Photo of Mother Theresa at Langwan Cleaners

Langwan Cleaners and the Mother Teresa of Albert Street

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.

Photo of Mother Theresa at Langwan Cleaners

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.

Langwan Cleaners.
Products for sale in the window of Langwan Cleaners.
Shop window at Langwan Cleaners.

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.

Jay Patel in Langwan Cleaners
Jay.

“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?”

“Ssssss……”

“Sharita?” Jay asks.

Sharita! Yes.

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.

Shop wall in Langwan Cleaners
A wall in Langwan Cleaners.

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.

Jay in her shop
A customer at Langwan Cleaners
Shelf in Langwan Cleaners
Inside Langwan Cleaners in downtown Joburg.

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.

Malt beverage at Langwan Cleaners
Supermalt. I love the bottle but the drink was a bit too yeasty for me.

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.”

Credit and receipts.

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.”

Shrine inside Langwan Cleaners
Jay’s sacred corner.
Bits and pieces from the life of Jay Patel.
Bits and pieces from the life of Jay.

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.

Customers in Langwan Cleaners on Albert Street.
Buying chips in Langwan Cleaners

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.

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13 Comments

  • Reply Peggy Laws February 24, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Great blog! Reminds me of some of the pubs in Ireland when I visit my daughter – some have a little Off Licence cum Shop as you enter with “necessities”……..I particularly loved one where the rat poison boxes were nestled next to the baby foods.

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2019 at 2:14 pm

      Hahaha. The rat poison is always the most noticeable thing on the shelf for some reason.

  • Reply Michael Olivier February 24, 2019 at 4:25 pm

    Love this. Sad that places like this are getting fewer and fewer. Hugs. Michael xx

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      Yes. In America I doubt there are any left 😞

  • Reply autumnashbough February 24, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    A shop that still gives credit? That amazes me the most.

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2019 at 4:48 pm

      Especially credit on hand-written notes!

  • Reply the #1 Itinerary February 24, 2019 at 4:39 pm

    Great post 😁

  • Reply Vinod Rowjee February 24, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    Well done, Jaymati! As a former resident of City & Suburban, even after all these years, you have single-handedly kept alive and trail of our once vibrant small suburb. Congratulations and well done!

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2019 at 6:54 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  • Reply jeaniehhi February 24, 2019 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks for the compliment! Next time I visit, I’d like to meet Jay and see her shop. Love, Mom

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2019 at 10:16 pm

      You’d love it.

  • Reply Momo Street February 25, 2019 at 8:45 am

    Beautiful story! Thanks for bringing the real Jozi into our lives!

    • Reply 2summers February 25, 2019 at 8:46 am

      Thank you 🙂

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