A couple of impressions linger long after meeting West Side seamstress Milly Hoffman. One is that shes the embodiment of self-sufficiency. The other is that shes Martha Stewart on steroids.
A visit to Milly’s home-based tailor shop on Shrewsbury Avenue is an experience one does not expect to have in Red Bank, or anywhere outside of fiction, actually. It begins at the arched-top front door, with Millys painted in large script on the exterior. You soon discover that the name is also on the door’s interior side, should you forget where you are while having a dress altered or your waistband let out.
As you progress through the enclosed front porch, with its multiple sewing machines, past the room that serves as Millys tailor shop, and into the kitchen, a sense of deepening hallucination takes hold. Is this what its like to be inside a wedding cake?
The kitchen ceiling actually looks a sheet cake. It, like almost everything in sight, has been prettified in some way by a hand equipped with a fine-tipped paint brush and a taste for ivy arches and curlicues. The countertops have been painted, the tabletop and chairs have been painted, the oven door has been painted. Hand-painted decorative caps for the burners on the stove and the refrigerator handle have all gotten the treatment. Cabinet knobs have been transformed into dainty flowers.
Do you like chocolate pie? Milly asks, opening a cabinet door. A chocolate pie is painted on the inside.
The relentlessness of this transformative hand is evident everywhere. The tiles in the baths. The basement stairwell. In Millys otherwise unfinished attic is a perfect little sitting room in which no one, including Milly, ever sits. But the space cried out for the Milly touch, and so the Milly touch was bestowed.
None of this, of course, is the result of any real necessity, unless one counts the urge to do it. Milly makes all her own clothes, naturally, but she also cuts her own hair, because it takes too long to go to the beauty parlor. She makes jewelry from egg cartons, and is writing a book on how you can do it, too. She has a brother who collects dollhouses, and one room of her house is lined with them while she spruces them up. I make my own business cards, she says, handing us a stack of them.
(She has a website, by the way, and the words Milly made it are part of the URL.)
But as otherworldly as her environment may be, Milly seems as grounded an individual as you will ever sit and chat with, even in a house that’s right out of Alice in Wonderland.
She grew up one of seven siblings on the outskirts of Matawan, and being the somewhat-easily-overlooked middle child, developed a strong sense of independence, she says. It came in handy early. She had to quit high school as a freshman because her father lost his job and the family needed whatever she might earn. She lied about her age and took a job at a television factory on West Broad Street in Red Bank, opposite Brothers Pizza.
Necessity is the most important thing in life, so I never resented it, Milly says. Never.
At the urging of her mother, who thought it was a good way to prevent her daughters from attracting trouble, Milly got married at 17, and became a mother a year later. And over the ensuing years, shes often had two or more jobs at a time. But from the time she was 19, she has always had at least one job that involved needles and thread.
The love of working with textiles is something that was born in me, she says. An aunt told her that even as an infant in her crib, shed be fascinated for hours by bits of fabric. At age 5, Milly used to look with yearning at her mothers foot-powered sewing machine. I used to beg to use it, because I knew I could operate it, but I wasnt allowed to, she says. Finally, around the time she was 12, she got the green light, and started making clothes.
Shes been in Red Bank, with some interruptions, since the 1970s, and has had tailor shops on Broad Street and Bridge Avenue. Even then, though she often moonlighted with other work. It wasnt until she was 50 years old that she finally became a full-time tailor. I was petrified, she says. I thought, how am I going to make a living? But I was the only one who was going to lose if I failed. Well into adulthood, she went back and got her high school GED.
Milly bought this house, just off the corner of Oakland Street, in 1989. It was a disaster, but one square foot at a time, she transformed it according to her own whims.
Paint, paint paint, she says brightly. And you know what? Nobody said stop.
A divorcee, Millys been single for some time. Now 73, shes thinking about retiring in a few years, and expects to leave Red Banka town that she says has always had a lot of dignityand will probably move out of state in search of lower taxes. Shes got a granddaughter in North Carolina who wants her to move South to be with her and her two children. But as much as she values family, Milly is reluctant.
I dont depend on anybody, she says.