by Richard Risemberg (August, 2012)
In one of our first issues, if not our first, we published a whimsical little story called Sorting Out Laundromat Etiquette. I was musing on this today as I lingered in the laundromat myself—not, of course, the one in that story, which is three thousand miles away in Boston, but the one I use in my own Miracle Mile neighborhood, a few blocks from home. It's not a "significant" laundromat in either an architectural or a commercial sense, and it's not particularly well-cared-for (at least not since a change in ownership a few years back), but it does possess the very significant advantage, if only to me, of being within walking distance of my apartment.
There are, believe it or not, laundromats in Los Angeles that strive to be destinations as well. I've seen laundromats that house food kiosks, usually of fast-food brands, and children's play areas, and that offer WiFi. In fact, the little, almost anonymous laundromat I go to offers WiFi. I have tried it a couple of times, but over the years I've realized that I don't really need a distraction there. The ebb and flow of people inside, and weather and traffic outside, provide all the distraction I may need. Even better: I have used the time I have to spend there anyway to learn to live in my own skin wherever I am, without crying for entertainment. This is a great boon.
The place is pathetically generic: white walls, white ceiling, scuffed linoleum floor, glaring fluorescent lamps, poorly hung doors concealing mysterious closets, a taciturn owner who ambles in once in a while to fix a machine or collect the quarters. The washers range from little machines such as you'd find in a house to shining giants that could serve an army barracks, while the dryers, curiously, are all the same size and all identical, though they purport to be of three different brands. There's a dry cleaner attached, which claims to be "entirely separate" from the laundromat, though it has not one but two doors connecting directly to it, and its employees use certain reserved machines for free. Next door to that is a friendly Chinese restaurant, and there's a small market a block away where I pick up a bag of spinach or the like now and then. (And, I must confess, the doughnut shop in the other direction does not go unvisited by me....) Traffic in front, on Third Street, is busy and often loud and highly diverse, with everything from bicycles to dual-trailer gravel trucks passing constantly. But the back door looks past the little parking lot to a quiet residential neighborhood comprising (mostly) handsome two-story apartment buildings dating from the 'thirties and 'forties. (There are a couple of ugly 'sixties-style blockhouse complexes in mid-block.) I'm not the only one to walk there, though certainly I walk the farthest, pulling my basket in a little folding dolly. I could use the bike trailer, but the trip isn't long enough to justify unfolding it, and the walk is always pleasant.
The clientele is pretty diverse as well: all ages, from infants and little kids with their moms to watery-eyed ancients, though most are in the 20-to-60 range, and many are shockingly handsome. (This is Los Angeles, after all.) The neighborhood is very roughly 30% Black, 30% Asian, 30% White, with the rest Hispanic, and while homeless folk do show up to wash their rags—and why shouldn't they?—most of my fellow launderers are clean, articulate, and nicely dressed. Sometimes we sit alone with our thoughts (or our iPods, truth be told), or read books and magazines, or avail ourselves of the WiFi, but often enough a chance remark on the weather or a bit of news leads to a conversation, which so far has always been pleasing. And I have been going to this particular laundromat for many years now.
It becomes, then, one of the odder variant of the "Third Place" category, along with bars, coffeehouses, public squares, and so on: places where people gather in convivial anonymity which they can choose to break, by mutual agreement, if the silent semiotics of urban life indicate that contact might not be rebuffed.
I wrote about this on the Sustainable City News blog recently, having had it particularly on my mind then since an occasional fellow launderer had been there who, after loading his washer, whiles away the time outside, on noisy Third Street, practicing (quite competently) bluegrass violin. He arrives by bicycle, as well, providing what is perhaps a quintessential if unexpected Urban Moment. I used to live in a classic brick apartment building across the street from my present address, and this building had a set of washers and dryers in the basement. Very convenient (though not any cheaper, I must add), and nice in that sometimes a laundromatophobic friend of mine would bring her laundry over, and we'd chat while washing. And I've lived in houses where I had a washer and dryer of my own. But that too presented some inconveniences: as often mentioned on internet home laundry forums (you knew there would have to be some, didn't you?), when you go to the laundromat, you can do all your laundry at once and get it over with for a while. And while it costs more per load, you don't need to buy a washer and dryer of your own, which changes the economics of the matter considerably.
And laundromats are a bit less wasteful, at least on the washing side. The process of counting one's hard-earned quarters and irreplaceable hours leads one to ensure that one's machines are full, making best use of the water and power consumed.
Back to my local laundromat and its row of orange plastic chairs: in my years of doing our laundry there, I have found that a sweet breeze blows through in every season, at least when the front door's propped open. It the scents of flowers from apartment gardens in the spring and summer, the odors of the nearby desert hills in fall, and the sweet perfume of rain in winter. I have found that the ebb and flow of neighbors reveals patterns of their weekly lives, and marches promenades of shapes and faces past me as I wait out rinses, spins, and tumble-dries. I have found that it is good to talk with strangers when they want to talk, and that it is good to be in silent company of fellow beings engaged in common tasks when they are not. And I have learned the patience to enjoy the company of my solitary self without suffering the fretful desperation for distraction that drives so many of us live with our cellphones and little white music boxes eternally jammed into our ears. This input all too often distracts us not only from the chore of laundry but from our lives themselves.
So, I find myself finding myself in the laundromat. The laundromat, like its prettier and much more popular cousin the coffeehouse, lets you relax, let down your guard, and open your senses to convivial if often silent closeness with the real social and physical world you actually live in, as an organism, not a consumer.
All that, and clean clothes too!