Recently, I got a rare, and eye-opening chance to observe laundromats up close and personal. My old, but usually reliable washing machine broke down, and forced me to throw a couple pairs of underwear, my favorite, relaxed-fit jeans, two tee-shirts, and forty of my wife’s outfits into two, big black garbage bags. During my early years, as a recent college grad, the friendly and convenient, local laundromat, was all I ever had to do my clothes. Do any of you have memories of a weekly trip to the local laundromat, as you dragged your own big black garbage bags down a dark and deserted street at one in the morning? It seemed, the laundromat was always open, wasn’t it? You would see those bright lights in the distance, and felt a warm feeling, knowing the next day, your coworkers wouldn’t be backing away from the strong and pungent smell of unwashed clothing.
These days, it seems like every home and apartment has a washer and dryer tucked away in a laundry room, or a small closet, and college dorms, all have conveniently located laundry facilities. Since I’m a man, I could probably survive a few days until my washing machine was fixed. I would just up my deodorant use, throw my worn clothes in the dryer with a dozen of those scented dryer sheets, and hit Target for a pack or two of my favorite Fruit of the Loom underwear, with the comfortable elastic waist band. My wife, on the other hand, needs at least two cleaned and ironed outfits each day. Sadly, if I don’t change my attire, at least every other day, her affection level drops dramatically, and she begins to avoid me like the plague. Our once warm and cozy bedroom, starts to resemble a cold and desolate Antarctic scene from one of those National Geographic specials. I could probably handle the extreme chill in the air – but those darn penguins are so mean.
Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned laundromats from years ago? I remember them as being gigantic, sparkling clean, bustling with activity, and having cool names like “Speedy Wash” or “Sparkle Clean.” After an hour of searching, I managed to find a run down one in a nearby neighborhood that had seen better days. It sat at the end of a dark and dilapidated strip mall, right next to three empty stores. It didn’t even have a name. The sign above it in flickering neon, simply said, “Laundromat.” The one parking lot, light fixture, shed meager and inadequate lighting over a group of what looked like gang-bangers hanging out in front. I must have looked pretty pitiful, as I drug those heavy black garbage bags slowly across the parking lot. Approaching the group of youths, and expecting the worst, I was surprised when one of the nice young men offered me a few dollars and said, “Here you go buddy. Things will get better. Take care of yourself.”
I was a little low on quarters and had left my wallet at home, so I gratefully accepted his kind offer. Walking in, a flood of good, and not so good memories came flooding back. The place was packed with what looked like a combination of a prison on visitor’s day, The Department of Motor Vehicles on a Saturday morning, and the alien bar scene, in the first Star Wars movie.On top of that, dozens of screaming, out-of-control kids were running up and down the aisles yelling in six or seven different languages.
Did you ever notice that no one looks their best at a laundromat? The Frankenstein Monster himself could casually walk down the aisle, and no one would blink any eye. Oh, before I forget. Here’s a quick word of caution. If you’re a guy in a laundromat, and a small child comes up to you, and in a Hungarian accent says, “Daddy?” Forget your clothes, run as fast as you can, and don’t look back. I have a question I’ve always wondered about. What’s with the homeless guy? It seems that every laundromat I’ve ever been in has a homeless guy. Is he a laundromat mascot? He always has his own chair in the back. The one I was in had a sign above it tacked to the wall that said, “Ed’s chair.” Ed, or Edward as he likes to be called, asked me if I had any spare change. “Spare change?” I said. “Are you nuts? I had to root through all the furniture at home and under my car seats just to get these few quarters.”
Have you ever forgotten detergent, and were forced to use those ones from a machine? Can those little boxes get any smaller? Didn’t they used to be as big as cereal boxes? The ones that dropped out of the machine looked like miniature cigarette cartons. I had to insert four quarters just to get a two-ounce box of detergent. What’s that, about a tablespoon? It gets even better. Have you ever wondered why laundromat washing machines are so tiny? Had I somehow, been miraculously transported to the wonderful land of Oz? Looking around at some of the people, I thought to myself, “I may not be in Oz, but I’m certainly not in Kansas.”
