>I did not deliberately refrain from writing about the inspirations for some of the names I chose for designs in my books. I simply ran out of space. What, ME, write too much? But I should not have worried about the severity of the editing because many readers have made the connections on their own without my interference.
These were to be my last carefree summers. Too soon I would be tall enough to see over the counter at the laundry, capable enough to make change at the cash register, old enough to help at my family’s business weekends and school vacations. It wasn’t grim, hard or forced labor in any way; just a half-day and not every day. It was often fun, and besides it made me feel so grown up and I loved being with my dad.
I learned a lot about work and life standing next to him at that counter, but the thing that made my dad the proudest and amazed everyone the most was the way I learned to make change. Our NCR cash register was modern at the time, but it resembled a huge adding machine more than the computerized techno registers today, some of which don’t even accept cash! This one simply printed the prices you typed in, opened the cash drawer with a happy little ringing sound, and kept a running total of the day’s receipts. If my customer didn’t have the exact amount to pay, I had to figure out what coins and bills to give back as change. At this task I was a whiz, leading my father to believe, erroneously, that I might find future success in business.
I also learned a few things from the customers, not always nice things. All these years I have been nursing the sting of certain insults, real and imagined, that I suffered in the presence of certain customers. I will now vent.
— Never pull my sticky-outy pigtails or pinch my chubby cheeks. It’s not my fault that you find them cute.
— Do not assume that I don’t understand English just because I work in a Chinese laundry and my parents speak broken English. Resist the urge to speak in your own version of broken English. “No tickee, no starchee” is as much gibberish to me as it is to you.
— Rid yourselves of the habit of talking louder, in the belief that increased volume fosters increased understanding. I am Chinese-American, not deaf.
— Realize that it is useless to distract or confuse me while I am making change. My dad taught me to lay your bills on top of the cash register in plain sight while I scoop out the change. That way, when you try to claim you gave me a twenty, I can show you (most politely) that it was a ten.
And the single most important thing I learned about business… the customer is always right. Occasionally you have to finesse the customer into believing what you know is right is the same as what they think is right.
My dad kept a radio in the back of the store that he could listen to while he pressed shirts. Funny thing, though, his radio only got baseball games. During those summers in the 60’s I had to wait until I got home to hear my music. By then Beatlemania was sweeping the nation and I bought into the whole deal. If you weren’t there you can’t know how fresh, appealing and sing-along-able those Beatles tunes were to a kid. The Beach Boys, the Supremes and Petula Clark were other favorites. But there was one song that captured the essence of summer and that was the Drifters’ 1964 hit “Under the Boardwalk”.
Mind you, I’d never been on a boardwalk, much less under one. My partner, John, loves to tell the tales of how he spent every summer of his childhood at the Jersey shore. Long before it turned into a trashy mecca for gamblers, the boardwalk in Atlantic City was a vacation destination for families fleeing the heat and humidity of Philadelphia streets. John speaks often of the gangs of kids he used to hang with, playing football on the beach, combing the beach for, not shells, but discarded soda bottles to return for pocket money. John actually witnessed the Diving Horse at the Steel Pier, enjoyed the pinball, games and rides at the Million Dollar Pier and cavorted in the ocean surf. To this day he needs only the merest whiff of salt air to be awash with memories of his childhood summers.
Now that I’ve experienced boardwalks for myself, I’ve decided I don’t like them. They are hot and crowded. Sand gets everywhere, in everything. The ocean has all manner of stuff, non-human stuff, floating, crawling and swimming around in it. The only aspect of the boardwalk I did like was the food. I’d go there in a heartbeat and endure any amount of sand in my shoes for the saltwater taffy and the funnel cake. You can get either of those treats away from the boardwalk, but it’s never the same.
Funny how that happens. How all the longing and romance of a summer song from my childhood can be, forty years later, distilled into the three-minute act of eating a funnel cake while strolling the boards, the ocean breeze kicking up sand and powdered sugar, the cacophony from the mob of gulls circling overhead warning me that one cheeky gull is ready to swoop down and snatch the treat from my fingers if I don’t hurry up and finish.