The Laundromat: A Study In Human Despair

Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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17 Responses

  1. My weekly experience in a laundromat is both a little similar and a little different.

    Similar: It’s a chore and because nobody (or, I suppose, almost nobody) likes to do chores, none of us wants to be there. And there is a sense of discomfort and disrepair. The laundromat I go to has a washing machine graveyard. There are less clean (or a least less well-kept) spots. The vending machines are a mix of old ones like you describe (e.g., the pull tabs for laundry soap) and newer ones. At mine, there’s this sad “arcade” game. It’s not a video game. It’s a game where you put in a quarter and a ball comes out and the player has to manipulate the stick figures in the game to stop the ball. (It’s actually not a pinball machine, but it’s hard to explain).

    Different: Mine actually has no chairs. Not a one. There are a few benches, four by my count. But unless your washing machine is next to them, there not that convenient. There are actually two change machines, so if you forget your quarters, there’s a way to get some. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. We usually do have the running kids, whose pastimes seem to be 1) screeching and 2) riding those little carts.

    It’s different in better ways, too. The times I go (usually Tuesday nights), there are usually enough machines to go around. So there’s not as much stress. And while nobody really wants to be there, it doesn’t strike me as all that depressing. The laundromat provides a service and the people there are availing themselves of that service. Of course, it sucks not to have your own onsite laundry as my wife and I don’t, but I’m grateful there’s a ‘mat close enough.

    So my experience, on the whole, is much more positive than yours. That could be because I live in a big city that is well-served by laundromats. While the clientele, myself almost always the only one excepted as far as I can tell, is usually from the working poor (or even poorer….there’s a guy who seems homeless who came in the last two Tuesdays to do his washing) side of society, and while it’s not a joyous place, it doesn’t seem all that bad and it seems more accepted that going to the laundromat is what people just have to do.Report

    • I can say I agree pretty wholeheartedly with what you seem to imply in your conclusion. Here I’ll restate what I think you’re implying, but please correct me if I’m mis-judging: We live in a world of scarcity. The sites at which that scarcity exists can be sites of contention. Laundromats can be one such site. And at those sites and in those circumstances, we all face the danger of unraveling.

      Despite my mostly cheery view of my own experiences, there are points of unraveling that I didn’t mention. One is largely invisible to me: it’s the people who can’t afford to use the laundromat and who must make some other arrangement, hand wash their own clothes, or wash them less regularly. The second is visible but so far hasn’t been an obvious issue. I’m usually the only white person there. When I’m not, the other white people are usually eastern European immigrant or “white ethnic.” That’s a potential marker for conflict or at least misunderstanding. There’s certainly a cultural/ethnic/racial divide that affluent middle class white people like myself usually have the privilege to ignore.

      The third point of contention is the drying machines. Probably as a loss-leasder, the laundromat offers free drying (and, I assume, charges more for the washing). The problem is that people put very few clothes in each dryer in order to maximize the drying effect, a practice that can mean it’s difficult for someone like me to find a dryer to use. The management does try to enforce a posted rule that “any dryer that’s less than half-full will be turned off.” And that can be kind of a contentious thing to witness. (On the other hand, I can recall only one instance where someone was obviously abusing the free-dryer feature and got into an argument with management. There was also a race/class issue going on. The management was Korean and a small business owner and the customer was latina and probably working class.)Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    I admit to getting lucky and always living in buildings with washers and dryers in the basement or even in the unit. It saves me a lot of time.

    What this does remind me of is how airports in smaller cities always seemed like relics compared to big metro airports.Report

  3. Aaron David says:

    I read the first half of Blood Meridian in a whirlwind, unable to take my eyes off the page. And then the sheer humanity of the book hit me, and I had to step away from it.

    I used my laundromat time to finish the book. It broke up the horrors perfectly.Report

  4. dragonfrog says:

    Growing up there were two laundromats – or rather a laundromat and a “laundromat” – directly across the street, near my parents’ house.

    The Broadway laundromat had rows of machines, a soap vending machine, benches, and otherwise little of note. Bring a book, or start your 30 minute wash cycle and go for a 25 minute walk.

    Across the way was the Wash n Slosh (have a scotch while you watch your gotch). Bar, pool table, decent pub food, bands on weekends, allegations of Hells Angels money laundering. The laundry machines were more of a gimmick, though they did certainly get used.

