Lessons from the Laundromat: Follow Protocol

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  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 my mother, the laundromat offers a lifeline to the outside world. It has become more than just 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. To her, the laundromat is the hub of neighborhood activity providing a buffet of local gossip, news, amusement, and annoyances.

To enjoy this buffet of social delicacies, one must understand that the laundromat is also a place where customers need to follow a protocol. For instance, my mother always asks if the hot water has been turned on that day and which machines are working. While on the surface, this may seem silly, 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 when the man in charge of making change for the machines offered an unsolicited narration of a woman who, upon arriving at the Atlanta airport from the rain forest of Brazil, asked the taxi driver to take her to a place where she could wash clothes. Apparently, the woman spoke little English and  had never been in a laundromat. The concept of washing machines with coin slots was as alien to her as spearing fish is to us.

The woman asked instructions and was directed to the closest machine and told to put her clothes in the machine;  she looked perplexed so the attendant opened the door and threw the clothes in the machine , then added detergent for her. 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 also needed to put eight quarters in the machine.  Looking perplexed, she pulled out eight quarters, opened the machine door and put 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.


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