Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Laundromat

Growing up we had a washer and dryer in the basement. In the winter the dryer vent was turned back into the house to capture the hot air through the foot of a stocking, which captured the lint. If the machine broke, we called Sears and the repairman came out to fix it. If it was unfixable, we just ordered up a new one and had it delivered and installed. I thought everyone lived like us.

In my first apartment, a basement apartment in a million dollar 200 year old house in Washington DC, the owners left fresh squeezed orange juice and cinnamon toast for me every morning on the top of the stairs. The washer and dryer was in the utility room, in the basement. There was a curtain that hung behind it. Sometimes it flurried. Sometimes soft radio sounds wafted through. But mostly it was still and quiet. One day I saw a tiny Filipino woman scurry back behind the curtain. She was the maid and that was where she lived. It was where she ironed. And read. And listened to classical music on the radio.

My second apartment was a four story brick building with coin operated washers and dryers in the basement. The first time I used them I left my clothes in the washer and came back a little later only to find them in a sopping pile on top of the dryer with a nasty scrawled note: HEY BITCH. WE ALL NEED TO USE THE MACHINES.

My third apartment had no washer and dryer and so I let my clothes pile up for weeks on end until I had nothing left to wear. I’d haul my big canvas bags down the street and take up three machines in a row not caring who else was there or what they needed. The Laundromat inspired this feeling. I’d bring my journal and a pen. No laptops back then. I kept to myself. Mysterious like.

I saw a woman about my age. She had 5 little kids scrambling all around her. Each item she dropped into the machine got sprayed liberally with stain remover, yet every garment they wore was horribly stained with months of drippy meals and spilled sodas. I listened to her dialogue with herself as she ignored her kids and cursed the owner of the clothes she washed. Not hers. Not her families. A strangers. For pay.

I flew up to Chicago to visit my man and stayed for six weeks. In the Laundromat across the street an entire family lived in the room behind the washers and the dryers. A blanket hung in a doorframe separating their world from ours, but the sounds of deafening t.v. and screaming mama and neglected children wafted through shrill and clear. A crawling baby kept trying to escape but was dragged back in repeatedly by the scruff of his neck. Like a kitten. But there was no escape.

A few months later, my man flew to Texas to marry me and father our children. First though it was just us. In our little South Austin love shack that cost $200.00 a month. We added on a screened porch and an outside closet for the washing machine. Up north nobody washed their clothes outside. When we moved out we had to sign an affidavit swearing that we gave up rights to the buildings we built on that property. The landlord was afraid we’d come back and claim them one day. Hmm. Now that’s an idea.

We bought a house just down the street. We have four kids. We have a washer and dryer in the utility room. We have pondered putting a stocking over the dryer vent in the winter to keep the warm air in.

My seven year old asked me one day, “Does everyone live like us?”

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