    The Broadway laundromat is still there – function stood the test of time.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to dragonfrog says:

      There are “wash and slosh” places I see around town, which I understand are used by the younger folks as meet markets.

      I very deliberately sought out a place to move to with my own laundry. Even sharing with one or three other condo-dwellers would have left me feeling very not-grown-up. I’ll deal with the lack of opportunity to mingle while folding my chonies.

      This was a delicious essay, by the way. I love the “still life” model of essay writing and am now inspired to do another of my own.Report

  5. Tracy Downey says:

    This is hilarious. Reminds me of a time downtown where I accompanied a friend to help get some loads done.

    The LV downtown laundromat is like a subway station at 2 am.

    A tweaker singing “California love…”
    A couple arguing over the last six bucks for the wash spent buying a Old English 16 Oz 8-ball brew
    A homeless man trying to sleep.
    And an impressionable college girl whispering, “ I love being on my own.”

    Then she asked me to go scrape my car for quarters.Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    When I lived in Brooklyn, I needed to use a laundromat. There was one across from my house and I would just put my stuff in, go home, go back, put it in the dryer, pick up. The place was always occupied by the owners who also ran a wash and fold business.* In SF, there are a few laundromats that are also bars or cafes.**

    *This is suprisingly popular in New York even among broke graduate students because everyone seemingly agrees with you regarding laundromats.

    **I did not notice these in New York. I don’t know if this is my own obliviousness, the fact that bars are near everything in New York, or special regulations/laws.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      One of the cops in Hill Street Blues (*) had the idea for a combination singles bar/laundromat called, naturally “Saloondromat”. (It went the way of all get-rich-quick schemes.)

      The laundromat nearest me is across from a grocery store with an OK deli counter a huge choice of sodas **, and an outside seating area, so doing laundry there can actually be pleasant.

      * JD LaRue, of course.
      ** They carry Moxie, which I’d previous only heard of. It tastes like crankcase oil.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Funny how many people I’ve seen say they leave their clothes and come back. Even here in relatively low-crime WV, you are likely to come back to an empty machine. Idk why anyone would steal someone’s clothes. Homeless, perhaps.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Em Carpenter says:

        It never happened to me but as I said, the owners of the laundromat were always present because they ran a wash and fold business too. The laundromat near me in SF is not managed and I’ve used it when the machines in my building were out of commission but I’ve still been able to leave stuff and come back.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Em Carpenter says:

        I’m a software engineer. No self-respecting homeless person would dress like me.Report

    • When I finally got a full-time job, my wife and I started doing drop off and we did it for several years. But it eventually got too expensive, so about two months ago, I started doing it on my own. It’s actually quite liberating to be able to do it. It would be less liberating if the laundrymat weren’t within walking distance.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    You’ve caught the general flavor of the public laundromats I’ve had to use nicely. The last time I had to use one on a regular basis was when I was in graduate school. The unusual thing I remember is being surprised at the number of young women who washed (apparently) all the clothing they owned at 2:00 in the morning, wearing nothing but pajamas with no undergarments at all. I was willing to walk around the neighborhood at that hour of night, but I was a guy and looked like I could probably outrun any muggers.Report

  8. pillsy says:

    On the occasions that I’ve had to use a laundromat recently (broken machines, like some of the unfortunates in your story), I have benefited from the fact that the local laudromat seems to be almost completely deserted at all hours.Report

  9. fillyjonk says:

    Brings up memories for me of my apartment days. At least one of the places I lived had an on-site laundry room, but it was not much better than a laundromat. I learned to inspect the machines carefully before putting stuff in after finding used band-aids (not mine) in a load of wash I’d done.

    You didn’t leave your clothes, at least not in the places I lived, not because they’d be stolen, but if you waited even 30 seconds to take them out after the machine stopped, another patron would unceremoniously dump them (often on the floor) so they could use the machine. That’s what happens when you have 6 washers and 5 dryers (not all of them working at all times) for 80 residents.

    I would try to get in at 8 am on a Saturday, as soon as the laundry room was supposed to open….but it didn’t, always, and no one but the building manager had a key, so some weekends I spent a lot of time running over and checking to see if it was open yet, and sometimes someone “scooping” me on the machines….

    Ugh. I have to go hug my washer and dryer now. One of the best unsung things about having a completely-furnished house is having your very own washer and dryer, and not having to wait for other people to finish up, or use half your Saturday doing loads, or wondering just WHAT someone had in the dryer before you used it.Report