The Laundromat: A Study In Human Despair
When you walk in it hits you, the sweet miasma of half a dozen different brands of laundry soap and fabric softener, with a faint undertone of mildew. The air is oppressively hot and thick, not a comfortable warmth but a smothering cloud. It is the local laundromat, where the literally unwashed masses come to air their dirty laundry.
The floor is swept and mopped, but around the edges and in the corners you’ll find years worth of grime, sticky with lint and dust and other detritus. Connected plastic chairs line the wall beneath the large picture windows of the store front. They’re yellow and green and uncomfortable and cracked. It’s dim, despite the requisite and inevitably flickering fluorescent lighting. There are two impossibly old vending machines, the type with knobs to pull instead of buttons to push. One offers mini-sized laundry detergents; the other peanut-butter-on-cheese crackers, Lifesavers and various other sad snacks.
Sadder than the facility itself are its patrons. No one is happy here, except for the two small children chasing each other and shrieking occasionally. It’s hard to tell who they belong to, but the smart money is on the thin young woman in the corner, chewing fervently on gum and scrolling her phone.
Of the ten or so customers here, only two are men. One is middle-aged, the other elderly. The younger one has four full baskets of clothes with him. The women range from the young twenty something probable mother to an old woman who may or may not be with the old man. He sits in a chair; she tends to a machine on the other end of the room. No one is talking to each other except the two kids, muted by the steady hum, clunk, swoosh of the machinery doing its job. We all look as though the dementors are near by, the faceless demons of the Harry Potter world which suck all the joy and hope from everyone in their vicinity.
We all have a different reason why we are here instead of washing our dirty clothes in private. I’ve brought my comforter to wash, having a cheap standard size machine not large enough to accommodate. Some have no washer and dryer, or maybe they do, but one or the other is currently broken. Or maybe they’re like my mother, who has been waiting 35 years for her husband to put in the hookups. Whatever the situation, we are all here and for some reason, it feels shameful. Maybe it’s because the well-off have no reason to be here; they have their own machines in good repair, large enough to wash their blankets in rather than having to lug them offsite. Being here suggests we are not well-off (even if we are).
There are unspoken rules here. It is first come, first serve, though the more polite among us will attempt to figure out who has been waiting the longest for the next machine to free up. When your machine stops, you have about 45 seconds to haul yourself over to it and get your stuff before an impatient customer does it for you, plopping your wet or freshly dried clothing down on one of the many tables of dubious cleanliness. Don’t use more than two machines at once, three at most. And don’t use the large-capacity machine for a normal size load. Bring your own quarters and do not even consider asking to borrow from anyone else. Mind your business. No eye contact. Speak only when spoken to.
Bring a book. If you prefer to watch Netflix on your phone, bring earbuds and a generous data plan- there is no wi-fi here. I hear tell of laundromats designed to take the misery out of the experience, with pool tables, food, even a bar. But in Small Town, Nowhere USA, you get stale cheese crackers and the spectacle of human misery for entertainment.
The problem is that there are other people here, and as we all know, hell is other people. Hell is other people at a laundromat. No one is at their best, no one wants to be here. Then that woman steals the machine and you were next, or one person is hogging the rolling carts, or someone’s errant child snoops in your bag while you are tending to your chore, but you lack the will to do much more than sigh and cast a judgmental glance. Perhaps it is just as well that this place is so devoid of energy and life. We might all of us come apart at the seams, were we not so listless here.
I told a friend I had to go there to wash my blanket due to my lack of a washer big enough. “Just roll it up like a snake and wrap it around the inside of your machine,” he said. “It will unravel as it gets agitated.”
It will unravel as it gets agitated. Don’t we all?