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Saturday, January 10, 2004
By Paul Ford
Considering the spin cycle.
The laundromat, as concept, is about as old as my father. The first laundromat, the Washateria, opened in the 30s in Fort Worth, TX; in 1949, someone in Austin realized you could get rid of the attendants, and opened one without attendants. Texas, the Laundry State. Before that you either washed it yourself, or sent it out for widows to wash.
So there I was, in the cradle of post-war progress, on a Wednesday afternoon, in the laundromat closest to my apartment, where I've washed my clothes for 7 years. There, I have seen: hours of blaring daytime television, a washer on fire with smoke pouring out of its top; a fat man filling a paint bucket with quarters culled from the machines; a woman strike her 2-year-old, then announce, “people think they they're cute, but you have to know better,” to which her friends murmured their agreement.
In the summer, the narrow room, filled with gas-heat dryers, becomes so unbearable that people dart in to fill their washers or make the transition from washer to dryer, then stumble out soaked in sweat after only a moment, half-crying.
In the winter, though, it is pleasure to be here. Today the woman who smacked her 2 year old is folding laundry, and her daughter, now a well-behaved, sweet girl of 6, runs in and out of the laundromat, begging quarters from her mother, reading, watching television in 5-minute bursts of activity. And sitting on the rickety bench with a copy of the paper, lulled slightly by the sound of motors and sloshing clothes, I think back to the laundromats of memory. One comes up with clarity: an unattended place in Media, PA, where on one summer afternoon at age 14 I witnessed a smudged-faced woman in her mid-30s wearing terrycloth shorts, worn to translucent and without panties, pubic hair emergent at the crotch. Her T-shirt, equally thin, said “Bubs,” on it. A Latin-American man came in and asked if anyone had change for the phone. “Suck my cock and fuck yourself, you foreign piece of shit,” she said, and they both laughed. I stayed very quiet, reading a book, sneaking looks at the woman's outfit, cataloging it for later recall, promising myself that I would one day have my own washer and dryer. 15 years later....
Someone entered, a young, slender woman of five and half feet, with a half-filled green cloth bag. It takes very little fabric to cover a woman. I come into the laundromat with two huge bundles in a pushcart, using the largest possible washer, and the women enter with a single load, all little tops and pants made of thin fabric. As a comparatively giant individual, I can never quite get over the smallness of others, their ability to fit into things, whether shirts or airplane seats. The woman wore laundry clothes, a sartorial catastrophe with red T-shirt and green slacks that makes her look like a elf on its day off. I was in a stained blue sweatshirt and a pair of slacks; I'd patched a hole in the slacks with a paperclip.
The dryer finished its last turn, and it was time to go. One of the women who works for the laundromat said:
“I like your cart.”
“8 wheel drive!” I said, pushing it back and forth. “Got a flap on the top, look.”
“Where you get that?”
“Mazzone.” The hardware store a few blocks north.
“Ah.” Another woman behind her said, “looks like it's for a baby.”
I said, “big baby.” Everyone laughed.
“Very big,” someone said.
“I don't want that baby,” said another.
“All right then,” I said. “You ladies have a fine day.”
“Big baby,” said one woman, shaking her head at the cart. “Goodbye.”
And out, full of goodwill, heat rising from the cart, clothes lighter than when I entered, the dirt washed out, feeling virtuous, fractionally reborn, or at least tumble-dried.