Tuesday, March 30, 2010


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?”

Living Under Water

My dad was in water. Clean water. In 1950 he got a job, right out of college, working at a reservoir for the state of New Jersey and worked there until the day he retired. In his years there he imagined, designed and oversaw construction of a dam that supplied water to millions of people.

He used to joke that he was a “dam” engineer. He never swore otherwise. Rarely drank. Never smoked. Loved his wife and his 9 children too. He was a clean liver.

In his last days of life people gathered around his bedside to collect his stories about water supply and the reservoir and the land and the people all around it. If he died before they heard them, the stories would die too. So one by one they came. To hear as many stories as my dad could tell before he dismissed them from fatigue.

When we die, all that’s left are the stories. And a dam if you built one. And nine children too.

My grandfather was in water too. Hot water mostly. Too much of the drink. Too much of the smoking and a little too much of the fondness for the women folk as well. He lived in Canada for his last few years because my grandmother said his Mexican divorce didn’t count for nothing. She’d sooner see him rot in jail for bigamy than forgive him for his carousing.

Funny thing was that even years after they divorced he and my grandma hung out together. Had family dinners. And holidays too. They hung out so much that my mom didn’t know for a long time that they were divorced. Dirty secret. At the end though, with another wife in the picture, my grandmother could stand it no more.

He was an engineer, like my dad. And a tinkerer. He invented lots of things including a valve for those big old metal scuba helmets. He traveled to Japan a lot. Kind of the land of invention back then in the fifties. We have lots of little Japanese dolls and toys to prove it. There’s a belief that he had a family over there. No proof though unless you count the picture of him with the Japanese woman and the Eurasian looking kids. I didn’t know my grandfather. He died when I was young. But my older cousins told me he would give you a pretzel if you ran and got him a beer. I probably would have liked that.

When we die, all that’s left are the stories. And a scuba helmet. And maybe a family in Japan. How long before it’s all wiped away is up to the family. And the stories we tell.

Things Aren't Always What They Seem

When I lived in Washington, DC I worked one day a week for a farmer who drove into town from his farm in West Virginia to sell produce. He sold lots of different things but his main crop was apples. I learned a lot about apples in that job.
I wore overalls and t-shirts to work totally playing the part of the little farm girl even though really I was just one year removed from my New Jersey upbringing where the only farm I went to was the one we visited on class trips and before Halloween for the picking of our pumpkin. But nobody needed to know that now, did they? For all they knew, I was the farm girl who picked the apples. I was the one who woke up early to muck the stalls and make sure our buttermilk was freshly churned and our trees were free from blight.

The farmer had all kinds of apples. My favorite variety was called a Nittany named for the Nittany Lions which was the mascot of Penn State where this particular variety was created. After a few months I found out, that other than a few boxes, the apples were purchased just outside the city limits at a produce market where all the small stores and vendors bought their goods. But nobody needed to know that, did they? For all they knew these apples were picked fresh every week and brought all the way up from West Virginia in that quaint little West Virginia pick up by these quaint little West Virginia farmers. It didn’t even matter if it was apple season or not.

One week the farmer asked if I could handle the stand by myself for a few hours as he had some errands to run around town. He walked off and halfway down the street I saw him join up with a young girl with long straight hair and tight jeans and a red and black plaid flannel shirt falling casually off her shoulder, grunge style. He came back a few hours later and I watched them kiss goodbye just around the corner from the stand. But his wife didn’t need to know that, did she? For all she knew he was off earning money to keep their West Virginia farm dream alive and keep their 3 daughters in piano lessons and 4-H fees.

A few months later the farmer asked if he could borrow my apartment because he needed a nap and was so tired and my place was right up the street and all. Even though I knew that his nap wasn’t really going to be a nap I gave him the key. What was I going to say? When I went home later that evening I found the bed all messed up and an empty bottle of cheap champagne in the garbage can. Probably a condom in there too but I didn’t need to know that, did I?

The next week a customer asked me about a certain apple, whether it was any good, where they came from, and how I liked farming. Good. West Virginia. Then I paused, “Well, it’s hard you know, because sometimes apple farming isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes you think you’re getting apples and really what you’re getting is a big old can of worms.”

She looked quizzically at me but chalked it up politely to some kind of West Virginia vernacular to which her city self just wasn’t privy. “Yes,” she said. “Sometimes things just aren’t what they seem.”

“No they’re not,” I replied, heavy on the New Jersey accent.