Going to a laundromat is a pretty tense endeavor, isn’t it? I’m surprised the snack machines don’t also dispense blood pressure medication, along with their wonderful assortment of stale chips, and candy that has the texture of beef jerky. I have another question. How come a laundromat will have two hundred washers, one hundred dryers, but only have five of those cool laundry carts with the baskets and the racks to hang your clothes on? There was a big sign at the end on the wall that said, “Because we care. Please do not put your children into the laundry carts.” I guess people can’t read, because next to the sign was a kid who looked to be at least fourteen, sitting in one of them. All the walls of this particular laundromat had graffiti written all over them. Some of the things were profound, some were naughty, but most were disturbing. Hey, what’s this? For a good time, call… What? That’s my phone number! I was wondering why I was getting all those late-night calls with all the heavy breathing.
What now? My laundry was just going through its spin cycle and it suddenly, and inexplicably stopped. A light just came on that said unbalanced. Of course, I’m unbalanced, you dumb, ridiculous, pitiful excuse for a machine. I should take you apart and… and… Sorry about that. They almost had me there for a minute. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a laundromat. The clothes in the washing machine were unbalanced, and just needed to be realigned.
There is one good thing, I noticed about laundromats. They all have these enormous industrial grade dryers. One or two quarters will dry all your clothes in about ten minutes. The dryers only have four settings: delicate, low, medium and high. I don’t think those words do justice to the incredible and intense heat generated by those huge tumbling machines. I think instead, the settings should be: Death Valley, oven, melts zippers, and surface of the sun. I learned another cool thing. Do you know it’s possible to go insane while watching your clothes circle around in the dryer? It’s true. I read it in a magazine once. The clockwise rotation of a dryer, if observed over an extended period of time can drive you crazy. I’m serious. Try it sometime. Maybe they should make dryers that run counter-clockwise. Who knows – it might end up being a cure for mental illness.
If you’ve ever used a dryer at a laundromat you’ll notice that for some inexplicable reason, your fine unmentionables always seem to stick to the front glass of the dryer as it rotates. It’s kind of embarrassing if you think about it. I was sitting next to a guy named Roy, who must have just got out of prison, because his laundry consisted of nothing but orange jumpsuits. As we sat side by side, we both could clearly see my one pair of bright red, string bikini underwear levitate in place against the glass, like a kite in a thunderstorm. I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t normally wear them. My wife bought them for me for our last anniversary, to spice things up a little.
As always, I have some unanswered questions. What are all the cameras for? What is there to steal? The snacks are from 1940, and the washers weigh eight hundred pounds. Why do some people take off some of their clothes, wash them and then put them back on? Even Edward has a spare tee-shirt. How many of you have lost money in a washing machine, dryer, or vending machine? Did you fill out one of those forms with your name, address and phone number, and put it in that little box. Did any of you get any money back? Did someone, somehow use the information to rob your house while you took that much-needed vacation? Did any of you ever leave a laundromat, and find that you were fluent, in Spanish, French, German, Hungarian, or Portuguese?
I guess it’s time to move on to my next simple observation of everyday life. The repairman just finished fixing my washer, and hopefully it will be another ten years, until I step into a laundromat again. I’m still recovering from the traumatic experience, but I should be okay. My clothes though, didn’t do as well as I did. All my underwear somehow turned pink, and my neighbor’s toddler is now wearing my favorite two tee-shirts. My red string bikini underwear, seemed to have mysteriously disappeared, and my wife isn’t very happy about it. I also got another strange and sinister phone call late last night, accompanied by heavy breathing and a diabolical laugh. It’s okay, though. It just turned out to be my mother-in-law, asking for my wife.