In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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“It’s more than just the missing sock, Tom. Can’t you see how this reflects a bigger problem in our relationship?”
I tried to slam down a faded pair of his boxer shorts, which I was folding, but it’s hard to make boxers sound dramatic. Tom just looked at me blankly. I could tell that, once again, he just didn’t understand.
I sniffled and began struggling to fold a sheet. What kind of life was this? A beautiful, sunny Sunday spent washing clothes. A boyfriend who lost socks and didn’t care; who watched me fold a sheet all by myself — a fitted one, no less. I had imagined more. I had thought that by the time I was thirty I would have my own washer and dryer. I’d casually toss in a load before dashing off to work in my designer suit and pumps.
Instead I was stuck at the laundromat wearing dirty cutoffs and Tom’s stained yellow T-shirt. I looked around desperately, as if perhaps I’d find my soul mate lurking behind the double-load washers, or leaning confidently against the soap-vending machine. I saw only a lone black sock, covered with dust, in the corner, and a limp grayish T-shirt abandoned on top of an unbalanced washer. This was not where I should be.
I managed to roll the fitted sheet into a ball and stuff it into our duffel bag. At least I didn’t lunge at Tom and attempt to strangle him with it. He was gone, anyway. In all my fretting I hadn’t noticed him stepping outside to smoke a cigarette. Through the window, I could see just the edge of him, the bulge of his belly under his maroon sweat shirt. I wanted to push the laundry cart through the front door and make a sharp right into that big belly; wanted to wheel the cart all around Minneapolis, tossing Tom’s clothes to the homeless: “Enjoy! Have a nice day!”
Tom continued smoking, not even looking in to see how I was doing. He certainly wasn’t running next door to buy a make-up bouquet of flowers for me. Again, I looked around the laundromat in desperation. How did I get here?
Sherry M. Richert
San Francisco, California
My daughter’s fondest childhood memories, she tells me, are of the parks and the laundromat. The parks I can understand; they were beautiful and peaceful. But the laundromat?
“We watched the clothes spin around till we were dizzy,” she says, “and made a game of trying to identify them. We wrapped ourselves in towels fresh from the dryer and pretended they were fur coats, or Superman’s cape. Don’t you remember, Mom?”
I remember fleeing an abusive relationship and having to leave behind the washer and dryer. I remember sitting in countless laundromats, depressed by all the sad and lonely people sifting through their faded laundry. I remember the smells that weren’t covered up by detergent, bleach, and fabric softener. I remember having no coats and using the towels to keep warm (hence the fur coats and capes). Most of all, I remember wondering how I was going to replace the money I had taken from the grocery budget in order to do laundry.
Every week or so while I was raising my son, he and I would take our dirty clothes to the laundromat across from the Staten Island ferry terminal. Sometimes we’d bring along a miniature magnetic chess set, and my son would make up rules as we played. Other times we just sat on the curb and looked across the river to Manhattan, daydreaming aloud about what it might be like to live there. Next door was a deli where we’d buy crusty bread and yellow American cheese for a curbside picnic. Once, my son confessed that he liked to wander off into the woods by himself after school. Another time, he explained how hard it was to be without his father, who’d moved away to Albany.
One Friday night, the house where we lived suffered a devastating fire. The next day, friends came over to help us pick through the charred remains. We found some smoke-damaged clothes, which our friends took down to the laundromat. The manager washed them for free, even donating detergent and fabric softener.
My son and I moved to another house, one with a washer and dryer, and started doing our laundry separately. It was never the same, though it was much more convenient.
As my son packed to go off to college three years ago, he saw how worried I was and said, “Hey, at least I know how to do laundry. What else do I need to know?”
Staten Island, New York
My marriage was only five years old and already worn at the seams when, one Saturday afternoon, I met a man at the laundromat. It wasn’t the kind of romantic encounter I’d fantasized about — one in which a handsome stranger observed me reading Rilke and eventually turned out to be the Real Thing. This was an ordinary man, not especially attractive. We each had a young child in tow. While our clothes tumbled in the dryers, we necked in the front seat of his car. When our laundry was done, we agreed to meet an hour later at the nearby zoo. There, we pushed our strollers, staring at the animals and nervously exchanging stories. Before we parted, we traded phone numbers, but he never called, and neither did I.
Months later, I got on the bus to go to work and sat down beside him. He didn’t seem at all happy to see me. Neither of us said a word about what had happened that day.
