Friday, May 29, 2015

My Beautiful Launderette


I think it's a universal truth that most people simply LOATHE doing the laundry.  Doesn't matter if it's in their own home or at the laundromat, it's one of those chores that seems to be a complete waste of valuable time, unless you're out of clean g-strings and don't have the dough to just buy some more and toss the dirty ones out the window for the neighbors to fight over.

I enjoy doing the laundry (ironing, too!), but The Artist has banned me from washing anything at home other than my car wash towels because something something hot water something something IT SHRUNK, DAMMIT! But home-based laundry is not what I'm gonna discuss right now, as this essay revolves around coin-op laundromats and the warm place they hold in all our hearts... not.

Actually, I have some strong observations about laundromats.

DOING THE LAUNDRY WITH AUNT PEGGY

My younger brother and I were living with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Tony in La Puente (CA) for several years when I was still in grade school back in the 1960's, and she taught me many things about homemaking that have stuck with me to this day.  One of her regular chores was to lug a huge pile of laundry to the local coin-op about a mile away, and I would always go with her if I was already home from school. Most of the dirty duds belonged to other people who would pay her to wash and (in many cases) iron them for a fee.

Peggy didn't drive so we always walked, her wire grocery cart straining and squeaking under the massive load of clothes. There were a couple of laundromats in the vicinity, but the one on Valley Blvd. was her favorite. We'd go inside and she would scan the banks of old-school top-loading machines, looking for a set of at least five in a row.  When the machines were chosen, she would open the lids on all of them to signify 'THESE MACHINES ARE TAKEN, BITCHES' to anyone else who might muscle in on her row. Same for the wheeled wire carts... she would tie small towels to the hanger racks, daring someone else to grab one.  She was pretty tough, Peggy was.

Then she always did something I never saw anyone else do: she would wipe down the tops, inside lids and baskets of each machine before putting the clothes in.  She also wiped down each machine after she was done with it, explaining that you never know who had used the machines before, but it was just a courtesy to the next user to clean the machines and leave them ready to go. It was a very powerful example of blanket consideration for this small kid to witness, a selfless act of kindness.

I'm not kidding when I say that on those rare occasions when I have to use a laundromat (more on that in a bit), I WIPE DOWN THE MACHINES, even the ones we have at home. Every time I do, I think of Peggy, and I'm time-warped to that laundromat on Valley Blvd. The same goes for ironing clothes. Once the washing and drying chore was done, she would spend hours each day ironing other people's clothes, and she took great pains to teach me the finer points of spray starch, pressing pants cuffs and the correct sequence when ironing the parts of a white dress shirt. I take great pride in my ability to iron like a mofo, and I owe it all to Aunt Peggy.

LAUNDROMAT ETIQUETTE

Although I rarely use the local laundromat, I know deep-down there is a strong code of behavior one must adhere to when you walk through those glass doors.

1.  Don't be stupid.  Use your noodle when you're sharing a commons work space with other citizens you don't know.  Keep your shit in one place, not just dumped all over every flat surface.  Use machines next to each other, so as to allow more efficient use of open machines and provide others a sense of territory. Take enough change, plus some extra, so you don't have to beg others for their valuable coinage, because the change machine is usually broken.  DO NOT ask to borrow someone else's detergent or dryer sheets, just buy the overpriced crap in tiny boxes from the vending machine and learn your lesson for next time.  In other words, act like an adult.

2.  Don't overuse detergent.  This is especially true of the industrial-size washing machines for larger items.  I know you think you'll need more Tide than they recommend to wash your filthy crusty Star Wars comforter, but you'll be so very sorry for thinking you know better. Pay attention to the machine's instructions so you won't have to re-wash your soap-soaked dreamcatcher.

3.  Pay attention to the cycle timers. If you're one of those cretins who starts a washer or dryer and then splits, leaving the machine to finish and sit there cooling off with your clothes inside while others need to use the machines, you deserve the poisonous stares and haughty sniffs of derision from others when you finally come back from Starbuck's with your fucking latte'.

