I was in Louisville, Kentucky, last month on our return cross-country summer vacation. We were rapidly running out of clean clothes to wear, and I was tired of hauling around dirty laundry, so I went in search of a nearby laundromat. I found one in the sketchy part of town (as described by a reviewer) with many excellent ratings. I should mention that I enjoy going to laundromats, sketchy or otherwise, but this has not always been the case. Until a few years ago, I avoided laundromats at all costs because I associated “dirty laundry” with what I felt were embarrassing childhood memories best left forgotten.
I grew up going to laundromats and even worked at a laundromat during the summer of 1979 when I was still in middle school. The laundromat was owned by a Chinese couple that also owned a small grocery store next door. The husband ran the grocery store, and his wife, who was quite grumpy and spoke almost no English, ran the laundromat. I was hired to wipe out the washers, empty lint filters, and mop the floors every night. My work had to be inspected before I got the okay to leave at eleven every night. If I missed something, there was a lot of irritated finger-pointing followed by several brusque-sounding Chinese words that I was certain were not words of praise for the remarkable cleaning skills of a 13-year-old girl.
My family also spent one or two days a month going to the laundromat. It was a big event because it took all six of us to haul in a month’s worth of saved-up laundry. We noisily descended on the laundromat like a circus coming to town. Everyone could probably hear our laughter as we pulled up in our yellow Chevy Impala. We had, after all, just enjoyed a car ride that had our back-sides bumping into the roof of the car and our bodies sliding all over the trash bags—this was the 70s—seat belt safety laws had a long way to go. All four of us kids would clamber down from the mountain of overstuffed black trash bags laughing and bumping into each other.
Like endless clowns emerging from a Volkswagen beetle, the actual circus magic happened when we began hauling in the black bags. I could see the incredulous stares of the other laundromat patrons as bag after bulging bag magically appeared from the deep recesses of the Chevy. Looking back, I think we should have sold tickets!
The next act always involved my brother picking up some embarrassing piece of dirty laundry, usually my stepfather’s tighty-whities, which were not so tighty or whitey, and twirling them in the air while chasing my screeching sisters. Every trip to the laundromat brought a new embarrassing laundry experience that, over time, caused me to begin to associate our laundry with our poverty. Immature and unable to see beyond my own shame, I never noticed that we had more in common with everyone else than not.
The incident that finally made me look at my past experiences and laundromats differently happened four years ago. I was volunteering at a local cat shelter, and the volunteer that usually washed the many baby blankets and towels that they use for the cats had broken her arm. Their laundry was piling up, so I offered to help them out and took the laundry to a nearby laundromat. As I loaded the bulging black bags into the back seat of my SUV, I had a moment of déjà vu and dread. I even considered asking my husband, Jim, to do the laundry, but I pulled myself together and headed off to the laundromat; after all, I was the one that had volunteered.
The laundromat wasn’t busy. A gentleman was folding laundry in front of a dryer a few feet away in a pair of ski overalls…in June. I must remember to give Jim, my husband a break about his choice of outfits. An older woman was sitting in a plastic chair reading a newspaper against the wall facing the washers. The two commercial-sized washers were available, so I stood between them and began tossing towels into one washer and baby blankets into the other. As I tossed a wadded-up blanket into the washer to my left, I watched with horror as a giant tootsie-roll-shaped dry cat turd fell onto the floor. It made a sound when it hit, but I have yet to find a word that describes the sound a dried cat turd makes when it hits the floor. If you, my readers, have any thoughts, please share.
The turd rolled away before I could snatch it up. It stopped under the folding table between the older woman with the newspaper and me. “Maybe if I just pretend that I didn’t see it, nobody else will notice, and then I can discreetly pick it up later,” I thought to myself.
I ignored the turd and kept on sorting blankets and towels. I felt my heartbeat quicken when I heard the older woman clear her throat directly behind me. “Get ready to be shamed,” I thought to myself. “Excuse me, honey, I think you dropped something,” she said while pointing to the turd under the folding table. I had no response; all I could do was blink rapidly at her. It took me a few seconds to compose myself before I managed, “Oh no, that is so disgusting, I’m so sorry.” She just shrugged and said, “It’s okay; I just wasn’t sure if you had seen it.”
Rarely do things play out the way you imagine they will in your mind. I didn’t pick up the cat turd because I was frozen with the shame of a 13-year-old girl. Unreasonable, but we have all been guilty of making irrational assumptions at some point in our lives. After starting the washers, I sat and took the time to look around. I realized the depth of my irrational shame.
It was simply another day at the laundromat, notwithstanding the ski pants in the summer and the cat turd. I was no longer a 13-year-old girl.
So, back to the laundromat in Louisville, Kentucky, last month. The laundromat was playing DISCO music when we entered (my all-time favorite music). As I walked in the door, I was hit with the aroma of fresh popcorn from a nearby popcorn machine mixed with the scent of dryer sheets. They even had a Pac-Man machine! I was immediately catapulted back to 1979! Later, while we waited for our clothes to dry, I watched a young woman struggling to drag five enormous black trash bags out the front door. She couldn’t lift them because each one easily weighed as much as she did. Jim helped her load the massive bags into her car while she gave embarrassed excuses for having so much laundry.
The universe had flipped, and I was afforded a glimpse into someone else’s circus. The experience reinforced my current belief. We all have “dirty laundry,” literally or figuratively, and nothing makes it more apparent than a laundromat. A wise friend recently said, “Laundromats are the great equalizer—political beliefs, socioeconomic status, skin color, life problems—everything is set aside to accomplish the one thing that we all have in common… laundry.”