The Real Thing finally did come along when I was thirty-nine, and for almost twenty years his jeans and jockey shorts shimmied with my bras and skirts in the washer and dryer. I imagined any stranger who observed me folding his T-shirts against my chest could see that I was happy.
The day after my Real Thing died, I spent three hours at the laundromat washing his clothes for the last time, along with the sheets from the bed where we’d been sleeping when his heart stopped in the middle of the night. I was holding off grief until my body could muster the strength to withstand it. It was both horrible and reassuring to fold and stack his threadbare bathrobe and the last pairs of socks he wore. I still haven’t put those sheets back on the bed, where I’ve slept alone this past year.
I no longer look for romance at the laundromat. No one notices me there; at fifty-nine, I’m invisible, too old to matter. My fantasies are over. Whatever adventure may yet lie in store will approach on its own, unanticipated and uninvited — like getting home and finding, in the midst of your clean laundry, someone else’s glove.
Asheville, North Carolina
That summer, the baby’s first, Isabel and I moved in together. Every Friday night, we sorted loads of laundry: my grimy work clothes; her breast-milk-soaked bras and spit-up-on shirts; the baby’s tiny socks peppered throughout. It was always late by the time we loaded up my Buick and headed off to the Squeaky Clean laundromat. Phyllis, the attendant, got to know us, and often would give us an extra key and let us lock up so that she could go home on time.
It was eerie having the place to ourselves, the machines lurching away into the night, the drunks staggering down the street outside. We set the baby’s car seat atop a washer, where the rocking motion would conk him out. I’d keep an eye on him, in case he started to vibrate off the machine. While Isabel folded clothes, I’d make passes at her, kissing the back of her neck. The wait for her stitches to heal after giving birth had seemed like an eternity. “No way,” she’d say. “Somebody will see us through the window.”
When Isabel was first pregnant, we’d done it on a blanket on the driveway of my parents’ house, in the locked bathroom of the pizza joint where we both worked, and even in the alley behind the dumpster. Best was an empty field where we would take off all our clothes and feel the summer breeze on our bodies. We were teenagers, and did not need wine and dimmed lights to stimulate us. The moon and stars were our candles.
One Friday night at the laundromat, Isabel surprised me. “Set the baby’s car seat on the floor first,” she whispered, “so he doesn’t slide off the machine.”
San Francisco, California
I think my mother must have sabotaged our washing machine at home many times, as we frequently wound up at the neighborhood laundromat. The trips were an escape for her, two hours of refuge from the chaos of life with my father. She would sit doing crosswords while I bounced rubber balls off the walls, or read, or saw how fast I could count to ten thousand. Sometimes I simply watched the dryers, wondering what it would feel like to be on the other side of the glass. I imagined the clothes screaming as it began to heat up inside, and thought perhaps this was why my mother always took the clothes out before they were completely dry. (I know now it was to save money.)
There was a vending machine with knobs to pull for Andy Capp’s Hot Fries or Chic-o-stix or Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. I wasn’t allowed to buy snacks, but I learned that one knob was broken and would, when pulled three times in quick succession, produce free goodies. On the way to the laundromat, I would pray that Red-Hots were not in the slot above that magic knob. Sometimes I got lucky and found Necco Wafers there. My mother knew about my little trick, but never said anything. It took the owner more than a year to discover and fix the problem. Shortly thereafter, the prices on the vending machine went up.
Not too long after that, while my mother and I walked half a block to a convenience store to buy bread, all three loads of our laundry were stolen. When she realized what had happened, my mother’s face was a mix of anger and fear. “Your father will not like this,” she said. On the drive home we braced ourselves for a nasty storm of rage.
Later, when the shouting was over, my mother smiled at me and produced a package of Necco Wafers.
The washing machine did not break again for twelve years.
When my father died, my sister wanted to have an estate sale to help pay for funeral expenses, the mortgage, and so forth. She thought his power tools, Nikon camera, and fancy calculator would fetch good prices. Maybe so, but I had my doubts about the rest, which was in pretty much the same condition my father had been in when he’d died at fifty-six, after years of alcoholic decline. Besides, the idea of the sale turned my stomach. It added indignity to an already undignified situation.
“We need the money,” my sister said resolutely whenever I voiced any objection.