4.  Don't touch anyone else's clothes.  This should be self-evident, but no one wants you pawing through their colorful g-strings, manga onesies and polyester bondage gear, whether in a washer or a dryer.  If you need to use a machine and the clothing's owner is fucking around at Starbuck's, just bite down and wait until another machine opens up, because it most definitely will.  When the errant customer sashays back in, issue the appropriate poisonous stare and/or haughty sniff.  They'll get the message.

5.  Don't be a slob.  I mean it... clean up after yourself.  Don't spill your soap all over everything and walk away as if there's a laundry concierge just waiting to tidy up after your piggish self is done. Wipe down the machine in honor of Peggy Marquez. Leave the lids or doors of machines you've finished using open as a signal to the next Happy Launderer. Park the carts off to the side and outta the way. Laundromats are a true bastion of democratic socialism, so you have to do your part to keep things clean and neat.

6.  Have something to do while you're waiting.  Use your stupid i-phone like you always do.  Read the newspaper or a book. Do a crossword puzzle.  Take a drawing pad and pencil and sketch your laundry compatriots. Or do what I like to do most: talk to someone else in there with you.  You may be surprised at whom you'll meet, because EVERYONE has to eventually wash their poo-poo undies unless they have machines at home or are one-percenters and take everything to the cleaners.

7.  Enjoy yourself.  This may sound counter-intuitive, but the act of cleaning your clothes is an affirmation of your self-esteem and sense of pride. Yes, it takes time that could otherwise be spent binge-watching GOT (meh), but you made the effort and were rewarded with spring-fresh g-strings and bondage gear.  What could be more fulfilling, laundry-wise?

DRYER BRONCO BUSTING

In my last essay titled 'The Eagle Has Finally Landed', I alluded to a 1970 Summertime cross-country road trip I took while in the Boy Scouts, which included a 5-day stay in the then-vacant dorms of the University of Ilinois at Champaign for a national Scouting conference. I can tell you of many things that happened during that fateful stay in those college dorms, but only one (maybe two) will come to the light of day for now:  Dryer Bronco Busting.

Us visiting Scouts were housed in the campus dorms, with almost all the buildings connected via a series of underground hallways, walkways and passages that allowed students to traverse the grounds without having to endure the typically shitty Illinois weather.  There were also game rooms, lunch rooms, study rooms and yes... laundromats along those long underground tubes.

By the end of our first day on campus, someone in our group got word of a crazy activity going on in the laundry rooms that was a regular occurrence during the school year.  Once we'd had dinner with the adults and were released to our dorms, we bolted 'down under' to see what the hell was going on. I wasn't prepared for what I witnessed because 13 years old!

Each underground laundry room was equipped with a half-dozen top-loading washers and gigantic front-loading dryers.  Apparently the college students, after much alcohol consumption, came up with the idea of riding inside the dryers (set to 'air-dry', of course) while they were in motion by bracing themselves inside the dryer barrel and spinning around until they puked their guts out. Presto: Dryer Bronco Busting! Naturally, this idea went over big-time with us unchaperoned Scouts.

Each night of the conference after dinnertime, we'd gather in one of the many laundry rooms, then one by one, a Buster would crawl inside the open dryer, it's door sensor taped down so it would spin with the door open. The Buster would use his arms and legs to brace against the inside of the barrel, then someone would hit the START button. Watching a Buster spinning around and around in that thing was completely hilarious, even when he got sick and started shooting dinner out of his pie hole. Much hooting and shouting and laughing ensued.  And, of course, vomit-mopping.

Yes, I tried it once, but I was only good for about a dozen rotations before I started to get nauseous and begged to get out because I'm a pussy.  Some of my Cali friends did better, although most of them booted their dinner before exiting.  One older Scout from another dorm building had a stomach of steel, because he rode for almost two-hundred rotations, even breaking one machine and jumping into another to keep the streak going.  HE DID NOT PUKE.  We were in awe of the guy. We shouted out the number of rotations, helped him stagger from the broken machine into the next one, and cheered wildly when he'd finally had enough.

Dryer Bronco Busting was stupid and dangerous and destructive and inane and ignorant and just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen with my 13-year-old eyes.  As an adult, every time I use the laundromat and see those large dryers, I am whisked back to the underground torture chambers of spinning awesomeness. Not to mention sordid memories of meeting a really cute 16-year-old girl named Patti who worked in the lunch room underneath my dorm and thought my Indian Dancing was pretty cool and kissed really good.  Heh heh heh.

