“I don’t have any trinkets under the counter,” the man looks at me, cheekbones smiling, eyes soft, freckles splattered across his face, “I only have service.”
He stands in front of a rack of clothes that have been tailored and cleaned and are waiting for pick-up. His sharply pressed shirt, well-fitted slacks, and a tape measure draped around his shoulders all speak of a different time — a time of sleek black cars, long dresses with feathered hats, and pocket squares with dark suits. An elegant time.
“I do major to minor alterations. Everything from silk to leather. Dry cleaning. I do everything in dry cleaning from slacks to bridal gowns.”
“I’ve always had to work. I’ve never had my hand out expecting people to give me anything. I believe you have to put something in to get something out.”
His voice is buttery and smooth. The slight cadence of a preacher without the drama. Honeyed tones. The calming voice you want by your sick-bed when your mom is not around.
“I’m only as good as my last job. Okay? And I also maintain that each time I see a customer, it is the last time I see them until they come back again. I never take anybody for granted.”
Daniels never has. He got off the bus in downtown Des Moines on September 19, 1965. Seventeen-year-old Daniels looked around at the rough crowd milling about the station and decided this was a bad idea. But with encouragement from his mother back in Tennessee, he decided to give it a shot.
And fifty years later, here he is. Of course, it was not a straight path. He tried being a masseur, a car salesman, a construction worker, a furniture salesman, an office worker, a warehouse man. You name it, Daniels gave it a whirl. But it was clothing that drove his passion. Selling it, buying it, fitting it, cleaning it. He loved it all.
Daniels worked at various clothing stores around Des Moines. Became the top salesman at every one. “Made top book there,” he says.
“I sold more furnishings — shirt, ties, and slacks — than the furnishings people. Clothing, you see, is sports coats and suits. When the garment came in, I’d take time to put it together with shirts and ties. The objections I had to overcome were always the same, ‘Well, we already have some ties at home.’ ‘Yes ma’am, but when you bought those ties, they went with something you already had. So if you put an old tie with a new suit it makes it an old suit.’”
A deep, melodious laugh echoes around the room. The salesman at work.
“The only month I didn’t outsell was the month I lost my brother. I named my shop for him. Fred. Frederick. Fred had character. It is difficult for me to pack up and leave this store because, as you noticed in the phone calls I’ve had, his name is mentioned every single time, every single day. Every time my phone rings.”
“Thank you for calling Frederick’s Tailoring and Quality Cleaners.”
At 68 years old, however, Daniels is feeling his bones. He can see the end in sight. But, the good days are still awfully good.
“When I can bring happiness to someone based on something I have personally done for them, that they didn’t think could be done, it is very fulfilling to me. It just happened a week ago. Young lady with a wedding in Dallas, Texas. A bridesmaid dress was way to small for her. I turned it around in one day. She came in, she couldn’t sleep the night before. There was no material to make it larger. But we work small miracles. Magic is one thing, but a miracle is something else. Magic is making something appear that wasn’t there. A miracle is just making it happen. She cried because I saved that dress for her.”
This is all fine and good today, but wasn’t it unnerving back in 1965 to come to Des Moines, alone and only 17, to try to start this new life, and then struggle through job after job?
“I wasn’t nervous. I had seen a lot of different things in the past.” Daniels looks off, remembering.
And then this successful, mature businessman, operating a tailor and cleaning shop in a strip mall in West Des Moines, told me of a different time and a different place.
Back in 1963, Daniels, seated on the far left, was involved in the civil rights movement. It was a heated time, a time of change, a time of protest. In one protest in which he participated, he and two high school buddies were refused admittance to the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, Daniels’ home town. Separate but equal was the rule back then. Each young teenager had the dollar admission raised in his hand. Refusing to move. This image was captured by a fellow schoolmate, Charles Howell, just before the teens were arrested by the group of white police officers.
“I am not bitter because of growing up with racism and segregation. I have always looked at people as just being people. Not being better than, more than, or less than me. I respect people for what they’ve accomplished. I don’t hold anyone in awe for what they do, or where they live, or what their last name is, or what their profession is. With the support of my wife of 42 years, I’m able to continue to do what I do. I am truly blessed.”
And Daniels laughs softly, adjusts his shirt, and gently touches the rack of clothes behind him, his life work.
“I take pride in what I do.”