I still thought it was hopeless, but, to help out, I volunteered to wash his clothes. My sister was shouldering the bulk of the funeral-related duties. I could at least perform this small task. Dragging six pillowcases stuffed with his malodorous clothes to the local laundromat, I lined up stacks of quarters and got to work. I dumped in boxes of bleach, used the hottest settings, sent the loads through again and again. A whole row of washers gulped and chugged, washing away years of befoulment. Next, the dryers belched and roared. The clothes emerged limp and raglike, several shades lighter, some shrunk to children’s sizes. Yet, underneath the perfume of detergent, bleach, and fabric softener, their pungent odor remained undiminished. I can still smell it, like the foul breath of a sad, scaly old dragon.
The people who showed up for the sale weren’t particularly kind. Maybe they only wanted to see what the drunk’s daughters looked like. Overall, they displayed a bleak curiosity, not unlike onlookers at a car wreck.
My sister got reasonable prices on the tools, camera, and calculator. The laundered clothes were duly hung on a portable rack for display, but no one touched them, or even came near.
When I was a child I thought adulthood began somewhere around thirty. At that age, I thought, I’d have a beach house, a Mercedes convertible, and a dog.
Now, at thirty-one, I rent an apartment with a faulty furnace, drive a seven-year-old, bottom-of-the-line Honda, and have a lease that doesn’t allow pets. I’ve learned to lower my expectations, and am generally happy — except when I go to the laundromat.
As a kid, I’d probably assumed there would be a washer and dryer in that beach house of mine. But I’m a member of the generation that can’t afford the same lifestyle its parents had. Sometimes, when I go to the Wash-n-Shop (a combination laundromat and twenty-four-hour grocery), I try to picture my mother at my age — at any age — walking into a laundromat. I can safely say she would be mortified.
A scene from childhood: Mother drives me to school, and every day we pass a grimy laundromat. Maybe once a week she’ll say, “Poor Louise. I think she does laundry there.” Mother looks off in the distance when she says this — never at the dirty white building with those “poor” people inside, sorting and folding.
I think of “poor Louise” while I fold my own laundry. She was my mother’s friend, a fellow educator, unmarried and seemingly happy with her life. It is not lost upon me that my life’s path is running parallel to hers. As a girl, I once glimpsed Louise darting into that laundromat that Mother never really saw, and I felt a wave of embarrassment for her.
I wonder if that same wave hit my student this week when she caught me folding underwear at the Wash-n-Shop. “Oh,” she said, “Professor Simmons!” I would like to think she was taken aback merely by my outfit — baseball cap, T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers — but I don’t believe that’s the case. No, she is eighteen and confident that, by the time she turns thirty, she will have a washer and dryer.
Mary Beth Simmons
I was lying in bed with a bad knife wound in my thigh. It was a deep stab wound — so deep the doctor hadn’t sewn it shut, saying it needed to heal from the inside out. The nurse had given me a grocery bag full of gauze to bind the cut with, but if I walked at all, the blood would soak through the bandages and onto my pants. There were spots of blood all over my sheets where I’d rolled around in my sleep. Not wanting to stain the antique satin comforter my mother had given me, I’d bunched it up on the far side of the bed, against the wall.
I was living in a residential hotel in downtown San Francisco. While I recuperated, I left the door to my room ajar so that my neighbors could come by to check on me. One evening, Tomcat came by. He was a heroin addict and a thief, but he was always willing to do me favors. Tonight he was on his way to the laundromat and offered to do a load for me. Thanking him, I dug out seven pairs of jeans from my laundry; I figured I could do socks and underwear in the sink. He packed up the jeans and left.
Twenty minutes later, Tomcat returned empty-handed. I asked where the laundry was, and he said he’d left it in the washing machines. He’d called his connection and had two grams of heroin delivered to him at the laundromat. Now he was back at my room to shoot up. I told him he should have stayed with the clothes; someone would steal them, and I couldn’t afford to lose seven pairs of jeans. He said it was OK because people didn’t steal wet clothing — they only took it from the dryers. Bullshit, I said. He said I should calm down and do some dope with him; then he’d go right back. I told him to hurry.
Tomcat cooked up a big spoonful of heroin. I did my small share, feeling the familiar warmth take away my worry and pain. I knew it wouldn’t last, though.
Tomcat, on the other hand, did too much dope and nodded out, slumping forward, chest to knees, which didn’t look good for his breathing. I sat him up straight and slapped his face a couple of good whacks. He came to just long enough to hear me yell at him, but he obviously wasn’t going anywhere. It was up to me to check on the laundry. I put a fresh bandage on my leg and grabbed my cane.