LAUNDERLAND

During our 22 years of residence in Mission Viejo (CA), I've had only a few occasions where I've needed to use a local laundromat, and the closest one to my home is Launderland.  Most times the reason is to wash a large item that would blow up our machine at home, because they have the most excellent industrial-grade front-loading mega-washers that do a fantastic job.

Last year, in preparation for the arrival of my Awesome Daughter and Awesome Grandson for a visit where the AG and I would spend the week camping-out in our backyard, I needed to wash the two sleeping bags that had been stashed in the garage rafters for a decade or so.  First thing one Saturday morning, I cruised over to Launderland with sleeping bags and Tide and dryer sheets and a coffee mug and some magazines, ready to spend a couple of hours there.

It had been a while since I'd last visited, so when I pulled up and parked I was pleased to see it was still almost empty.  I walked inside and was struck at how sparkling clean the place was... floors shined, machines gleamed, signage was fresh and colorful, lights were blazingly bright, plenty of carts and tabletop space and chairs. Channeling Aunt Peggy, I picked a suitable mega-washer, wiped it down good, loaded in the sleeping bags and soap and coins, pushed START and took a seat.

Before I got a chance to start reading my mags, a younger Mexican lady came in with three small kids and a huge pile of laundry.  We exchanged 'Holas!' and she smiled broadly, prolly appreciating my friendly attitude.  Her kids were boisterous but well-behaved, playing around the machines and laughing and making faces at me which I returned right back at them, sticking my tongue out which made them giggle like crazy.  Nice.

I read my mags and watched people stroll in with their loads and, weird as may seem, most everyone appeared to be in a good mood. The place was noisy but not obnoxious, and folks had the right attitude about their task at hand.  I was drenched in a very positive and supportive vibe, because we were all there for the same reason, sharing a clean and bright space that was made-to-order for each one of us.

I pulled the sleeping bags out of the mega-washer and started them in a dryer, then went over to the really nice deep sink area with hand soap and a huge paper towel dispenser, washed my hands and pulled some towels to wipe down the washer. I was drying my hands when I noticed a door near the back to the place with an 'EMPLOYEES ONLY' sign was open and the light was on, with a young woman inside rustling around, obviously looking for something.  I couldn't help it.  I walked over.

Me:  "Hellooo...?"

Her (turning around):  "Oh... Hi there, good morning!  Can I help you with something?"

Me:  "Good Morning! No I'm fine, I was just wondering if you work here?"

Her:  "Yes, this morning I'm checking on some of the machines to make sure the repairs we've had done are still good."

Me:  "Well, that's cool.  I just want you to know that I really enjoy using this facility... you keep it really clean and bright, everything works well, and I know that everyone here also appreciates your efforts on our behalf."

Her (with a beaming smile):  "THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!  It really makes me happy to hear you say that!  My parents own this laundromat, have owned it for almost 25 years, and I'm helping them to keep it going.  They'll love hearing that you took the time to let me know how much you like their shop, as it's one of only two coin-ops in Mission Viejo. The other ones have all closed."

Me:  'Well, I have a history with laundromats, and even though I only use this one occasionally, I know the regulars notice your hard work.  It makes a huge difference for so many folks who need a great place like this."

Her (with an even bigger smile):  "You are very, very welcome. It makes me proud to be in this business, and I know my parents feel the same way.  I hope you'll keep coming back for a long time!"

With that, we parted ways, her to the back of the back of the shop, me to the bench outside to wait for the dryer to finish.  I sipped my coffee and thought about all the people who need a really good laundromat for so many reasons, and are lucky to have Launderland in their neighborhood.  Once they were done, I snagged the sleeping bags, collected my stuff and headed home.

Camping out with the Awesome Grandson during his visit was spectacular, complete with a tent in the yard and fire pit and S'mores and some real guy talk each night.  And the sleeping bags were fresh and clean, thanks to Launderland.

ROAD LAUNDRY

Although I've been off the road since 2006, I traveled extensively for my various employers from 1992 to 2004, with several stretches in there when I traveled three weeks out of four from February to November.  It eventually began to take a serious toll on my home life and relationship, but thankfully a period of forced unemployment and a career change took me off the road and into a non-traveling job.

