You Were Here

What the hums of the washing machines really say

The pale green comforter from the bed at home tosses and turns in the industrial washing machine as a young child playfully screams from her mother to her father and back again across the dull, waxing-needed floor. Her father comes to retain the two and a half year old, her light blonde hair bouncing under the tables. He tells of how she loves the sunny weather after a windy weekend – cut short by the laundry cart his girl pushed interrupting him mid-sentence. The two leave and twenty-seven minutes in the washing machine cycle remain.

Behind the aged laminate coated desk, matching the four lengthy folding tables separating washers from dryers amidst the humid air of humming machines, Lisa scratches away at dry cleaning tickets.  Peeling number tags from the orange corrugated lines, she staples the cheddar orange tags to the plastics protecting the garments from wrinkles.

Lisa, 68 years old, began working at the laundromat and dry cleaners tucked away in the corner behind the St. John’s Fred Meyer 22 years ago this May.

She drives to North Portland every day. She patrols the machine usage in between tallying up dry cleaning orders at the desk. She speaks to customers with smiling eyes while making dollars into quarters for the self-launders that need to break tens and twenties for the coin-sized slots that accept only the metallic clink as payment.

She hands over 12 quarters in exchange for three dollars, “One quarter for seven minutes in the dryer” she says peering over her bifocals. In goes the soggy, pale green comforter, clink… clink… clink… and 84 minutes remain.

In the time between starting and switching loads, people seldom converse and carefully keep to themselves – unless of course they came together as a family or with friends. To Lisa’s surprise I asked to speak with her about the establishment she worked at for about a third of her life. She stops to help a couple with a malfunctioning washing machine, resetting the unit after the man packed in a week’s worth of clothes for an entire family. “You broke my machine” she shoots to him in her Korean-broken English, and smiles knowingly to him winking and starting the wash.

Laundry, as I’m beginning to understand, is actually a very intimate process, carefully done in this public space.

Lisa has watched families wash clothes here for quite some time. She now even sees old high school customers return with families and babies years later. She’d like to retire, but she doesn’t think she’s going anywhere anytime soon. She tells me to take my comforter out of the dryer and toss it around to even the drying process. Only twenty-one minutes remain.

I came to learn a lot about some of the people that dared to keep a conversation with me.  A man reads his newspaper quietly to himself, New York Times. Blue is not his favorite color he jokes, hanging nine royal blue collared shirts on his cart rack next to his air-drying flannel. He works at Napa Auto Parts, but not the one north of St. John’s, he’s in Clackamas. “They put you where they need you,” he frowns folding his crisp Dickie’s work pants into the matching blue basket.  Laundry, whites and colors and dark and delicate, told so much about the people heaving baskets and switching loads and folding clothes.  Distrustful eyes shot looks across the room as undergarments and bed sheets alike folded and then tucked away discreetly, owners protecting their identities carefully and as privately as possible.

They came to know a lot about me too, standing out as I did peering over rows of washing machines to steal moments of their laundry habits.  It became apparent that I had easy access to laundry facilities of my own by my confused looks at machines and countless questions for Lisa.  Besides, I only needed to wash a comforter that never truly fit nicely in my washing machine or dryer.  I never depended on the large folding tables nor on the giant washing capacities.  I never needed a cashier to exchange coins weekly.  I never experienced having no other option but lugging dirty laundry around in public.

Lisa of course, was just happy to see another new face in her Laundromat… and that I didn’t flood the dull linoleum floors with laundry detergent.

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Categories: You Were Here

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