‘South Congress tailor was thread in everyday life’

Jan. 5, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

Mei Wong was the sphinx of Austin garment workers. Expressionless, almost non-verbal, fussily businesslike, she ran Ace Expert Alterations and Cleaners on South Congress Avenue with joyless poise and snappy haste, like an antsy schoolmarm with a lot to do. She was sweet but stern, courteous but curt, and in that way, something of a mystery.

For 15 years she operated the musty old shop alone. Nearly every time I walked in — ding went the tiny bell on the door — she was in back, bustling. Talk radio blared. The wood-panelled front counter was scattered with pins, a random spool of thread, leaves of yellow carbon slips. That dry-cleany smell, like dusty clothing, like grandpa’s closet.

I’d set my articles on the counter and wait. Sometimes I’d blurt, “Uh, hello?”

And out she’d come.

Wong was tall and slender, pale and pretty, with waist-length black hair. Originally from Hong Kong, she spoke in splintered English with wobbly pronunciation. She spoke hurriedly. “OK. You pay now. Ready Tuesday.”

And out I’d go.

She had an air of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi,” merely misconstrued shyness, a quietness of bearing lost in translation. “She wasn’t really gregarious or outgoing,” a nearby store owner told the American-Statesman after Wong was found dead in the shop Dec. 12, the victim of an industrial accident.

You had to engage her just right to coax a smile and a laugh.

I liked to joke with her, ask questions, behave like a human. I told her I’d been to China and Hong Kong. (She was not impressed.) I asked if she actually liked Rush Limbaugh, who was bellowing from the back room. (Her response was in the ballpark of, “Not exactly. It’s just on.”)

Once, standing before the dressing mirror as she pinned my jeans above the hem, I mumbled how awful I looked as I mussed my hair.

“No, look nice,” Wong said. “Nice hair.” Then she reached out, patted my head and asked, “Is that a wig?”

It was too strange and funny to be offensive. I love that story.

One of my last exchanges with Wong was regretfully abrupt. The price she quoted me to patch up some T-shirts sounded too high. Protesting, I snatched the shirts from the counter and walked out. Behind me I heard Wong say in her endearing English , “Sah-wee.”

Of course I returned the next day, with a smile, and had her sew them up. She did great work, and I went to her for years.

Wong’s death shocks not only because of the cause – a gruesome misfortune involving her head and a spinning dry cleaning machine – but because so many people knew her as their clothing fixer-upper. It’s as if your mechanic or barber died unexpectedly. Someone you trusted to do the job right. Someone you encountered, one-on-one, with semi-regularity.

But we didn’t really know her at all. We flew in, flew out. She went to work on our pants and jackets, from which maybe she learned something about us.

(How in heck did he make these holes? … Now that’s a dirty neckline.)

It was impersonal mercantilism, not the forced familiarity, the “Hey, bros” and “G’mornings!,” dispensed at certain sandwich and coffee shops. She was the disinterested businesswoman, diligently executing her craft in the strict narrows between 9 and 5. Unlike my dry cleaner (Wong was only my tailor), she never memorized my name, never even uttered it.

A customer found Wong, 54, dead inside Ace on that bright Wednesday morning. Overnight, the familiar shop – yellow and rundown, with large cluttered windows and an old-fashioned sign with a big red arrow on it – became a sidewalk shrine. Notes and cards were taped on the glass, mounted flower arrangements leaned against the walls.

All of that’s gone now. What remains is a sign instructing customers where to pick up the clothes they left for Wong’s handiwork – some place other than here. Some place with a lot more personality, but probably not.

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