Lessons from the Laundromat

Some of life’s greatest lessons can be learned in a laundromat. You may think I’m exaggerating, but  after spending an afternoon watching my 91 year-old mother wash clothes my view of life has changed. For my mother, the laundromat on Moreland Avenue not only cleans her clothes, but serves as the hub of her social life.

When most of us hear the word ‘laundromat’, it conjures up images of a hot, steamy storefront filled with rows of washing machines and dryers waiting to swallow quarters and detergent, a forgettable place we pass on the way to somewhere else. But, for others, the laundromat becomes a place of cleansing and renewal, where the week’s dirt and grime arrive in pillowcases and are literally washed down the drain in a process to make clothes ready for the next week’s challenges.

The laundromat is also a place where customers must follow a protocol. For instance, my mother always asks if the hot water has been turned on that day and which machines are working. Failure to ask those questions may result in loading a machine, adding detergent and quarters, only to discover that the machine is out of order, or the Korean owner, hoping to cut down her expenses, has not turned on the hot water.  The life lesson in this is to always ask first, never assume the obvious because your obvious may not be someone else’s obvious.

That fact was illustrated recently in a rather humorous narration of a Brazilian woman who upon arriving at the Atlanta airport asked the taxi driver to take her to a place where she could wash clothes before meeting up with a family she hadn’t seen in years. According to the narrator, this woman spoke little English and  was accustomed to washing her clothes by hand using stream water. The concept of washing machines with coin slots was as alien as flying to the moon.

An attendant directed the woman to the closest machine and told to put her clothes “in the machine”;  she looked perplexed so the attendant opened the door and showed her how to load the machine and then add detergent. The woman dutifully closed the door and waited for her machine to start. When nothing happened, she began to hit the machine. The attendant then explained that in order to make the machine wash she needed to put eight quarters “in the machine”.  Looking perplexed, she pulled out eight quarters, opened the machine door and threw them “in the machine”.  I’ll end the story here and let you ponder the linguistic challenges of English prepositions for non-native English speakers.

One final lesson has several lesson ‘prongs’.  For some the lesson might be in counting; for others the lesson is in accounting.

My mother has been going to the laundromat for at least fifteen years and has developed a relationship with a particular row of machines. For instance, she adores machines 2 -5, but refuses to wash in machines 6-8. Machines 9 and 10 are ok, but only if 2 and 3 are not working. Apparently, the water does not get as hot in higher numbered machines. And machines above 11 might as well be on the moon. She refuses to wash on that side of the laundromat because “the machines tear up the clothes”. Go figure.  

In fact, when the owner recently replaced machines 1-10 my mother refused to go to the laundromat. I, her dutiful daughter, transported her laundry 27 miles to sort, wash, dry, fold, and then deliver. My friend, Mary, says I’m going to straight to heaven with my shoes on!

The accounting issue came into play after the machines were installed and someone realized that, because the new machines are digital they require special wiring and connections.  When the owner refused to pay  $200 per machine to replace the old wiring, the shiny, digital, state-of-the-art machines sat in limbo several weeks. Refusing to budge, the electrician remained firm with his $200 price. The owner was equally stubborn and refused to pay so the machines became mired in a weird type of accounting standoff while the owner shopped around for a cheaper electrician. Those of us on the sidelines pondered the cost of lost business and tried to calculate in lost quarters the amount of revenue. At 8 quarters per load times 10 machines per hour, times 12 hours per day . . . the number became astronomical. Happily, the owner came to her senses, the electrician installed the wiring, and no one has dared mention the price of the owner’s intransigence.

My mother has resumed washing at the laundromat, although somewhat suspect of machines with digital displays instead buttons to push. But that is another lesson.



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