At the laundromat, I checked every washer — and the dryers, too — but, sure enough, our clothing was gone.
By the time I got back to the hotel, the blood had soaked through the bandage and onto my pants. I was so mad I didn’t care. I climbed the stairs and opened the door to my room. Tomcat had awoken long enough to take his shoes off and crawl into my bed. He had also lit a cigarette, which was in the process of burning a big hole in the antique satin comforter.
Crescent City, California
When I was eight, we moved to the big, old house on California Street. It was a hard time for my mother. Some days her depression was so bad that I would come home from school and find her stretched out asleep on the living-room floor, the vacuum cleaner lying a few inches from her hand. So it was decided that my brother and I would help with the housework. Twice a week we did the laundry, tying it up in sheets and lugging the huge bundles to the laundromat next door.
Sometimes when my mother came home from a party, she’d sit on the edge of my bed in the dark, silhouetted against the hall light, and tell me how people ought to love one another. This made me feel important. I got the same feeling when I talked to grown-ups in the laundromat and one of them asked me what I thought about the Vietnam War or President Nixon. I figured if my answers amused them, maybe they would like me.
One day, the man who ran the dry cleaner’s on the corner asked me if I really liked him. I said of course I did, and he pulled me close and stuck his tongue in my mouth. I ran all the way home and told no one. I could never look his wife in the eye again, though I still helped her thread her needles.
After that, I danced around in my conversations with grown-ups, wanting approval but fearing invasion. One day, around Christmas, an old man in the laundromat called me over. I had talked to him often, and thought that he probably wanted something more. As I approached he pulled out a miniature copy of The Night before Christmas. It was only three inches high, with gilt edges, an illustrated cover, and a tiny red-ribbon bookmark. He said he had found it lying in his attic, and wondered if I might like it. I carried it home, hoping he didn’t expect something from me in return. I put the book up on the mantel without even reading it, and never talked to the man again.
Ten years later, when my parents split up and I moved into a tiny studio apartment, I found that little book. Flipping through the delicate pages with their tiny illustrations and ornate borders, I realized what a treasure it was. Inside the back cover was a neatly penciled price: $4.95. The old man had bought the book for me, concocting the story about finding it in his attic so that I wouldn’t think of it as a gift. I put the book down, my heart filled with gratitude toward that man, who had known how to disguise his gift to a dancing, fearful, lonely child.
It wasn’t always easy keeping up with laundry for myself and two active boys. We lived in a cabin on the edge of town and once a week made the trek down the mountain in our trusty little orange VW Squareback with all the change we’d saved over the past seven days. After the clothes were sorted and deposited in their respective machines, I spent the rest of my time entertaining — and sometimes chasing — the younger boy, and chatting with the manager, Link. At first we talked about the weather and what was happening in town, then expanded our discussions to include national news, issues, and finally our personal lives. Link was a kind man, and would give me a quarter if the machine ate mine.
The boys and I would eventually move away, and on our last trip to the laundromat I told Link I would miss our conversations. As I was stowing my clean clothes in the car, he disappeared and came back with a few items of clothing. “These have been here for some time,” he said, “and no one has come forward to claim them. Would you like them?”
I nearly burst into tears. It had been a long time since I’d had any new clothes, even secondhand ones. Among the items was a red halter top that fit perfectly; for years it was my favorite piece of clothing.
“My God, it’s hot!” the large woman said, fanning herself with a magazine. “I can’t wait for fall. This place is hell in the summer. If I had my way, we’d have moved away from here a long time ago.”
“Yes, dear,” her husband replied. He was her opposite, thin as a whip, cool and comfortable.
Pushing herself up off the plastic bench, the woman walked slowly over to the row of dryers to check on her wash. Her brightly colored dress stuck to the backs of her legs. “Whew!” she said. “Honey, get me a cool drink. I’m about to faint.”
Her husband walked over to the Coke machine, plopped in two quarters and a dime, and hit the button. The can rolled into the compartment with a clunk.
“Here you go, darlin’,” he said. “Icy cold, just for you, pumpkin.”
Flushed, she looked up at him and smiled. “Thank you, dear.”
