Yong gets a call from his parents asking if he can come help them clean up their dry cleaning business in Jersey City. They still don’t have power, and the water, which was over the countertops, has receded. Their computers are still fried, though; it’s going to take a few weeks to get anyone to pull the customer data from them, and it’s going to cost them up to $1600 just for the data. They need the data before that, and they’re don’t want to pay that much.
Yong’s roommate Patrick and I both say we want to help, so we pile in the car Saturday morning and drive up to Jersey. Yong has written out some Korean phrases for me to say because his parents’ English is limited. I have faithfully transcribed these into a script I can understand using the international phonetic alphabet. I notice that Yong is saying different syllables differently, depending on if he’s using them in context or saying them one by one, and this makes sense when I figure out, by staring at the Korean symbols for a couple of minutes, that Korean uses the same letter for certain voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs, such as [g] and [k], and that their voicing depends on their position in a word. It’s similar to how in American English, the two ts makes two different sounds in the word total. You’ve probably never noticed that, and Yong didn’t notice the Korean thing either until I pointed it out.
However, despite all my linguistic efforts, I am too tired from staying out late at the Ranstead Room to practice these phrases on the way, and sleep instead. Anyway, I freeze as Yong introduces me in English, because it seems weird to deliver a formal speech in Korean in the entryway of a damaged dry cleaning business. They have the door propped open, and cold air circulates over the lingering debris on the floor. I get as far as anyung haseio, and smile in embarrassment. They give me a pen and a notebook, and position me to start writing down the contents of dry cleaning tickets at the beginning of what looks like a small warehouse full of clothes. Location, ticket number, last name, first name, telephone number, number of items, price. I smooth out crumpled tickets, squint my eyes in the gloom, shift from one foot to the other in the cold. Yong’s dad smiles when I finish my row quickly. He tries to make conversation about my experience on the Bike the US for MS tour, where I met Yong and Patrick, but I have to try to correct him to say I didn’t actually take part in the tour. I met them while they were on a rest day in Sandpoint. I don’t think he understands me.
Yong and Patrick are doing inventory of the top tier of clothes, balanced on hanging rods that look dubiously thin. However, the rods have got to be somewhat sturdy if they’re built to hang hundreds of pounds of clothing on them. Because there’s no electricity, we can’t just run the conveyor belt that would bring most of these down for easy viewing. Yong’s brother Albert is on the phone, trying to get information about help from FEMA, small business loans, insurance. They’re not sure if their machines are damaged, but they do know they’ll have to re-clean a good portion of the clothes, and meanwhile, they’re getting no income.
Every so often, people wander in and try to pick up their dry cleaning. They’re told there’s no power and to come back next week.
We break for lunch and then leave for dinner. Yong’s parents treat us to Korean food in a little strip mall, which is spicy and succulent. I look out the window during the drive over, and every few houses, a tree has toppled over, its roots still attached to wet masses of soil. Some are hanging over power lines. On the turnpike, we had passed a line of power trucks with license plates from Oklahoma and Ohio, which did not have to abide by the area’s fuel restrictions. Electronic signs over the turnpike all proclaim that gas is available for odd-numbered license plates only. The lines to the gas stations stretch for a mile or so, and numerous police cars flank the stations in the event of a riot. Yong looks at the smog-free sky. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so blue here,” he says.
Then we head back to Albert’s apartment with two new computers, purchased, Albert says, from their dry cleaning network, and installed with the dry cleaning software they had on the old computers. The software is old and clumsy, and even on two computers, it takes everyone until 1 a.m. to input the data from around 2,000 tickets. And that’s about half of the clothes in the store.