Saturday, February 28, 2015

Notes from the laundromat

    It's a Saturday afternoon, and once again, I find myself in the laundromat around the corner from where I work. Coming to the 'mat has evolved over the past year into a weekly ritual that had been taking place -- like regular writing -- on an off-and-on basis for a number of years. The ritual became regularized when our washing machine broke for the third time in a year, this time at the end of the extended warranty that my husband Jim and I had purchased initially. Tired of the regular breakdowns and aware that a longer-term fix to our plumbing so that we could create a more reliable and cleaner space in our house for a washer and dryer hookup would cost more than we immediately had to invest, we decided that we could do without these household conveniences for awhile and make do with the laundromat. The weekly ritual is something that is a bit of a pain, but generally something I look forward to.

    Like a flight on a crowded plane, the laundromat is not exactly a comfortable place. It is cold at times, crowded, and a little stressful to get in and out of. But once here, with the clothes in the washer, it provides the same benefit of a short Albany-to-Chicago O'Hare flight -- a quiet space where no one really interrupts you for an hour or so.

    In the past year, I have used my time at the laundromat to grade papers, to catch up on reading, to make telephone calls, to run errands at nearby stores, and to write. I especially appreciate the brevity of space in between the wash and dry cycle for such quick hit activities.

    I find myself thinking a lot about the gap between scarcity and abundance these days, and how perhaps doing one's clothes in the laundromat might speak to that gap. For instance, the laundromat is perceived in some sectors of our so-called civilized society as a forbidden zone. It's a space where you go if you're desperate -- if you cannot afford a washer or dryer; if you're unfortunate -- your home machine broke; or if you're ill -- you cannot hold enough of a steady job or place in society to merit professional cleaning services. Yet, it seems to me that the laundromat really is none of those things. It is instead one of the few communal gathering spots left in domestic life. Over the past year, I have held conversations about folding, sorting, detergents, hikes, sports activities, politics, and horses.

    Eavesdropping yields even richer insight into the world that exists outside of one's comfort zone. During the "track season" that dominates the summer in Saratoga Springs, the demographic at the 'mat changes dramatically from the predominantly English speakers to Spanish speakers. Larger groups arrive with smaller loads per capita. The music is more lilting and happier, as families make the chore into a festival.

    For now, it is still winter. I suspect that the cold temperatures and ongoing snow are wreaking havoc on many people's home facilities. With a new crowd in the laundromat and myself appearing (for some reason or the other) to know what I am doing, I have found myself becoming a consultant on the merits of different machines, the uses of liquid over powder detergent, and the pros and cons of sorting clothes by weight versus color. For the record, I sort by weight -- and somewhat by type -- socks, I have discovered, can be dried and folded much more efficiently if they are not mixed in with the boxers that my husband wears. Towels and jeans take the longest to dry but are the easiest to fold. Therefore, it is not much of an issue if they dry last; it gives one time to get t-shirts and slacks folded and stacked into baskets -- sorted by sex -- in an orderly manner.

    The other day, I was in the laundromat feeling slightly stressed out. I was behind in my classes, behind in my correspondence with students, and fearing that the onslaught of more work would put me still further behind. As I folded, I overheard two young women talking. They were both students at a local community college, and were conversing about the pros and cons of various instructors. I listened to them talk about unanswered e-mails from their instructors, and felt a sense of empathy -- for them as well as their instructors. And then I heard them speak positively about instructors who gave them great feedback, even if it came belatedly. Somehow, their words felt redemptive for me.

    Writing at the laundromat is also a treat. It is dictated today, for instance, by the rhythm of time. That rhythm is set by the wash-rinse-spin cycle spinning dirt out of my clothes. It also is set by the minutes remaining on the free Internet access -- 30 minutes, total.

    And on that note I shall stop for now.

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