“You betcha,” he answered, sitting back down. “Honey,” he said thoughtfully, “someday I’m gonna get you one of those portable fans you can carry around with you. They have a little battery and you can hold them up close to your face, like this.” With a smile, he held up an imaginary fan, closed his eyes, and turned his face from side to side.
“Sam, you are a sight, you are! What am I going to do with you?” she said, laughing and forgetting the heat for a moment. She took a sip of her Coke, then hid a small burp behind her hand.
Ding! went the dryer.
“Oh, God, here we go again,” she said, preparing to heave herself up.
“No, no,” Sam said. “You just sit there and drink that cool drink. I’ll get this load.”
“Be careful; it’ll be hot,” she cautioned.
“Don’t you worry about me,” he said. “It won’t be the first time I’ve had my hands in hot, lacy underthings.”
“Sam, I swear!” she said, giggling and looking around.
With a wink, he rolled the cart over to the dryer and started pulling out laundry. Her nylon nighties crackled as he separated them from one another.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
When my husband and I worked in the oil fields outside the prairie towns of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, laundromats were our social centers. We and the other oil-rig workers would congregate there on our off hours, away from the filth, stench, and pounding noise of the rigs.
If we were lucky and were near a large-enough town, my husband and I would shower at the motel, or perhaps at the local truck stop. At more remote locations, many of which were mere crossroads, I’d wash my hair in the laundromat restroom’s sink, dabbing warm water on my armpits and paper-toweling them dry before heading to the local bar for drinks and burgers. Laundromat restrooms were a big step up from those of the cramped trailers we lived in on the rig site. The laundromats had hot (or at least warm) running water. On site I’d make do with a pan of stove-heated water to both wash and rinse my hair.
The laundromats in such towns as Killdeer, Arnegaard, Trotters, and Plentywood were always old and dingy and painted sickly, institutional colors — but they smelled clean, like soap powder and fabric softener. We’d wash five or six loads at a time, hovering close to the dryers to suck their warmth deep into our bodies before heading back out into the thirty-below weather. Most of our clothes went into the dented, tanklike “rig clothes only” machines, the ones permanently stained with oil and grease. Large, hand-printed signs on the dryers warned, “Do not dry rig clothes here”; the chemicals used in the drilling process were known to cause spontaneous combustion.
Back at the rig site, all that awaited us was noise and mud and grease and more mud; frozen water lines that had to be thawed out daily; dirt that worked itself into the lines of our fingerprints. The laundromat was a warm, clean-smelling escape. It was the only time in my life I ever liked going to one.
Paula R. Hagar
When we were girls, my friend Mona and I walked the streets of our town at night — partly because we had nothing better to do, but mostly because it sure beat staying home.
My father’s drinking was running my mother’s life, leaving her little time for us kids. She worked hard to pay the bills and maintain some semblance of sanity in our family, all the while careful not to get my father riled up; he wasn’t violent, just very “excitable” when he’d been drinking. Things at Mona’s house were even worse. Her mother was an alcoholic, although we never called her that. In those days, an alcoholic was a skid-row bum, not someone’s mother or father. A person living in the suburbs just had a “drinking problem.”
At our homes, Mona and I never knew what the next hour would bring. Any moment, one of our parents might say some maddening thing that would turn into a fight or even physical blows. Worse, they might not be home at all. So Mona and I found our own way to cope: we went out walking.
We’d walk up and down the avenue, checking out the brightly lit stores, seeing who was sitting at the counter in Agnello’s, or spying on our current heartthrob by walking past his house, hoping to get a glimpse of him between the curtains.
When it was cold out, we’d always end up at the laundromat. It was warm there, the steam from the machines fogging up the windows. From the glass-and-marble entryway, we could see everything going on inside, but the customers couldn’t hear us. We would pretend to read magazines while secretly watching them, poking fun and trying to keep from laughing.
But our favorite thing to do in that foyer was sing. We’d pretend we were in a special recording booth, our off-key voices bouncing off the marble and glass: “Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie / Where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free.” We’d sing in two-part harmony, seriously digging our sound.
There was something special about that laundromat: we felt safe there, as if we actually had some control over our lives. But sooner or later, we’d have to head home again.
It all seems so far away now. Mona hasn’t lived in this part of the country for more than twenty years. Her mother and my father have both been dead for just as long. Recently, when her father died, Mona came back to town to bury him, and we drove around to our old haunts, remembering what store was on what corner and who lived in what house, and reminiscing about our escapades. Everything looked smaller somehow.
