute it with what it is. For instance, if there’s an oil I’m basically adding more oil and it’s diluting. If I have a dried-up paint stain, there’s a little spatula that used to be made out of bone. The paint forms a skin as it gets hard and you use the tool to break open the skin. You put oils in it, and now you have a big giant smudge of paint, but it’s pliable. You put it in the dry cleaning machine and the machine does the rest. It’s amazing.

In the beginning I was really scared. There are so many things I’ve learned over the course of doing this. Like there are some solutions that, if you’re not careful, will change the colour of the garment. For example, I might put a chemical on a navy blue garment that will turn it orange. There’s a way to neutralise it if you’re quick enough.

Let’s say there’s a red blouse with an ink stain and I want to take a chance and put some bleach on it. I’ve gone through all the steps and it’s not coming out. I’ve worked really hard and I don’t want to give it back to my customer like that. So I would take this bleach – I always think of the movie Scanners, where somebody would die for a second and they’d bring them back to life. I always think, ‘I’m gonna kill this now, I’m gonna kill this whole thing, but I’m going to have to revive it.’ So I would put this bleach on it, take the stain out, and now it starts fading. The red starts turning pink. So I quickly take something else, usually ammonia, and start neutralising. And I start dousing it and dousing it, and the colour slowly comes back as the stain comes out. The customer doesn’t know what I went through – I’m on the operating table giving mouth to mouth, getting that garment back. I’ve done that a lot. And truthfully, in our business, you don’t really get any recognition for that. The customer brings a stain in and it comes out and they just put it in their closet, wear it the next day and don’t think about it. If you can save it, I’m the kind of guy that wants to save it. I’d rather have somebody walk out without the stain than with that stupid little tag that says, ‘We tried and tried…’ You experiment and you learn.

At school they made stains for us. They have cloths that were stained maybe a week ago and they have a coffee stain here, a blood stain here, an ink stain there, and you have to work on them. Most of the TV commercials where you have a miracle cleaner? They’re staining it right there. No one brings in a stain that’s still wet – that’s so easy to take out!

I’m all about a mom-and-pop business that does the work on the premises. I know my customer’s clothes. I’m in the front of the store and I go to the back of the store and I’m thinking ‘these are Lisa Naftolin’s pants. I’m gonna try to take the stain out. Oh, it didn’t come out? I’m gonna try it again.’ It’s definitely personal.

Our business is mostly maintenance. The sediments in the environment and the oils from your skin will alter the colour of garments and they should be dry cleaned regularly. A man’s suit should be dry cleaned every second or third time it’s worn. I have customers who dry clean their suits every time they wear them. This neighbourhood never ceases to amaze me – people treat their clothes well here.

The best thing for stain removal is when a customer tells me what a stain is and they haven’t put seltzer on it. People put their hands in their pockets, tuck a newspaper under their arm – there are clues to stain identification: if it’s in the front, it’s probably a food stain. If it’s up on the shoulder and it’s a young person, it’s probably a baby, or if I know the guy has a pet bird, we’ll see evidence on the shoulder. If it’s down by the cuff it’s probably gutter splash from rain. The hardest to identify is a yellow stain because it’s usually an old stain. With coffee, you’ll see a ring. With oil, you’ll see a cross, it never leaves a ring. Imagine pasta sauce – it’s got both oil and tomato, dry and wet. So you have to treat the dry first and get rid of all the oil and then you treat the wet side and knock out the tomato. One of the most difficult stains is pollen from a flower. It’s a yellow smudge, very difficult to take out. Never hug flowers in a red dress, it’s a no-no! If you have a party and something spills, call me and I’ll talk you through it.

People lie about stains – and we know it too! I hate to do it, but the first thing I do is I smell the garment. If it was cleaned, I can tell. There are people who bring garments in and you just know. If it’s been worn, there will be a little bit of oil on the garment where your skin touches it. Or there will be a lipstick stain that smudges when you touch it. We didn’t send it out like that, it’s obvious. But you don’t want to embarrass somebody.

