16 Dec 2018

James Hook: pressing desire to iron

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 16 December 2018

James Hook is the founder and ironer-in-chief of the Brooklyn Ironers' Union, who set up their boards in bars and cafes in the New York borough and iron strangers' clothing for free.

Iron fan James Hook

Brooklyn Ironers' Union founder James Hook.  Photo: Supplied

The union meets monthly and is preparing for a big Christmas ironing session at a local bar.

For Hook, it's an act of peaceful rebellion. 

"I think the idea of taking things that are rough and smoothing them out, anyone can appreciate that. 

"As we in our country sort of rail against the roughening of our civic body itself it’s kind of a very peaceful act to be able to smooth down one small thing for yourself and others here [PHWHISSSHT] in Brooklyn - sorry, that was my iron going off..." 

As he explains, it's a dream come true. 

"The other thing about New York City that’s so wonderful is that things are often discarded on the street ... New York is a place where if you manifest it in your dreams it will eventually appear on the sidewalk.

"I manifested my favourite iron which is a Rowenta Steam Iron … it’s amazing. This thing is so powerful - I mean, I feel I could iron the Himalayas into the plain of the Ganges if I had a big enough iron."

Metal, heat, water - and beer: 'It really is a sensual delight'

Hook says he loves ironing but realised one day it was suffering "as an individual, solitary chore done in the house ... if we redefined it as a public service, socially provided, that redefinition could open up all sorts of possibilities for ironing.

"Let’s face it, who wants to spend their Sunday afternoon ironing when they could be doing other things? But somebody wants to grab a bag, go down to the local pub, drink a few beers and chat with friends while ironing their own and other people's clothing: it makes the task much much more appealing."

35347873 - white collar shirt and iron on ironing board

Photo: ronstik/123RF

So he began doing exactly that, and getting some free drinks in the process.

"That old American trick, where  …  it’s Tom Sawyer-like, you can do what you want but you can actually convince people that you’re doing them a favour. I go into bars and say ‘hey, I’ll iron anybody’s clothes and all I want is a free beer." 

He says it's a wonderful experience. 

"When you’re ironing in a bar and you have this cool liquid beer in your hand - which of course is a lovely refresher - and then you have this hot steamy iron that’s going all over the place, it really is a sensual delight. 

"You tend to have these very intimate experiences with this article of clothing that was on somebody’s body and is sort of an avatar of them. 

"There’s so few chances we have in our lives to really wrestle with the tactile elemental forces of nature." 

Smoothing the creases of society

He says there's also value in its secondary, social purpose. 

"Forcing people to talk to one another again." 

James Hook: Iron Man

Despite bearing some resemblance to his piratical namesake, Hook wields iron instead of steel in his social crusade. Photo: Supplied

"Certain people have brought me iconic items that they need to have some kind of relationship to. So, a man brought me a t-shirt and he said ‘I just want you to iron this until it’s burned because it’s a t-shirt that my ex-wife gave me'. 

Things can sometimes get pretty steamy. 

"A young couple who were clearly on a first Tinder date kind of situation, came and she said ‘oh I’d love to get my dress ironed but I don’t have anything to wear’ and I said ‘I have a robe if you need a courtesy robe. She went out into the bathroom, and doffed her kit and came out in this robe and you could see this boy’s eyes light up.

"And then after I finished with her dress he whipped his shirt off and stood there and got his shirt ironed and the minute I was done with that, they both thanked me and hurried off out of the bar - so I really believe that my ironing made a difference in their romantic life, and that was gratifying." 

Indeed, Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams recognised the group on 23 April with Brooklyn Ironers' Union Day, saying he applauded the organisation for 'ironing out the folds' in Brooklyn's diverse cultural tapestry.

Hook says others who "share my love of ironing - sort of in a secret way" began to catch on, and he began to organise. 

"People had come up and said ‘this is wonderful, I’d like to do this myself' and I sort of imagined this day in which the idea of a New York bar without an ironer is almost anarchic and nostalgic, that every New York bar would eventually have an ironer on a Monday or a Tuesday night. 

"A bunch of people just sort of said ‘we would love to jump on board and do the same thing’ so I started organising a very simple system whereby I’d say 'here’s your bar, here’s your night'. 

"You have to have your board, you have to have your iron, you have to have a few other bells and whistles - and you have to be reliable as an ironer which is something that I take very seriously. 

A flat-rate system

It's important to Hook that his movement retains its drinks-based payment system. 

"I could monetise it but then I suppose the bar would not want me to drink their drinks for free and I wouldn’t have a place to go and feel special ... there’s all these things that get pushed out the window as soon as money comes in. 

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Photo: 123RF

"It definitely is a sensual delight and I think we’re on the lookout in this day and age for any cheap pleasure that sort of evades the great capitalist eye of Sauron. 

"My Marxist roots are going to show through my dye job here: the key that leads to the ultimate corruption, I think, is monetising anything - so we just made a very strong commitment at the very beginning that this is not something to be monetised. 

"I’m very pleased to be able to sort of ply the eddies of this capitally non-intensive work, out of the gaze of what is overwrought in America - which is our tendency to take anything and try to turn it into some kind of app or money-making device or service." 

Regardless of the image of iron-clad fraternity his union evokes, Hook says he'd be more than happy for his idea to spread far and wide. 

"Ironing is sort of an open-source system: it’s so simple, nobody owns ironing. So, the more people take this thing and yank it out of this definition that it is suffering under of lonesome… private domestic chore the better. 

"That said, I would love the New Zealand tourist commission to sponsor me to do an ironing tour … I would say ‘how about this, I will take the route of Goodbye Pork Pie and I’ll iron my way from one end of New Zealand to the other and I’ll just stop in bars and I’ll write about it' and we’ll learn what New Zealand is like.

"There's a tremendous value there but not a dollar would change hands."