Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ethnography of the Laundromat

"The more I buy the more I’m bought, the more I’m bought, the less I cost."
Joe Pug, Hymn 101:

My washer broke on laundry day: Sunday. It would swish around and wash, but it wouldn’t spin at the rinse cycle so I was left with sopping wet, soapy laundry. We filled five trash bags with the heavy wet stuff because I don’t own a laundry basket, and went to the Laundromat to put them through a rinse cycle and spin, then to dry them. After 2 hours, we left, taking home five trash bags of damp laundry which I was able to dry in 3 loads and put away. It took a big chunk out of my Sunday afternoon and evening, and it put me in contact with people who are, frankly, poor. At least compared to me.

I learned it’s not easy to be poor. A single large load costs $4.55, and it dryer time is now $0.30 for ten minutes. And you no longer put money in each machine. You feed a cash machine which gives you a plastic debit card you then swipe at the washer or dryer to buy wash cycles and dryer time. The debit card increments don’t conform to the Laundromat prices, so you always have to buy a little bit more than you need. It’s confusing to figure this out if you’re new, and that was the first lesson. People help.

Standing in front of the debit card monster, looking obviously confused, I was approached by a man with serious periodontal disease (and accompanying nasty bad breath. I learned to identify advanced gum disease when I worked as a dental assistant in one of my previous incarnations). He was bilingual, since the user can select Spanish or English. He explained the set-up, walked me through it, and told me I could put more clothes in the load using the larger capacity washers that are just inside the door. What would have been three loads at home was two loads in these machines.

Later, a woman whose dental problems had progressed to the point where she had few remaining teeth in her gracious smile, told me not to use the dryer I’d picked because it didn’t get as hot as the next one over. She showed me the trick of swiping the card just long enough to add ten minutes, but not so long the machine loses patience and ignores you.

Now, these are people who I would have little trouble making fun of at a comedy club, but the truth is they were nice, friendly, and helpful. In addition to not having their own washers at home, they obviously don’t have as good a dental plan as I do, so I don’t see how it’s their fault they have goofy smiles and terrible breath. Yet, they stick together and help each other – and strangers - with unselfish camaraderie. It gives me a peculiar feeling of community I’m not accustomed to in my neighborhood where I wouldn’t recognize my neighbors unless they are standing at their mailbox and we wave to each other.

As we waited for the wash, we sat at small plastic tables near a 14” Tv screen. Four pre-adolescent kids watched iCarly on Disney cable. This is a soft-porn show of teenagers who have gorgeous clothes, bright smiles, tinted hair, and lots of disposable income. While watching, they pestered their mom for money to buy junk food from the vending machine. Mom relented, but only on two conditions: you can only pick from the bottom row (mildly healthier) and you have to sit still and watch Linda Ellerbee’s news after the Disney thing.

So, not only does Mom have to go to the Laundromat, and on a Sunday night, but she has to take her kids – leading me to assume there’s nobody at home to watch them. She spent at least $25, counting soap, bleach, washers, dryers, and moderately unhealthy junk food. That is $100 a month, enough to pay for a washer and dryer on credit, if you had any credit. She struggles to let them live a little, and teaches them to pay attention to their world. They relate to the kids on TV about the same way my back yard relates to Huntington Gardens.

It’s expensive to be poor. And I’m so smug in my little world that I was feeling sorry for myself having to return to the Laundromat for one evening in the past 30 years.


kate smudges said...

Kind of a reality check, isn't it? I had virtually the same thing happen, although my washer started leaking and flooded part of the basement. I took my son off with said green garbage bags and we sat and watched a football game on tv at the laundromat. At least we didn't have to swipe debit cards ... still could feed the machines. It is sobering to see the people who have to rely on laundromats (when I was a student, the local laundromats were filled - mostly - with other students, thus insulating me from the cold reality of what it means to be poor. All that time ... all that money and we complain about having to do the laundry in our basement.

And you really did make a point about community ... living in areas where we don't always know our neighbours well.

Anonymous said...

HA! you two are pathetic limousine liberals, talking about laundromats as if they are free clinics, and you would rather pay than get a load off.
in reality, some wealthier than you people go to the 'mat for many other reasons; not everyone is toothless, poor and each helping the other through life's misery. And as it happens, those who DO GO TO THE 'MAT are investing more in their communities *and* the economy at large; think about it you over-educated liberal losers.