Issue 7 - Fall 2013
  • I drag my baskets through the smudged glass doors, and I’m transported to the laundromats of my childhood. The lumbering washers. Rust. Soap scum rimming the edges. A few handwritten out-of-order signs. Mismatched Formica counter tops, for folding. The dusty floor. The metal carts for hauling wet clothes to the dryer, and dry clothes to the folding tables—the same ones in which my sister and I wildly wheeled each other. The rattle-clunk of the washers rocking in their spots as they spin. The whir of the enormous dryers, the heavy flump of the clothes inside, the rhythmic click of buttons and snaps against the metal drums.

    My own washer is broken and won’t be fixed for weeks. I don’t want to be here, in an un-air-conditioned laundromat on a Sunday afternoon, while temperatures hover over a hundred in a strange September Silicon Valley heat wave, but I need clean clothes. I’d been grouchy, tossing my clothes in the car, but now, as I load my machines, I’m surprised by a wash of relief, a release of breath I didn’t know I was holding, a feeling edging towards joy.

    In my early elementary years, my mother owned neither a car nor a washer and dryer, so she—my sister and I in tow—lugged  ............

  • the washing to the laundromat on the bus in black plastic garbage bags. She always waited too long—until the annoyance of rinsing underwear in the sink and pulling on stiff and fruity jeans outweighed the grief of a lost weekend day—and we finally swung those bags over our shoulders. The cheap garbage bags were so heavy, they stretched down our backs as we walked. I had to use all my strength to keep mine from dragging along the sidewalk and tearing holes.

    But this childhood memory isn’t enough to explain the way the tension releases from my face and shoulders as I sit cross-legged on a folding table, waiting for my washers to finish. There were reasons my mother delayed our trips to the laundromat. There, time stretched into hot, vibrating dullness. My sister and I wore ourselves out with hyper cart pushing. We crawled into the empty dryers—caves just our size—to press our hands against the hole-punched metal barrels. Our mother, afraid we’d get locked inside, hauled us out. Then we all bickered. I pressed my face into the bundle of dry clothes to breathe in the clean warmth, but the piles were mountainous. So many socks without partners. Shirts already wrinkling. Sheets too big to fold alone, too big even for two children, so my sister and I fought, then angrily wadded  ............

  • them. The dryers were so hot, they sucked the color right out of the clothes, so already my favorites looked thrift-store faded.

    Maybe this is what pleases me about my neighborhood laundromat, even in the heavy heat: the sheer physicality of it. In this land of iPads and iPhones, most machines take a gentle touch: the lightest swish of your finger and the world parts. Wave your phone in front of a scanner to pay for coffee and numbers pass through the air, technology so advanced it might be magic. But for this laundromat, you have to gather quarters—an old-fashioned job in itself—and then press them into slots.

    Instantly, this calls back my toddler days when there was nothing more satisfying than pushing an object into its properly shaped hole. Star-in-the-star, square-in-the-square. Oh, the triangle won’t fit there. But, ah, it fits here. My quarters keep slipping back out the coin return slot, so I experiment. I push one as hard and fast as I can, then the satisfying clink-clunk into some invisible interior bucket. Ah. Then I get to push a black button, an old-fashioned push-hard button, to choose the temperature. The machine begins its noisy rush of water.

  • The last time I was in a laundromat was five years ago. It was hot then, too, in the nineties, another unexpected autumn heat wave. I’d flown to see my mother in Colorado, because, she told me over the phone, she’d been ill. She could use a little help. She hadn’t told me, or admitted to herself, how sick she was. My sister met me in Denver, and while she took care of phone calls to get our mother more assistance, I volunteered for the laundromat. My sister felt guilty abandoning me with so many garbage bags, but in the midst of the shock at my mother’s state, I was happy for a specific job, something to do with my hands. Happy to be alone, but not alone. Strangers attended to their laundry as machines shook and thumped—my personal rhythm section. I sat cross-legged on a folding table and watched a dryer window: billowing white sheets and a few colorful T-shirts. Round and round, colors flashed by, soothing as tropical fish circling a tank.

    I folded ten loads. My mother, who had few other possessions, owned many clothes, most from trips to Goodwill to create a pretty wardrobe on a small budget. I pressed my face into her warm sheets. I stacked her clothes—now all too big for her—in piles: pants, skirts, short-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved shirts. Another childhood pleasure, like sorting Halloween candy or  ............

  • separating plastic farm animals from the African ones. I packed everything back into the garbage bags. A week later, my mother would die and I would donate the clothes back to Goodwill in those same bags. But that night, the last night before we moved her, I give her what I could: a fresh nightgown and clean sheets on her bed.

    Although a close match, my laundromat is not identical to the ones from my childhood. An old TV bolted in the corner plays Mexican music shows and telenovelas. A few East Indian couples wash their clothes, but most customers are Mexican. The men wear embroidered belts with elaborate metal belt buckles. A young boy runs his remotely operated car through my feet. An older boy, maybe thirteen, chubby and handsome, folds the laundry without being asked. Couples fold together in companionable silence. An older couple—perhaps they run a business together—folds dozens and dozens of white towels.

    I’m happy to be folded in with these noisy machines and quiet people. Still, the degree of my peace puzzles me, especially as I have no special love, generally, of machines, noises, crowds, or household chores. Then I realize. Just recently, I have lost  ............

  • someone I love. A dear friend, far too young. Again, in the presence of death, I find myself in a laundromat in a suspended state in between too many obligations, where I have nothing but the simple task in front of me.

    Maybe, in the presence of death, when my brain melts and my heart stops, I need a job. I need something to do with my hands. Maybe I need that rattley noise to drown the cluttered chatter of my own mind. Maybe I need to be with people who smile shyly, but demand nothing. Grief is a water balloon I’ve been carrying in my chest, and I move carefully to keep it from breaking over those I love or dampening all that work I still have to do. But here, to the sound of the water sloshing in machines, I can slowly release my watery sadness: it fills my whole body evenly, a sweet and vibrating ache.

    Maybe I need to believe in cycles. Night and day. Death and birth. Dirty laundry and clean laundry. Colored T-shirts against white sheets, round and round. Maybe I need to believe in a larger order: the round token goes in the round hole; the shirts go with the shirts; and I fit, too, in the little cave of my life. Maybe when the weight of grief makes me so weak I don’t know how I will  ............

  • walk into tomorrow, these rhythms, louder and stronger than my own, will carry me.

    I remember my childhood laundromats and see what I couldn’t see before: how alive we all were.

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