As we drove by the laundromat, I stopped. The old storefront had been taken over by the computers and desks of an insurance agency, but the foyer was still there, and I could almost hear me and Mona singing, “Oh, bury me not . . . ,” the marble and glass echoing the voices of two girls who would rather have done anything than go home.
Upper Montclair, New Jersey
In college, Mark and I were in love and inseparable. We did our laundry together at the laundromat, running to the Dairy Queen across the street for sundaes or banana splits or cones, depending on how many extra quarters we had. We would eat our ice cream back at the laundromat, laughing and talking, oblivious to the comings and goings of other patrons.
One afternoon, our laundry finished and folded, we lingered in the laundromat over the remains of a chocolate malt. An elderly woman, who evidently had been watching us, intruded upon our world. “Excuse me,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you to always remain as happy and full of joy as you are today.” Caught entirely off guard, we mumbled something resembling thanks, then dissolved into embarrassed laughter as soon as she was gone.
That was more than twenty years ago. Mark and I are no longer together. I often wonder if he is as happy now as we were that day. I know I’m not, but the memory of that woman’s words reminds me to keep working at it. Long ago, I promised myself that if I ever encountered a young couple who seemed to share that same joyful spirit, I would follow the woman’s example and say something encouraging to them. But I haven’t been brave enough to do it yet.
When I was a child, my mother and I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail together each summer. She strode gracefully beneath the weight of her heavy pack, and took pride in my increasing endurance and coordination each year.
After several days on the trail, we would find the nearest town and wash up at the laundromat. To get as many clothes clean as possible, I’d strip down to my T-shirt and underpants and sit kicking my legs and drinking soda while my jeans tumbled behind the glass.
The year I turned ten, I grew a lot, developing long legs, and alarming hips that I sometimes banged against doorways. I even overheard my father confess to my mother that he was reluctant to hug me, “for fear of bumping into things.” That summer, our annual hike was full of brooding silence. It rained a lot, and the trail was muddy. I stumbled over my own feet like a big puppy. Irritable and cold, my mother and I hitchhiked to the nearest laundromat. Anticipating the comfort of clean, dry clothes, I wriggled out of my soggy jeans and brought them to my mother, who met me with an icy glare. Her long fingers caught my wrist. “You get right back into those pants, young lady.” Knowing better than to argue, I struggled back into my wet pants and sat quietly, too tall to kick my legs anymore. What had I done wrong?
Alisa P. Durkin
The laundromat was hunched beneath the el tracks on a clamorous Chicago street. While my laundry spun, I’d sit in the filtered sunlight on a cracked plastic chair, watching Carmen shuffle out of the cramped back room to sweep the buckled linoleum, swat dust from the plastic plants, or wipe the counter with the rag she kept tucked in the waistband of her lumpy dress. Then she’d shuffle back to her room, with its cardboard Privado sign tacked to the door.
At first, I thought Carmen was sewing back there, mending torn clothes. Then I noticed the wastebasket of magazine clippings outside her door, and the holes in the pages of the Ladies Home Journals and Redbooks stacked by the chairs. What was she doing with all those pictures? Sending them to her relatives in Nicaragua?
One late-November day, when the bullet gray sky made everything seem dirty, a dryer got stuck on high and blackened my best shirts. Grabbing an armload of scorched cotton, I marched over to Carmen’s door to complain. First I pounded on the door, then pushed it open. Inside was a chair, its back split, and a painted table covered with plastic lace, on which sat an unlit candle and a laminated icon. But what really caught my eye were the walls. They were bursting with color photographs of flowers and gardens, each picture overlapping the next in a vibrant collage.
As I stepped back, I bumped into Carmen.
“This is incredible,” I told her.
“Sí,” she said. “Mi jardín.” Then she closed the door tight, straightened the Privado sign, and ushered me back into the bleak laundromat.
For twelve years I did my laundry on Friday nights so I could devote Saturday nights to dressing up and getting loaded in bars, hoping to persuade someone as drunk as I was to come home with me.
At the laundromat I could be myself — unshaven, clad in old sweats, and wearing eyeglasses instead of contact lenses. No one there cared what I looked like. Someday, I thought, I’d have my own washer and dryer, and a house to put them in, and someone to share it with, too — if one of my one-night stands ever panned out.
One Friday, a woman I’d never seen before came in with her wash. She was the only other person there, so I struck up a conversation. We chatted, and agreed to meet sometime for coffee. She jotted down her phone number on a coupon she found on the window ledge.
