My parents didn’t get a washer and dryer until years after I’d married and moved away from home, and therefore many hours of my childhood were spent in coin laundries, and yesterday—-for some reason—-I found myself getting nostalgic about them.
I’m pretty certain that my mother doesn’t share that nostalgia. When she finally got her own washer-dryer set—-a hand-me-down from my grandmother, whose home was sold after she was moved permanently to a nursing home—-she reveled in the convenience. And no wonder: the ritual of washing clothes, all through my growing up, had been exhausting. Once a week, on Saturday morning, Mom would gather up the entire family’s clothes into five or six garbage bags, and Dad would load them in the bed of the pick-up truck. We’d drive to the laundry, unload, and Dad would go to the attendant to swap bills for quarters. Then, more often than not, he would leave for home or to do the grocery shopping, sometimes with my brother, and Mom would start staking out washers and measuring cups of powdered detergent.
|From The Book Rack website|
We went to several different laundry facilities over the years, but the iconic laundromat of my memory—-the one we kept coming back to—-was in a small brick-clad shopping center with a diner on one end and a grocery store on the other. One door down was a used bookstore called The Book Rack. I spent much of the time my mom was washing clothes hiding out in that dark, musty store, whose front room was filled with romance novels and comic books, its second room with mysteries, and where, as a pre-teen, I finally found the courage to venture into the recesses of the back-back room, a closet, really, with a cardboard cut-out of Hannibal Lecter on the wall and several shelves of beaten-up paperback horror novels. The Book Rack’s proprietress—-and she may still be there, for all I know—-was an elegant looking woman with large glasses hooked to a chain and hair that had been sprayed into romantic curls or a puffy chignon. She was always kind to me, patient with my browsing (which was more like long sessions of simply sitting in the floor and reading), despite the fact that I had no compunction in those days about entering places of business with blackened bare feet.
The next door after that was The Family Dollar. Now, our visits to The Family Dollar were always a matter of some controversy in our family, because my mom had a predilection for going there and buying items my father regarded as “doodads” or junk, and she was also a soft touch when it came to her kids’ desire for doodads and junk. One of my most vivid memories—-and perhaps this is why I thought of the coin laundry—-is of convincing her to buy me a novelty Valentine’s Day item that I can’t easily describe in a few words. It was a hollow plastic fox, covered with synthetic fur, lips painted a garish red, with arms that had been molded so that there was a little round opening where a vial of smelly cheap perfume was nestled. “Don’t tell your dad I bought it for you,” she said. I agreed. Then, weighted with guilt, I confessed to Dad as soon as I saw him.
And this is one of the associations I have with the coin laundry: hours alone with my mother, hours during which my mother exerted, however tentatively, her agency to spend cash and time as she liked, the two of us occasionally making plans and pacts that, at least in theory, excluded my father. My parents were, even by the standards of 1980s Kentucky, an old-fashioned married couple, one the cash earner and unilateral money manager, the other the full-time homemaker. My mother didn’t (and does not) have a driver’s license, and so there weren’t many opportunities for her to go to a store or a restaurant alone, unless she walked, and even then she wasn’t really alone, because my brother and I were with her. So I suspect that she enjoyed on some level the solitude of the work, the rhythm of wash and dry, the long stretches spent in a hard plastic chair, warm in a patch of sunlight, reading a book and drinking a bottle of diet soda and listening to the somersaulting clothes. She clearly liked the time spent among other women, too: the attendant, the other regulars. The coin laundry was a place where I saw black mothers and their families and later Mexican mothers and families. Whatever trepidations got expressed about race at home, at the laundromat, the interactions were friendly, casual. Women chatted about the weather and passed empty carts around. They warned one another about the dryer that wasn’t putting off good heat. And though I don’t remember much rowdy play among the children, we stood together eyeing the contents of the candy machines, invested dimes hoping that the plastic egg with the advertised “good” toy would roll down when we turned the crank. We sat in the lounge area together, eating Paydays and bags of Lance Nip-Chee. We sized one another up, filing away our observations for later consideration.
The laundromat, with a few rare exceptions, was a neutral place, an in-between place. It was a place where we all waited and bided our time. Some days that waiting felt like boredom, and other days it felt a bit transcendent, in a falsely floral-smelling, mote-caught-in-a-golden-sunbeam sort of way. The coin laundry of my memory exists always in summer, so that the plate glass windows are saturated with white light, the aisle in front of the dryers steamy, and everything is always revolving: the washers and dryers, the lazy ceiling fans, the wheels on the metal carts. If my feet aren’t bare, they are sweating in a pair of pale blue jelly shoes. I go to the RC machine, open the little glass door, and test a couple of bottlenecks to see if this is the day I get lucky and one slides free. It doesn’t, but there’s a puff of cold air from the refrigeration system, and I press my face into it.
When I help, it’s with the folding, and usually with the towels, working at a fraction of my mother’s speed. I tuck the towel under my chin, pull the end up. She sets me to washcloths, and I make little squares and stack them in a slanting pile at the edge of the table. When we’re finished, she piles the clean clothes back into the garbage bags, we lug them to the door, and wait for my father to return in the pick-up truck to take us home. If the weather is fine—-and in my memories, it always is—-my brother and I will ride in the back of the truck with the bags of clothes, but we have to promise to keep our bottoms on the floor of the bed, and we can’t sit on the wheel wells even if everybody else gets to.
There’s a point here, but it’s one that I may not have the skill to make. And it’s something like this: I am grateful for those steamy, in-between, light-filled Saturdays at the laundromat, and I wouldn’t have had them if we’d been another kind of family. The laundry was what I think Heaven ought to be like: clean, glowing, and luxuriously dull, and everybody is getting along, and the smell of chicken fried steak is wafting in from next door.