My trip to the laundromat gave me a surprisingly inspiring snapshot of life outside the upper-middle-class bubble

Laundromat Corte MaderaThe washing machine repairman is coming Tuesday, but my family ran out of clothes today, so off I went to our small town’s one and only laundromat. It’s a very nice laundromat: it has surprisingly high-end commercial machines (see the picture, above); its detergent and change machines work; it has useful rolling baskets; and, while the environment is basic, it’s pretty clean. There’s parking nearby, too, so I didn’t have to shlep several loads of dirty clothes any great distance.

My arrival coincided with a busy time, so I was able to get a good sense of the laundromat’s patrons. The vast majority were Hispanics, in all sorts of combinations: young families; single men and women, both old and young; and various combinations of people who were obviously both friends and neighbors, making for a social experience.

My guess is that all of them live in a complex of low-end apartments a couple of blocks away from the laundromat. Some drove; some walked, dragging their laundry in rolling carts.  I doubt many are here legally, but maybe I’m just cynical.

Without exception, all of the Hispanic patrons had smart phones. There was little to distinguish them, then, from the average college student or 20-something who lives in an apartment building without a washer or dryer, and who goes to the local laundromat, finding amusement for a couple of hours in his or her smart phone.

I was one of only five Caucasians there. We ran the gamut: I was the upper middle class suburban homemaker with the broken washer; there was the working-class, middle-aged single woman who quite obviously comes there every Sunday; there was the retired older woman who obsessively, compulsively folded and refolded underwear that looked remarkably like old-fashioned bloomers; there was the haggard looking young woman who looked as if she was no stranger to drugs; and there was the homeless alcoholic or drug abuser (you can tell by the face), who stripped himself to the skin so that all of his clothes could be clean.

It was this last laundromat patron who was most interesting. At one level, it was profoundly distasteful to see an obese, marginally clean man with his groin draped in a black garbage bag. Since he was sitting, my over-active imagination got totally grossed-out by the thought of the smorgasbord of bacteria he was leaving on that hard plastic chair.

At another level, though, there was a peculiar dignity to his presence. Homeless he may be, addicted he may be, but he’s still going to clean his clothes . . . all of them. Nor would he let the indignity of near-nakedness stop him. He hid his chair in a corner, only to have to relocate on a regular basis as other patrons needed to use the machines he’d blocked with a little privacy barrier.  The Hispanic women who were trying to get to these machines treated him with friendly respect.

From my point of view, there were surprising pros, and expected cons to the experience. The main con was that I had to do it the first place. When you’re spoiled enough to have a washer and dryer in your home, it seems like an extreme imposition to have to pack up the dirty laundry and hit the road.

The next con was my own personal meshugas. My Mom was a true germaphobe, which is unsurprising given that one of the primary ways to survive a Japanese concentration camp in the tropics was to be as clean as possible despite the grim and grimy circumstances. I therefore grew up as a germaphobe too, but I fight it constantly. Being paranoid about germs can be very limiting. Still, I wash my hands too often and obsess about the possibility of contamination from using a washing machine and dryer open to the general public. After all, who knows if the machines I used weren’t previously used by people just as dirty as the homeless man tucked away in a corner. I’m glad these people have access to washing machines, but I don’t want to share with them.

The last con is that the machines simply aren’t as good as mine is. The laundry didn’t come out as clean as mine routinely does. That’s disappointing. I like it when my laundry smells wonderful and looks as spotless as much-loved, much-worn clothes and towels can.

But as I said, it wasn’t all cons. The main pro, and it was a big one, was that I had everything done in something under two hours, including the round-trip home. I was able to wash all the clothes simultaneously, in three separate washing machines. Then, the dryers were so large that I was able to combine all three loads into a single dryer. I sped the drying process (and relieved my boredom) by opening the dryer periodically, pawing through for dry items, and folding them on the spot. By the time I left, everything I came with was folded and ready to put away.

Things are a lot different at home. I can do only one load at a time. Worse, because my solar panels mean that I have very limited times within which I can use my electric utilities during the summer (unless I want to pay a punitive premium on electricity), it’s rare, outside of weekends, that I can wash and dry clothes in one swoop — unless I want to start laundry at 6 a.m. or stay up until midnight, depending if I aim to get the clothes clean morning or evening. This timing problem can be disastrous when the days are hot, because the clothes start to mildew in the washer during the twelve-hour interval until I can use the dryer. It doesn’t help that I have a lousy memory at the best of times, and will often forget completely that I ran a wash load in the first place.

If I do manage to get things dry and mildew-free, I don’t have any incentive to fold right away. I’ve got some perfectly nice laundry baskets and can just stack the clean laundry in them until the spirit moves me. It can take days before the spirit moves me.  Then, once the laundry is folded, the spirit doesn’t necessarily continue to move me through to putting things away. The result of the sloth a home laundry center engenders in me is that I’m never without laundry somewhere in the house: dirty, wet, unfolded, or not yet put away.  Psychologically, that’s a lousy way to run a house.

And here’s the second pro:  It’s good for me to leave my upper middle class citadel and see how other people live.  It reminds me of two things.  The first is that I am singularly blessed.  You’ll notice I don’t say “lucky.”  I didn’t get here by luck.  I got here because my parents first married and then uprooted themselves in the hope of a better life; because my father worked 17 hour days right up until he retired; because I went to school (paying my own way) to get the degrees that would increase my earning potential; because I’m a cheap skate and save my money; and because I married a man with similar economic values.  The blessing is that these middle class behaviors pay off in America.

The second pro is that, as I looked at these people, mostly immigrants, I realized that we’re all blessed.  What I saw was a very American kind of poverty.  It’s not the grinding poverty endemic to Africa or India.  It’s not the scary poverty of Latin American slums or America’s own ghettos.  It’s the poverty of people who, sadly, didn’t have all my blessings, but do have the ability to stay clean, which is a form of godliness, raising us up above animals.  It’s more than that, though.  Looking at the Hispanic immigrants, I was reminded that what they’re experiencing is also the poverty of people who, like me and my parents, have the opportunity to move away from the laundromat one day, and find themselves in their own home with a washing machine.

I was going to end this by saying that America’s political plutocrats, like the Clintons, Obamas, and Warrens, would do well to visit the laundromat.  I realized, though, that they’d be incapable of seeing a laundromat as anything other than an opportunity to create a new government laundry program, complete with complicated laundry formulas, multi-layered bureaucracies, cronyism and other corruption, and long, long lines.