Two years later, we were married.
When I asked her about her first impression of me, she said, “You seemed sincere and unpretentious, almost to the point of being boring. It was a welcome change from the guys my girlfriends and I had to fend off every time we went out for a drink.”
In 1961, my dad accepted his first teaching position, at a small Southern college, and he and my mother moved from New England to the deep South. Their new apartment was without laundry facilities, so, several months pregnant with me, Mom found herself going to the local laundromat. Entering the dingy building, she started to unload her clothes and immediately noticed two signs over the washers. One read, in capital letters, WHITES ONLY; the other, COLORED ONLY.
My mother duly put her white sheets and underwear into the “white” machines, and her jeans and blue towels into the “colored.”
In the sixties my parents opened a coin-operated laundry and dry cleaner’s, the House of Clean. They let us kids — two preteen girls and two teenage boys —pitch in. We went there after school to mop floors, make change, and collect coins from the machines.
Ben Caster, my oldest brother’s best friend and my secret love crush, worked for my parents on the dry-cleaning side. I lived for Fridays, when Ben would spend the night with my brother. Early Saturday morning, I’d creep into the boys’ room and watch Ben sleep. Later, when they went outside to play basketball, I’d peek at them from behind the curtains. Best was when Ben and the other basketball-team members piled into our silver Volkswagen bus to go to games. Sitting next to him in the cramped space, I could pretend he was my boyfriend.
One day, I was drying a load of my own wash in one of our coin-operated dryers while my mother was explaining something important to Ben in the dry cleaner’s. When a problem arose in the dryer, I tried to get my mother’s attention without attracting Ben’s. She finally acknowledged me, but then, to my horror, said, “Ben, could you help Laura with the dryer?”
I shook my head at my mother, pleading, No, not that! But she was too busy to notice.
“I’ll get it,” I said to Ben. “It’s OK.”
He just laughed. Knowing I had a crush on him, he made it his business to help me. I kept pushing him back, begging him to please let me take care of it. But that only made matters worse. Now he was determined to help. He wrestled me aside and, still laughing, opened the dryer. Immediately, he stopped laughing, and his face turned red. Then he reached into the dryer and disentangled my white cotton bra.
Glen Carbon, Illinois
When the red SPIN light goes off, I grab my wet laundry from the lime green washer at Bing Wong’s and toss it into a cart that’s sticky with black smudges. Then I push it over to the dryer and pop in two quarters, wishing I could wash my hands. There’s no place to sit except a few mildewed chairs, so I lean against an unoccupied folding table, eavesdropping on conversations. Usually I read, easily getting lost in my book despite the clamor. In fact, I find the whirring machines and chattering voices strangely soothing, even meditative.
Recently, my upstairs neighbor offered to let me use her washer and dryer. I gladly accepted, relishing the convenience. But I found I missed Bing Wong’s.
Being at the laundromat is an excuse to read or think undisturbed. There’s no telephone to answer, no apartment to clean, no cat to feed. I can write letters, drink tea, daydream. Sometimes I even let myself do absolutely nothing.
Every year, my life feels a little more frenzied. From the minute my alarm clock rings, I’m off: to the gym, the office, the store; then home to feed the cat, cook dinner, read the newspaper, pay bills, write in my journal, watch the news, brush my teeth, fall into bed. I can no longer sit still without feeling guilty. But at the laundromat, I can justify sitting still: I’m not doing nothing; I’m doing my laundry.
When the dryer stops, I open the door and inhale the sultry steam, touching my towels to see if they’re dry. They’re not. I smile and add another quarter: an extra ten minutes for myself.
I just received my first issue of The Sun. It’s refreshing to read real thoughts from real people. I recently tried to find something worthwhile in Time or Newsweek and gave up after having to glean small tidbits of news from page after page of crass commercialization.
Perien Gray’s Readers Write contribution on “The Laundromat” [March 1998] really hit home. I have read her last paragraph several times and even copied it into my journal. Having just retired at fifty-eight, I can empathize with her feeling of being unnoticed, of having no more adventure or romance in her life.
So much of our society is tied to stereotypes about age. Just because a person hits a certain age doesn’t mean he or she no longer feels the same gamut of emotions as a person of twenty-five: passion, loneliness, lust, fear. Why can’t a person just be a person and not a “senior citizen”?