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Laundromat

Some things just suck.

I see wealth in very simple terms: a washer and dryer in the building. Obscene wealth would be a washer and dryer in your apartment. Because doing laundry at a laundromat is a special kind of hell, the kind of hell that is other people.

There is one way to make it work: rise at 7:00 AM on Saturday, gather the clothes, and wheel them the two blocks to the laundromat. If I do that,I can take my choice of machines and there is no paucity of dryers. But if I do not rise at 7:00 AM--and rising that early on a Saturday is painfully hard for me--then I am utterly screwed. Because soon after that golden hour when the laundromat has opened with all of its machines waiting expectantly and empty, then the people begin to arrive.

They have arrived here after a short journey but a harsh one. They have dragged pounds of laundry down the stairs, and pushed it in a rickety cart towards the laundromat, knowing the whole time exactly what they will face once they arrive. The clothes are heavy with dirt; the wheels of the carts are rickety and unaligned. Once you arrive you must push past other people with carts to find an open dryer, and there you face the evidence that somehow in the competition of American life you have failed. You are forced to do two things that humans are clearly not meant to do: be patient and share. The rich folks are at home dosing their jeans with fabric softener, and we are here with our cups of coffee watching our lives spin in circles.

People get savage. They hover like birds of prey, waiting for a washer to open so that they can swoop down and fill it with their stinking socks. There is no clear hierarchy; there are no rules or clear order of succession. It's every laundrygoer for themselves. The effect is ugly. But the dryers are even worse than the washers. That's where it gets brutal. Because there are not enough dryers people fill the dryers with sopping clothes and run them for forty or fifty minutes. The times add up, and the later you get there on a crowded day, the longer the wait. Something that should take a little over an hour can take two and a half hours, two and a half hours on a weekend day that could be better spent watching television, lying in bed, going to the park, or riding bicycles.

I try my hardest to be polite and patient, but when a small woman rushes in ahead of me to commandeer a dryer for which I've been waiting for ten minutes, I become hostile. Excuse me, I say in a sharpened voice, I've been waiting. And then she turns around and for the first time she sees me, and she narrows her eyes in fury. How dare I, how dare I make her wait a moment longer? She looks over to the old man who runs the laundry but he pretends to see nothing. And yet my presence is proof and she knows that she must either fight me, raise her voice, and take the consequences or back off and watch my clothes spinning.

I have been confronted. How can you have so many clothes? A woman asked when I'd taken two dryers. I wanted to say: look at me. I am a big man. Your shirts weigh an ounce each, sleeveless. Your underwear is small and light as birds. I require yards of fabric, heavy jeans, undershirts, long socks, boxer shorts, all shirts long-sleeved. But I already had my dryers and just shrugged. Sometimes people work as teams, commandeering three or four dryers while they wait for their partner's laundry to be done. The rest of us stare waiting furiously at the empty dryers, stymied. But the confrontation would only make a bad situation worse. It's better to wait. That's what the person who commandeered the dryers is counting on.

The laundry workers do sometimes lift their heads. Sometimes they direct traffic, nodding towards a dryer that has finished spinning but has not yet been emptied. With their permission I will empty out some stranger's clothes into a basket, trying my hardest not to look at the label on the underwear or socks, avoiding the stains. It's an uncomfortable situation because if that person walks in you will be forced into a position of intimacy, nervous, painful, and intrusive. But more often the laundry workers lift their heads to scold. I have been yelled at countless times in the laundromat for filling the last dryer too high, for putting in my quarters too quickly, for scooting a chair across the floor. There is no appeal. You must simply nod and wait. They have their clothes; they can yell at you all they like.

We could compromise. There could be an amiable atmosphere in the laundromat, a polite deferment to one another. But something in human nature does not love a laundromat, the forced pressure of all of us together, jostling, waiting, doing something undesirable. I used to have dreams of utopian laundromat, a place where people could come together and smile at our shared endeavor, politely making way for one another, patient, mutually supportive. But it will never happen. We are not built to like doing laundry; the requirements on one's better nature are too great, the clink of quarters too loud, the humid heat rising out of the gas-fueled dryers too great. There is no way to make doing laundry positive. One day, I think, one day I will have enough money to have my own washer and dryer, and I will leave all of this behind. I'll leave this unwinnable fight and this pit of human frustration behind me and never return.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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