WICKER PARK — Dogs wag their tails to show they’re happy, we all know that.
Well, lots of tail-wagging goes on at Phil’s place over here just northwest of downtown Chicago.
After a romp in the nearby park, neighbors bring their dogs over to make the ritual stop at Phil’s to get a dog biscuit.
Phil is Phil Luparello.
He and his wife Marie own Hollywood Cleaners, a business started by his father-in-law Nunzio “Bud” Raimondi, in Sept. 1947. But Phil is retiring, and will close his business for good June 1.
American Drycleaner editor Tim Burke stopped by to chat with him on a spring morning recently.
“I’m going to miss my customers and their dogs,” Phil says with a twinge of ‘old country’ Italian in his voice and a little wistful twinkle in his eyes.
Where Milwaukee Ave. meets Evergreen Ave. is a friendly blue-collar neighborhood, a mix of old and new, where everyone knows everyone else by their first name it seems. It’s a little burg, sort of, inside a big metro city space.
And all the neighbors and their doggies know the cleaner who gives them a big smile, chats over coffees early in the morning long before opening, and gives out doggie treats to all their poochies.
Phil came to work in 1981.
“Let’s see,” he scratches his chin, “it was, ummm, it was March of ’81. Then I took over in 1982.”
He worked formerly at Brach’s candy company.
“I was a candy machine operator,” he relates with a big grin.
“What was your favorite candy?” I ask.
“All of them!”
We laugh together and a customer who has just entered, hears us and giggles. She’s carrying her pooch.
Phil is already coming around the counter with a dog biscuit in hand.
“This is Angelina,” he smiles and nods from me to the woman, who also has a big smile on her face.
“And this,” he says lovingly, “is Canella!” He pets the little chihuahua who seems eager to accept his touch, like an old friend, and then the doggie senses in anticipation what’s in Phil's hand.
“Here you go,” he beams and holds out the treat to the pup. “Canella means Cinnamon you know,” he says to me with warm smiling eyes.
Phil has recently decided to close the cleaning business, sell the building he and Marie have owned, and enjoy a life of retirement.
“I’m 64 and I want to relax a bit. Retail is down a bit so why not. It feels like time. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I have two grandsons on the way,” Phil laughs, “and I know I’ll be babysitting!”
His customers continue to stream in and out. With each opening of the door, and tinkling of a tiny bell, he steps around the counter, calls out to greet his customer by first name, and then their dog by name, and gives the pooch a dog biscuit.
The poochies all come in with tails wagging. They know Phil very well!
I take a moment to ask Angelina, who is paying for her freshly cleaned clothing, how she feels about Phil closing. We are standing under a big banner announcing it will be all over at the end of May.
“I’ll miss him very much,” she pauses and nods down to her pooch, “we’ll miss him very much. The neighborhood will miss him very much.”
The customers come in smiling, and Phil beams at them all, but there is a tiny note of sadness in the air too because they all know he is closing.
His cleaners is a place of comfort. He loves dogs so much. He loved his own dog, his best buddy “Sammy” who came to work everyday with him for 13 years, “Seven days a week,” Phil says.
He points to his beloved Sammy’s photo framed above and behind the counter.
“Sammy lived here,” Phil relates, “I couldn’t even take him outside of the store at the end of the day, he would shake all over. Everyone knew Sammy.”
Posters and signs above us reflect Chicago history, sports achievements, old movies, and special moments in his family’s cleaning history.
The high walls up above the big front counter area seem to be whispering from the past — old tales full of memories of the joys of neighborhood customers and their life stories.
Phil and Marie will enjoy retirement. When Phil shuts the doors, they close a quality Wicker Park cleaning business that served their neighbors for 71 years, and gave out about a million doggie treats.
Two customers picking up cleaning just now, with their playful puppy in tow, grab a treat from Phil as he says lovingly, “I’ve always treated all the dogs like they were my own.”
We shake hands and I thank Phil for his time. As I leave, I can’t help thinking I’ve visited a really special place, not only for all the people, but all the dogs! Happy retirement Phil!