It all comes out in the wash

laundromatWe gather like penitents.

All of us have been brought here by the dirty secrets we hide, and we avoid each other’s gaze.

But simply by coming here we have to acknowledge our sordid nature, and, despite the awkwardness, there is an unspoken solidarity among us. Here, we reveal all. Because this warm nook, filled with a monkish hum, is a laundry.

The shame of human grubbiness is palpable. Stained shirts and oily jeans are dragged out of laundry bags and shaken in full view. But then the congregants hunch more closely over their sacks of filth, glance around, and hustle unseen horrors into their chosen washing machine. The besmirched sheets of sin. The stained underthings of mortality.

Some of us are not yet entirely familiar with the rituals, and we peer into the gloom of the tub, trying to decipher the cuneiform washing instructions on the labels. Cold wash. Do not tumble-dry. Flat dry on an altar dedicated to the Annunaki. Dry clean only if you have slaughtered a goat at dawn on the sixth day.

Elsewhere, veterans are dumping capfuls of soap and softener into the washers without even measuring them. It seems dangerously casual. And yet the bottles of products in front of us encourage estimation and guesswork. We’re working on instinct, on faith. For example, is this one with the pink flowers on the label that just says “Fresh” – is this soap or softener? This one, with the lamb lying on top of a pile of folded towels, says “Stain remover” on the front, yet on the back it says “If you use this for removing stains your clothes will spontaneously combust”. And this one here says that just one capful will answer all my prayers, but halfway up the cap there’s a dotted line with the legend “1 capful”. So is it the whole cap or just the whole half-cap?

Eventually, though, the washers are all gurgling and thrumming, and, for the first time since we got here, we can relax, settling over the stack of TV guides from 1996 to discover that Marlena Evans is likely to be possessed by Satan for the rest of this week on Days of Our Lives.

But even as we all begin to page, soothed by the rumble of the cleansing machines, the peace is shattered.

The Laundromat Owner has arrived, shuffling out of the pages of a cult manifesto.

“Wha tha we shee ‘m, hey? Yes! Always!”

He gazes at all of us, but sees nothing. His eyes are mad and empty, perhaps from looking into the driers for too long. As he lurches through his small kingdom, he talks loudly, passionately, and unintelligibly. He has spent so many years talking to himself that the words have decayed, coming in broken fits and starts.

He points at one customer. “Wha tha we shee ‘m, hey? Yes! Always!” None of us has a clue what he’s just said, but she nods in a way that suggests she doesn’t need further explanation. We’ve all done that. Because when he explains, hot and insistent in your ear, it’s a cabbage-tinged stream of misanthropy; a ritualistic chant about a world in which degenerates in filthy, lint-shedding clothes endlessly try to cheat an honest businessman out of his daily bread; about beggars and police and stray dogs and nagging wives, and, worst of all, people who come to use the driers without using the washers first.

There are many sins in this small church. Leaving coins in pockets that will set the machines pinging and rattling. Not throwing away empty bottles of “Fresh”. But drying without washing first is the worst of them all. We all know this.

From time to time young French backpackers will wander in, carrying sacks of wet washing, and the Owner will raise a warning finger. No drying! The newcomers won’t understand. Burt for why we can nert dry, please? Because you haven’t washed! Burt we av wershed. Ere is wershing, in a wershing bague. No! You have to wash it here! Burt we av wershed it at bacquepacquer. When at last they retreat, it is not because they’ve understood his rules but because they’ve understood his madness.

Eventually, though, he also leaves, and at last it’s time to dry. The driers wait, beige, uniform, reassuringly obedient, like a line of huge computers from the early 1970s. Here, at least, science is in charge; a Mission Control tracking the slow progress of my socks through time and space. It’s a delicate balancing act. Trajectories must be calculated to the second. Fall short, and I’ll have damp socks. Overshoot, and they’ll burn up.

It’s a strange two hours of one’s life; watching, waiting, weighing. It’s odd to reveal so much of our grubby selves to people we will never speak to. But when we leave, dragging our bundles of puppy-scented, “Fresh”-tinted redemption behind us, it somehow all feels worth it.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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One comment

  1. My daughter is leaving comfortable Orlando and heading to New York City to live. I MUST have her read this! I want her to have a copy of this in hand when all her things are dirty and she heads to the Laundromat for the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

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