The Sociology of Suds

Overtown gets clean at Mister Lee's

That's been the routine for a good fifteen years, at least right up until Larry, a retired probation officer, succumbed to cancer a couple of months ago. "He fought it a long time," Mister Lee shrugs painfully, his usual grin slipping right off his face. "We was worried about him, but he try to be a proud old bird. He always could talk more trash than a freight train." So now Mister Lee gets his own coffee, if he can't cajole longshoreman Elizah Mackey, a.k.a. Ringo, into it. Just before noon, Lenita (who has also taken over lottery duties from Big Willie) comes by to watch the place for a few hours while Mister Lee grabs lunch and a snooze. He's usually back by four in the afternoon, and locks up by about 8:30 p.m.

Lenita Gibbs is a short heavy woman of 60 years, with a broad open face that sports a few black and white chin hairs. She wears her hair in short salt and pepper braids unraveling at the ends. When she isn't scowling at the foolish antics of wayward children, she's laughing raucously, mouth gaping and wildly bereft of teeth. Lenita, who worked at a Steak and Ale for a long time, became part of the informal coffee club a few years ago. "We tried a couple of other ladies, but it never worked," Mister Lee explains. "Lenita just fit. She think we're funny and we like that."

Lenita fit in so well because she's a sucker for gossip, but she can also hold her own in man talk. "We talk about everything -- the mens, the womens -- just everything that go on," she says. "I wasn't even a coffee drinker really. My granddaddy used to say, 'Drinking coffee makes you black.'" Lenita rolls her eyes and laughs at her childhood gullibility. When Mister Lee decided the guy he used to have watch his place in the afternoons wasn't working out, he asked Lenita if she wanted the job. "She did," Mister Lee remembers, "and it was the best thing ever happened."

Wash, dry, fold, gossip, or just search the walls for 
work or a place to live
Jonathan Postal
Wash, dry, fold, gossip, or just search the walls for work or a place to live
There's a simple philosophy here: Come in dirty and 
go out clean
Jonathan Postal
There's a simple philosophy here: Come in dirty and go out clean

Lenita lives down the street with one of her three sons. In the mornings, she walks her granddaughter Briana to Frederick Douglass Elementary School, which is just catty-corner across NW Third Avenue from Mister Lee's. Then she'll wander about, get a few games of Tetris in on her son's PlayStation, and head down to the laundry. There, it is her mission to put right all that has gone wrong since the morning, when people began coming in to, in her opinion, take advantage of her old friend's good nature. "Mister Lee got all the people here spoiled rotten," she harrumphs affectionately. "He loan them money sometimes. He let them use the buckets in back and then they don't bring 'em back. So I have to go around the neighborhood and round 'em up."

Lenita continues her rant: "He one of the nicest people have a business in this area. The majority of the parents here, he helped across the street as children. These kids, he gives 'em money. Then when he gone, they look at me. And I say, 'I don't have no quarters for no games!'"

Mister Lee's laundry is a shrine to black pride. The walls are plastered with old posters and sports pennants, Dolphins, UM, Bethune-Cookman College. There's a black and white team photo of the 1955 Crispus Attucks High School basketball team in Indianapolis. "That was the first all-black team that won a state championship," Lee remarks proudly. There are several old calendars, either Great Queens of Africa or Great Kings. There's the obligatory portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Also clipped to the walls are numerous community flyers and old news articles. The top of the April 2, 2002 edition of the Miami Times headlined "Black Oscar Winners" shows Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Sidney Poitier.

There's a framed portrait of a young and arrogant boxer, Everlast gloves held up. His handle is Electrifying Classius Ali (a.k.a. Wayne Blair). He's an Overtown kid, a long-time customer, and one of the boys who took boxing lessons with the Police Benevolent Association, going on to make a minor sensation of himself as a junior middleweight. "He got pretty good," Mister Lee offers. "But you know, the boxing business is rotten and he fell down. He still wash here, though."

The tiny arcade at the front consists of a pinball machine and three battered video games: Street Fighter Plus, Metal Slug, and the classic, Ms. Pac-Man. The pinball machine is called The Getaway, and features a red car with a hot blonde in the passenger seat and the license plate "Kingpin." Two brown-skinned adolescent boys enthusiastically hit the flipper to whack the little silver ball through the gates.

A younger boy of perhaps three or four years stands behind them for a moment, then toddles past a row of yellow and white washing machines, back to where Mister Lee is perched on a stool near his work bench. Tacked above the bench is a handwritten list of names of who owes rent, and a "hot list" of who owes back rent. A Jackson Memorial janitor comes in to pay his rent. He lays out $360 in four piles of twenties while Lee writes out a receipt and locks the money away for the landlord to collect later.

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