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Over the laundry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I CAN IDENTIFY with the thousands of Lockheed Martin Corp. workers who are awaiting word this week about the company's restructuring plans. By Friday, they're expecting to learn whether they'll get laid off.

In the late 1940s, my father feared he would be laid off from the then-Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, because of post-World War II cuts in defense spending. Fortunately, my father was not laid off then, but I'll never forget the plans he made -- including opening a business -- in the event that he did lose his job.

I was a preschooler and my sister and brother were teen-agers when mother and daddy decided to open a self-service laundry in either 1948 or 1949 (the exact date is lost to history); it was a daring move since it was a new type of business and my parents had never owned a business before. My father bought a property near Hollins Market, at the corner of Lombard Street and Carrollton Avenue, which had been occupied by businesses at the street level and residents in the two, two-bedroom apartments upstairs. They outfitted a large room on the first floor on the Carrollton Avenue side with washing machines and dryers. They leased the front entrance on Lombard Street to an ophthalmologist. Residential tenants leased the two upstairs apartments. My father added on a snow-ball stand next to the laundry for my brother and sister to operate during the summer months.

The laundry was in a red brick building -- but not for long. After all, it was the dawning of the Formstone Age in Baltimore. Not only did my parents have the two-story building covered with Formstone, but also they covered the snow-ball stand in the faux-stone exterior. We had the first Formstone building on the block. Very Baltimore.

Like a lot of small businesses, the first year was difficult. The people my parents hired to manage the laundry didn't work out. Also, there were few customers and my parents couldn't afford to advertise the business. Mother decided that she needed to manage the laundry herself. So every day for a year, Mother and I took the bus from our home in Middle River to southwest Baltimore. There were no day care centers in those days, so Mother would drop me off at the nearby Zirkler's Bakery, where I played with Linda Zirkler under the watchful eye of a baby-sitter. Linda and I are still friends. I loved watching Irwin Zirkler decorate cakes while Ella Zirkler handled the customers. The Zirklers lived over the bakery.

While the child-care arrangement worked out, the laundry continued to lose money. In 1951, in debt but determined to make the business work, my parents sold our cozy home in Middle River and moved the family into the living quarters over the laundry; the two apartments were converted into one large apartment. The leases for the physician and residential tenants were not renewed.

I started the first grade at Public School No. 10 (two blocks away); it was the alma mater of my father and his father. My brother and sister went to Poly and Western, respectively.

It wasn't long after our move that the laundry became a thriving business. It was due to my mother's personality and my father's ingenuity. To spark business, they began offering customers the choice of a free stuffed monkey or a wind-up toy car with every wash. A string of monkeys -- suspended by a hand or a foot -- was stretched across the ceiling of the laundry. The little red cars were wound up and ran over the tops of the machines. The colorful motion drew the attention of passersby; they stopped to laugh and, eventually, many stopped to drop off their clothes. Business boomed.

The customers were supposed to leave their laundry and pick it up later, but many ended up staying until their laundry was done. They would linger because they liked talking to Mother and asking her advice on a number of matters. Mother, called "Miss Ruth" by her customers, became everyone's confident. Many of her customers were working mothers who often couldn't make it by the 6 p.m. closing time to pick up their laundry. That was no problem; Mother either waited for them or she would interrupt her own dinner and run back downstairs to hand laundry over to late arrivers who knocked on the door. They loved her. Within months after we moved over the laundry, dry cleaning service was added.

There was a separate street entrance to our living quarters, but after school I always entered through the laundry so I could visit with Mother. I would watch as she treated customers royally; I saw her deal with vendors and salesmen, count the day's receipts and balance the cash register. While father had the great money-making idea, it was Mother who made it work. Every day I saw her do something very, very important: she not only made a living, but also turned a once shaky business into a cash cow.

Before the laundry, Mother had been a homemaker who had never dealt with the public. She learned on the job. They had faith in themselves and in each other. They were determined to fend off hard times. The laundry was open six days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. My sister, Bette, who was 16 when we moved in, did the marketing and started dinner every night during the five years we lived there. When my father arrived from work, Mother went upstairs and finished dinner while he closed the laundry. After dinner, Daddy went down to the laundry to do routine maintenance on the machines, which he learned from manuals and a little help from my brother, Donald. My brother, who was 17 when we moved in, was responsible for observing the servicemen and then explaining to my father what they did. That information helped father learn how to repair the machines himself. Mother manipulated the servicemen's arrival to coincide with Donald's arrival from Poly. In the evenings after a service call, Donald would tell my father something like: "He cleaned this thing with a brush, tightened this thing, squirted oil in this thing and replaced this thing." I can still hear my father tell me, "It's not important to know everything; it's important to know how to find out."

They sold the laundry in 1956 after the proceeds from the business had exceeded my parent's financial goals. By that time, they owned several rental-income properties throughout the Baltimore area. They had bought the properties, too, as a hedge against hard times that never came.

After the laundry closed, Mother never worked for a living again and instead enjoyed Red Cross volunteer work, knitting, crocheting and gardening. In his new-found spare time, Daddy became a self-taught magician; he made all his own equipment and props for his magic shows.

My sister finished her X-ray technician training and got married. My brother went to graduate and medical school at Stanford University. My parents and I moved to Wilson Point, a peninsula near Martin Airport. They bought their first Mercedes and a small cabin cruiser.

Their efforts paid off. They paid for their children's college educations, including my brother's medical school, with cash. They also created their own comfortable pensions and left modest bequests upon their deaths. None of this might have happened if father hadn't been worried about losing his job. Eventually, he did lose his job -- but it didn't happen until 1972 at the age of 64.

My parents left something more important than money behind: The ability to persevere with integrity, regardless of your financial circumstances. Living over the laundry taught me that it isn't what you do to earn a living that's important, it's how you do it that counts. My parents did it well.

Signe Lauren writes from Baltimore.

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