As I walked into her condo, it was immaculate.
Clean, orderly, and proper.
Mrs. Schein was in the late 70's or early 80's. She had a fire and an energy that you could see and feel as soon as you were in her presence.
"Young men, a few things -- be careful in my place, and don't call me Mrs. Schein, call me Dorothy."
I've always felt uncomfortable calling adults older than me by their first names, but she was insistent, and I obeyed.
As we set out to work in her condo, she stood over me -- watching every move.
My friend Kenny and I started a business while we were each in college. When we arrived home from school, we planned and executed a way to make some serious money working for ourselves.
We hung signs around town, and placed "tear cards" at all the strip malls in our area -- and then listened as our home phone rang, and our answering machine filled up with calls from people who desperately needed their storm windows, screens, and windows cleaned and taken care of.
We made a BIG business of marketing, "College Window Cleaning." The name says it all, so that housewives knew we were kids, building a business.
We learned so much those summers about marketing, customer service, execution, and pricing.
We generally had 3 to 4 homes a day to do, and had them scheduled weeks in advance.
Charging a homeowner $5.00 per window unit was an easy way for a customer to assess their cost, and our price. 15 windows (including storms, screens, and windowsills) would be $75.
We showed up with buckets, ladders, and all the equipment that you would need to do a quality job.
"Are you boys gonna make a mess here?"
I responded, "No Dorothy, your windows will be clean, you wont even know we were here."
The problem with this condo of Dorothy's was that it was small by our standards. There were only a total of 7 windows for us to clean, netting us a $35 charge -- we liked homes that had 15+ windows, plus sliding glass doors.
She had none of that.
Her windows were all damaged, kinda frosted -- with a haze that developed from years of condensation, and weather, and heat.
Her windows were stained, and no amount of ammonia, water, bleach, or chemicals could get out the rugged stains that had set themselves onto her windows.
The stains were "inside of the glass" -- and we had never seen anything like it before.
"Dorothy, this glass is damaged -- I'm not sure we can do anything for you when it comes to cleaning them."
Her face cringed up, and she was visibily upset.
She retorted, "Is this some kind of bait and switch, you boys taking advantage of an old ladies to swindel money out of senior citizens?
We were in a place called Covered Bridge in Marlboro, NJ. A community full of seniors.
It was our first job in this retirement community.
I explained, "Dorothy, we will try our best, but I cannot promise anything."
She left the room.
Kenny and I looked at each other, and we knew this was going to be a problem -- with an unhappy homeowner, and a losing few hours of revenue.
We cleaned as best we could, but in the end the windows were still foggy, and damaged.
She yelled out from the kitchen, "Boys, come over here."
We walked towards the kitchen.
As we rounded the corner, I saw that she set the table full of food. A loaf of bread, cold cuts, chips, soda, and utensil -- all laid out across the table.
"You boys must be hungry, have a seat."
We sat down, thanking her profusley -- and letting her know it was completely unnecessary for her to feed us like this.
She reached across the table to pass the roast beef, and I saw something that to this day is enshrined on my psyche.
A tattoo. A tattoo on her forearm.
It looked like this.
My heart sank.
Dorothy was a holocaust survivor.
It turns out Dorothy's husband had died many years earlier, and she was all alone. Her children moved far away, and she was content living alone -- almost like a recluse.
I had to bring it up, in a polite, yet unassuming manner.
"Dorothy, I just saw your arm -- and the tattoo, I am so sorry that you experienced the holocaust, and I'm so honored to have met a survivor like you."
Those words melted her.
She got up from the table, and went into the kitchen.
She thanked us for coming, paid us, and we left her house.
The next day on the answering machine was a message.
"Boys, this is Dorothy Schein -- I'm quite unhappy with the job you did, and I demand my money back -- or for you to come right away and fix this horrendous mess you made."
I called her back, and arranged to visit the next day with Kenny.
We went back to try to fix her complaints and assure her that there was little we could do to fix her window situation.
As she opened the door, I said with Kenny by my side -- "Dorothy, this is NOT a window cleaning problem -- it's a window problem, the actual windows are damaged -- but Kenny and I are willing to give you your money back."
She smiled, and said -- "Come in boys."
Food was once again set up across her kitchen table. A spread of chicken, fresh bread, salads, all prepared and elegantly presented to two young boys who came to fix her complaints.
Kenny and I soon realized she was depressed and lonely. Asking us to fix her windows was a ploy to get us over to spend time and talk to her.
Over lunch, she talked a bit about her experience as a survivor. Mostly, about how it shaped her life.
It was clear from her actions and conversations, that she meant well -- but, had a difficult time throughout her life of building bonds, and forging relationships.
The Nazi's could not kill her physically, bu they clearly damaged her (and many like her) emotionally, and spiritually.
Dorothy continued to call us for weeks on end. Her claims ranged from damaging her rug, to chemicals on her windowsills. Her voice on the answering machine was pleading us to come back and fix the windows. She was begging us to come back.......
I knew we could not.
Soon, the calls ended. And, we went back to college.
I never forgot Dorothy Schein. Out of the hundreds of houses full of windows that we cleaned those summers in the 80's -- Dorothy is certainly the most memorable, and most endearing of all. The smallest house, but with the most spirit. Our smallest of all window cleaning jobs we had ever had -- only 7 windows.
She had a tattoo that told me more about her, and her life, than any book or movie could.
A tattoo. A tattoo that was forever placed on her arm -- but, a mark that was stained on her life.
I'm glad I met Dorothy. Looking back, I'm sorry I did not spend more time with her.
But, as we go through life -- I've found that it is sometimes that people we meet in passsing, that we have no idea we will think of 25 years later......in an unlikely way.
Thanks Dorothy Schein.