However, I really enjoyed the travel experience, which allowed me to visit many places around the country and offshore that I'd have never otherwise had the chance to see and appreciate.  Natch, one gets used to the 'hotel room shuffle' after a while and learns how to pack light and make the best of each stop along the way.  This includes doing the laundry, especially when a job involved more than a few days in one place or another.

Yes, I always traveled with a mini-iron and a can of spray starch. Deal with it.

I hated having my laundry done at the larger hotels, even though my employers would usually cough up the reimbursement for the insane prices the hotels normally charge.  I mean, COME ON... $8 to wash a pair of socks?!  That just ain't right, no matter how you look at it. Therefore, me being me, if I had the time in-between flights, I would always search off the hotel grounds for a local coin-op laundromat to wash my manga onesie and bondage gear.

The best part of using a local laundromat while traveling is getting the chance to see the neighborhood and meet the people who live there.  Unless the coin-op is at or near a tourist attraction, it's a sure bet the only folks you'll run into while doing laundry will be locals without an in-home machine, at least based on my experiences.

Along with a walking tour of an area that I'd landed in, there's nothing like using a neighborhood laundromat to get a real feel for your location.  Doesn't matter what part of the country I'd be in, some of the best people I've met were also washing their duds, just like me.  College students... retired couples... other business travelers... young singles... harried Moms with kids in tow... older single men... the laundromat population is pretty consistent.

Owing to the fact that I am DEFINITELY from Southern California, it was surprising to hear so many people I'd met in coin-ops say "We don't usually see out-of-towners in here, how come you don't just have the hotel wash yer clothes?"  After a while, I just decided to tell people that I liked doing my own laundry without mentioning my 'meeting the natives' spin, which can rub some folks the wrong way.

I recall one week spent in Greenville, South Carolina during a BMWCCA event that I was working, long days at the race track or inside a convention center, so the after-hours were a great time to bug out and see the sights.  Walking in Downtown Greenville was amazing, where they had begun the process of uncovering the original colony's cobblestone streets, removing centuries of progress to reveal the town's beginnings.  I had to ask the hotel concierge directions to a coin-op I'd found in the phone book (this was back in 2000, eons before wi-fi and smart phones), which landed me in what appeared to be a pretty hardscrabble neighborhood only a mile or so from the hotel.

I parked out back of the low brick building and walked in to see a very bare-bones laundromat with concrete floors, bare fluorescent lights, folding chairs and tables... you get the picture.  The machines were old but everything was working, so I started my loads and just sat outside to enjoy the strange 'hood fresh air. Sure enough, several locals drove up to use the place, walked by and said hello, started their washers and then came back outside to see who this obvious stranger was, hanging around their laundromat.

Not only did I have a splendid time chatting with some of the locals, I convinced a few to check out the track day activities at Road Atlanta to watch the drivers thrashing their hot BMW's.  I also learned the coin-op was in the same building as a historic diner that was almost 100 years old, which explained the rough appearance of the laundromat!  I stopped into the diner, which was PACKED, sat at the counter and had an egg salad sandwich, talking and joking around with others at the counter and the staff, and generally had a truly fun afternoon.  All because I wanted to do my laundry.

On the flip-side, spending twelve days working at the World Finals of PWC racing in Lake Havasu City (AZ), would leave me a frazzled mess, so driving off-site to the local coin-op/convenience store/gas station was the only way to decompress from the 18-hour event days and the pressurized environment of  operations, racer baby-sitting and endless event logistical headaches.

CODA

I had some misgivings about sharing these weirdo laundromat stories, because I'm not sure any normal or sane person thinks about these things.  However, I decided to go ahead and post because they were all in my skull and have been rotating and spinning around in there for a damned long time, just like a giant clothes dryer with many quarters inserted.  To paraphrase a not-famous quote by singer/songwriter Joe Jackson, "This essay represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of going to the laundromat. Deep in my heart, I knew it was doomed to failure. The questions remains:  why did I try?"



Lead image, gracias de benofsky.com; Frank Zappa 'Road Ladies' video, muchismas gracias de youtube.com. Don't over-soap!!!!!

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