In March 2017 I receive a Facebook message.
“Do make a turn at my mom’s store, corner Albert and Mooi Street, called Langwan Cleaners. Will make a good story.
“My mom, a single mother now 70 years old, has been running a ‘general dealer’ for the past 40 something years. Her business has evolved over the years but she is truly a kind of Mother Teresa of the area.
Two years later in February 2019, in a comment to a comment on another post, I receive a gentle reminder.
“Reminder to visit my mom😘. 99 Albert Street.”
99 Albert Street. I write it down.
Three weeks later I return to that note in my day planner. 99 Albert Street. By this time I’ve forgotten the name of the person who sent me the message or where she sent it from. I know it’s an Indian name and begins with an S.
99 Albert Street. A laundry? Owned by a woman. Someone’s mom.
I can’t remember but I know it’s time to go.
In a WhatsApp message to Fiver, I write: “Any chance you’d like to go with me on a mysterious mission?” Fiver is always game for mysterious missions.
A Visit to Langwan Cleaners
On Friday morning we pull up in front of Langwan Cleaners in Fiver’s Land Rover Defender. There’s a “Cash for Scrap” sign across the road and an endless stream of passing pedestrians giving us curious looks.
“What’s her name?” says Fiver.
“…I don’t know.”
Fiver shrugs and follows me inside.
Behind the glass we find Jay Patel, wearing a long, light green shift, dark brown hair pulled back loosely at the nape of her neck.
“Can I help you?” Jay asks, smiling.
I fumble for words. “I’m a writer,” I say. “I tell stories about Joburg. Your daughter told me to come.”
Jay laughs. “Who?”
“Sharita?” Jay asks.
Jay gives us each a bottle of water and invites us behind the counter.
Langwan Cleaners, named for Jay’s father, opened as a dry-cleaning service in the 1970s. Jay still does some dry-cleaning: I spot a few jackets and dresses, neatly draped in plastic, hanging on a rod behind her.
“We would wrap the trousers in this paper,” Jay explains, pointing to a large brown roll on the counter.
As the dry-cleaning market began to dwindle, Jay expanded her offerings.
Spray paint, batteries, headache pills, toothpaste, airtime, shoe polish, Brut cologne, garden shears, playing cards, cough syrup, lemon creams, ginger tea. Plug adaptors, incense, hand soap, herbal remedies, lightbulbs, motor oil, rat poison, dish towels, bottles of Coke, energy drinks, and coffee cups. Blowtorches, tote bags, matches, pocket knives, cereal mills, screwdrivers, buckets and mops and moth balls.
Langwan Cleaners sells everything.
Fiver commences a shopping spree, buying tape and toilet paper and rolls of string. I look curiously at the bottle of “Supermalt” in the refrigerator and Jay insists I take it to try.
There is no cash register or computer. Jay and her young shop assistant track everything by hand. Every spare piece of wall space is covered by scraps of paper with names and numbers.
“Eric” one paper reads, with a list below.
25/1 Bic 23.00
28/1 Powerade 13.00
29/1 Score 12.00
Fanta Or 11.00
Nik Nak 12.00
The list continues.
“I give credit,” Jay explains with a chuckle. “My daughter gets so cross with me.”
Fiver and I notice the pictures of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul and Jesus, mixed in with family photos and a little shrine on a shelf with Hindu deities, tiny Buddha statues, and a framed picture of Jay’s late son.
“You’ve got all the religions here,” Fiver observes.
“Oh yes,” Jay says. “I pick and choose.”
Customers enter at a steady clip, one-by-one-by-two-by-one. They ask for change, or buy airtime or packets of crisps. Jay’s assistant comes and goes, hauling in new supplies of water and cold drinks. A woman comes in, stands shyly by the counter for a moment, then hurries out without buying anything.
I ask Jay how old she is. “I’m 72.”
“My mother is the same age,” I say. “She looks young and beautiful, like you.”
“I’m sure she is,” Jay says. “Like you. Does she have green eyes?”
I try to shoot a portrait of Jay but suddenly she’s shy. And the shop is busy. I take down Jay’s number and we say goodbye.
The next day I get a message from Fiver.
“The trip to the shop yesterday was amazing,” she writes. “Still thinking about it today.”
I’m still thinking about it too. We learned a lot in that 30-minute visit.
I WhatsApp Jay with a photo I took, telling her how much we enjoyed meeting her.
“Wonderful meeting you too,” Jay responds. “God bless 🙏 🕉”
Langwan Cleaners is at 99 Albert Street, City and Suburban.