I have no problem with somebody telling me a stain didn’t come out. I’ll do two, three, four re-does. If the stain doesn’t come out there’s a point where you have to stop. People bring clothes in and expect them to come back like new but no matter how careful you are, every time you clean a garment it’s getting abused. Cleaning is mechanical action and clothes are rubbing up against each other; the more items in a load of cleaning or wash the better. It’s kind of like the old washboard – you’re removing the dirt but the garment just got some wear and tear. People bring in clothes expecting them to be clean and like new. We always say they will be clean and close to new. You can say ‘like new,’ but you can’t say ‘new.’

Bodily fluid stains are the embarrassing ones but they’re common, they’re everyday for us and I’ll take care of it. I often get, ‘My cat was sick’ and they have the decency to tell me and put it in a plastic bag. I really appreciate that. You feel for the people.

Ink is so deadly because it’s concentrated. Think about it – you can use a pen for years and still have ink. Once you start putting oils on it it’s scary, it bleeds on everything. I have a photograph on my phone of a really expensive white knit dress that had an ink stain on the front. While I’m treating it it’s dripping, it’s all over the place. It gets a lot worse before it gets better. I posted it on my Facebook page because it’s such an achievement. When we first started I never charged extra to take stains out. I still don’t, generally. But a stain like that, or a blood stain, the amount of work that goes into it is not worth what I charge. We may put another two or three dollars on the ticket but I’ve used $12 worth of oils. And it takes a long time, but I don’t really care about that.

An actress who lives in California brought in a dress that felt like hard paper, a material you couldn’t really clean. Another dry cleaner had tried it. It was white with big flower and it had brown smudges on it. I went to the stationary store art department and found some marker paintbrushes and drew the flowers back on to it. She loved it and started hugging me. I’m really good at drawing and I redrew the flowers. It was like redoing a tattoo. Afterwards she Yelped: ‘Mike Pagano is an artisan.’

Prada does these labels that are rubber. The first thing dry cleaning chemicals break down is paint, lipstick, rubber, plastic, that’s what they’re designed to do. If you put a dry cleaning chemical on plastic it’s going to eat through it. How could you possibly say ‘dry clean only’ on a rubber garment? Things get destroyed and we have to pay for them. Years ago I was with Dan Eisen who had a Prada garment in front of him. He actually got on the phone to Prada’s offices in Milan and said, ‘We work with neighbourhood dry cleaners. If you don’t want to be on our “Do Not Clean” list you have to change the way that you label.’ Designers should have professional cleaners test what they’re using. We’ve had to pay for garments because buttons have melted. And beading – we’ve had cases where a big bead will hold up for dry cleaning solvent fine, but a smaller size of the same bead, which you think would be identical, will become tacky when I test it. It’s not the same stock, so it would not hold up. I can’t test each bead.

I wish I could say I’m never going to ruin anything, but I’m in the kind of business where things are going to happen. We’re just human. We’re going to come across people that are unhappy. But if something happens you take care of it. If I damage something, as much as I hate to do it, I’ll pay for it or credit the account. If we made a mistake, I’ll stand behind it. I’m not going to push you away.

I love when someone comes in with something they took to the guy down the block and it has a stain. I want to get that stain and if I can, I am so happy. It can be a little stain, it doesn’t have to be a giant stain. I want to be able to say, ‘He couldn’t do it but I can do it.’ It’s a personal thing. I love that. I also love when someone leaves another business because that tells me that they don’t really care about the customer. I often hear ‘I walked past three cleaners to come to you’ and I appreciate that.

The customers have to have confidence in you. The way to get business is through word of mouth. People aren’t looking for a cheap cleaner, they’re looking for a good cleaner. Every guy who works in my store, I always tell them, ‘Picture that you’re on the other side of the counter bringing your clothes in. How do you want to be treated?’

Lisa Naftolin is the former Creative Director of Publishing and Digital Media at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and now specialises in creative direction for brands, magazines and museums on a consultant basis.

This story was originally published in Vestoj: On Failure.