Yes, of course, I was there to clean, but in my trips to local Laundromats (I have frequented many, in search of cheaper machines and best candy selection), I uncovered some stories that had set in long before any bleach. The Laundromat: A microcosm of larger, deeper, universal issues.
Names have been changed or avoided, but each story happened as it happened. See what occurred soon after quarters went in the slots. See what lurked behind the waiting time.
Week One: Stuck
My clothes were overstuffed, unbalanced, churning in the single washers. I shuffled the load, and the machine seemed to work out its own problems. I skimmed a magazine, relaxing, until I heard the child's whimper.
The sound came through the bathroom door. At first, a muffled sniffling.
Then the pounding of tiny fists on the other side. Then wailing. Behind the thick, metal door, a little girl was trapped inside, alone.
Soon, a mixed crowd gathered around the door.
The girl's mother, a long-legged woman in a mini skirt, yelled, "Pull the latch!"
The girl cried, "I can't find it." Then she was strangely quiet.
Minus the machines, the whole Laundromat was quiet.
A muscled man dropkicked the door. Still, it wouldn't budge.
The little girl screamed, "Someone's breaking in!"
"Take your shoes off. Stack them. Stand on them to reach the latch," said the mother to the door. "What's wrong with this place, having no knob on the inside?" The mother yelled at the worker.
The worker turned all shades of crimson.
The girl banged her small body against the door. Thud, thump, pitter-patter.
When the firetrucks came, all four firemen were straight-faced and annoyed, as if they were interrupted from a workout. The firemen quickly broke the door down and drove away.
The mother yanked the girl by one arm, lifting her up. "My baby," the mother said.
The crowd scattered. Like rodents, they ran, returning to folding and sorting.
While the mother finished her cleaning, her little girl sniffled in the car, outside, alone. The car was running.
Week Two: Seven Times Three.
I was folding, and the place was packed. Across from me, a tiny girl with braids helped her mom fold a sheet.
"Pull it tighter," the mom said.
The kid looked at me, smirking.
I smirked back. I, too, was bored.
The mom touched the kid's cheek and said, "Look at me when I'm talking to you. Hold these corners. Tighter!"
As they started on the next sheet, the mom quizzed the kid on multiplication tables.
"7 X 1?" The mom said. "Look me in the eye."
"Seven," the kid said.
"7 X 2?" The mom said. "Watch what you're doing."
"Fourteen," the kid said.
"7 X 3?" The mom said.
The kid paused, looking at the ground. Then at me.
"Twenty-one," I mouthed at her.
At her mom, she yelled, "21!"
Her mom whipped her head around, but she didn't catch me. By then I was thoroughly engrossed in the Tom Cruise interview on the BET channel.
"Concentrate!" the mom said, holding her daughter's shoulders square. "Let's go," she said, picking up the basket. As they slid through the automatic door, the tiny, braided kid giggled, looked back at me and winked.
Week Three: Hot Seat
It was much too hot for autumn. Sweaty and tired, I smoked. A car was parked at the curb, blocking the Laundromat entrance.
It was an antique Chevy with a long, slender body. In the driver's seat sat a round-faced boy around 8 years old. His eyes, large and brown. His T-shirt, large and stained. The windows were up. The car was off. Sweat beaded on his wide forehead.
He ate a French fry, sweating there.
"You okay?" I asked him through the car window.
"I'm hot," he said back, voice muffled behind the glass.
"Are the doors locked?" I asked.
He shook his head no.
"Why don't you get out?" I asked.
He shook his head no. Then he changed his mind. Slowly, he opened the door. Sweat dripped from the top of his head, down his thick child cheeks and onto his ketchup-covered T-shirt. It was hard to tell whether his wet face was lined with tears or sweat.
Then his mom whooshed through the sliding door. Wiping his face, she said, "Why didn't you get out?" Then to me, "I let him sit there to eat his McDonald's. I don't know why he didn't come in." Then to her boy, "Stay here. I'm gonna go move the car. Stay here."
He clutched his Mom's hand.
"I said, 'Stay here,' " she said, shaking him off. "I gotta park the car. Stay here."
He followed her car as she drove a few feet from the entrance, across the lot and into a parking space. On his way across the lot, two cars screeched to avoid his wobbly, chubby body.
Getting out of the car, his Mom frantically wiped his face with her blouse. She said, "I thought I told you to stay over there."
The boy ate a French fry and sweated.
Week Four: Carla Spins
Carla's body was splinter thin. Any moment she might slip and slide into a washer, becoming another lost sock. But her face was model-like, a rich brown. Her eyes, large, slightly slanted and black. On the backs of her ears sat tumors of different sizes, from peas to grapes. She wore fake diamond clips to cover the lumps. Minus her missing tooth and the tumors, she was drop-dead, boyish pretty.
I told her about my tumor, the one in my right breast, how they took it out and put it in a jar. Then we bullshitted about work, men, the weather. Both of us were worn out.
She worked at a factory, held a six-day work week. Once upon a time she made ice sculptures.
I was unemployed. Again. Once upon a time I taught college.
"Can't remember the last time I went out. Give me a few Little Kings, and I'm going all night," she said.
"I like dancing," I said.
Later, folding next to each other, Carla said, "I don't know what to do."
"About what?" I asked.
"My husband. I found these slips of paper with numbers, these pictures."
I nodded. "You need a ride home?"
Teary, she nodded yes.
Carla lived just down the street. She gave me a hug and hauled her laundry cart onto the sidewalk. "I hope he's not home," she said.
"See you next week?" I asked her.
Carla laughed. "Yeah. I should have my tooth back by then."
I laughed back. Hard as a tumor.
Week Five: Black Bleeds
I had just dyed my hair blue-black. Just me, black hair, black shirt, black pants, running through a thunderstorm, wasting time while my nasty clothes were on some cycle. Then the run, the rain and the clothes were done. I sped away. Everything was aaright. And fucking black.
Week Six: Knock, Knock
Two sisters, one short, one tall, danced outside the Laundromat. The taller sister said, "You don't know how to do it" to the shorter one. While they danced, white beads knocked in their hair. Knock, knock.
The two fathers smoked and smiled at the daughters' routine.
That routine, the smiles and the smoking, somewhere in Clifton, waiting for clothes to dry, was the end of one surreal, shadowy Sunday.
"You don't know how to do it," the tall one said again.
The short one smiled and kept on dancing. Her dance made each onlooker grin. Soon a crowd gathered to watch them dance; the girls' beads knocked more in that pale dusk.
Getting More Change
Somewhere a tiny girl remembers her times tables, and a thick boy sweats inside an ancient car. Somewhere Carla has words with her loose husband. Somewhere, I run in the lightning, easy on my right side, the tumor side, my hair all black. And then there is that girl, stuck again.
So this is about clothes. It's about simply passing the time. Monotonous and routine laundry. No one likes it. But it's also about how to pass this time: Do I watch a child run across a parking lot? Do I watch one enter a heavy metal door alone? Do I run alone in the midst of a storm, or do I stop folding, stop cleaning, stop sifting long enough for someone else's colored life to sift and bleed into mine. You tell me.