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The ritual of soap and quarters

DAVID SILVA

The Laundromat I go to sits in the elbow of an L-shaped strip mall a

couple of miles from my house in Burbank. It’s a fairly rundown

establishment. The panels on the ceiling are cracked and water

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stained. The tiles on the floor are mildewy and yellow from decades

of pine-scented disinfecting.

Most of the washers and dryers have seen happier times, though a

few are relatively new. Rather than scrapping the old machines all at

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once, the Laundromat’s owners appear to be replacing them through

attrition. A crotchety, ‘60s-era washer will finally gasp and give up

the ghost, and the next week a shiny new machine with LCD readouts

will be sitting in its place.

The old machines thump and chug. The new ones hum. The collective

sound effect goes like this: “Thuppa thuppa chug chug hmmmm thuppa

thuppa chug chug hmmmm.” I spend hours at a stretch in this place,

and walk away humming the tune to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” every

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time.

I do my laundry bachelor-style, meaning that as soon as I run out

of underwear, it’s time to wash my clothes. This generally goes in

10-day cycles, and I’ll often run out of unmentionables in the middle

of the week. I’m then left with three equally unpleasant options: do

my laundry in the middle of a workweek, break out the swim trunks

those last couple of days until Saturday or run out and buy more

underwear. Last week I did my laundry on a Sunday. I’ll leave the

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logistics of that to your imagination.

Apart from the irregular nature of when I actually do my laundry,

I have the rest of my laundry routine down to a science. I begin by

separating my clothes into three piles -- colors, whites and “who

cares?” “Who cares?” are towels, sheets, old rags, T-shirts I

wouldn’t be caught dead in public wearing -- anything for which

shrinkage or “pink"-age is not an issue.

The whites go into an old, drab-green laundry bag. The colors go

into a brown Rubbermaid laundry basket. And since I have only two

legitimate laundry containers, the “who cares?” are piled onto my

bedsheet, which I then fold into a kind of Santa’s sack of dirty

garments. Voila! A third laundry container! I pile everything into

the back of my Honda Civic and I’m off.

My behavior, once I’ve arrived at the Laundromat, is also a matter

of almost obsessive-compulsive routine. The first thing I do is stake

out a row of four contiguous washing machines and put my Santa’s sack

at one end of the row and my plastic bag of laundry detergent and

fabric softener at the other. With this act, I have proclaimed the

row of washers as my personal comfort zone for the next two hours.

Only after I have successfully occupied this zone am I truly happy.

On some days, the Laundromat is so crowded that I’m unable to find

four contiguous washers and have to grab whatever’s available

throughout the facility. My laundry spread out in a kind of wardrobe

diaspora, I’m nervous and unhappy for the duration of my visit.

Next, it’s time for the “ritual of soap and quarters.” Cupfuls of

detergent are carefully plopped into each machine and all the

quarters I have painstakingly laid aside the past week and a half

finally have their day. Up and down the row I go, loading quarters in

each machine like the good coin fairy. Then I carefully set the dials

on each machine -- hot for the whites, cold for the colors, whichever

for the “who cares?” -- and plunge the quarters into the machines in

four swift motions.

Timing is everything in the “ritual of soap and quarters.” If I

carelessly put my clothes into the machine before giving the

detergent a chance to dissolve, I wind up looking like a stucco

salesman all week. If I dawdle while plunging the quarters into the

machines, the machines fill up with water before I put my clothes in

and I’m up to my elbows in suds. Trust me. There’s a science to this.

Now I’ve got a good 30 minutes to kill in the most boring strip

mall in California.

I always bring a book with me, but it doesn’t help much. When it

comes to books, I like to block out long stretches of time when I can

relax and read in comfort and quiet. Only then can I really

appreciate my literature. But with “thuppa thuppa chug chug hmmm”

echoing in my ears and all my clothes out there in harm’s way as they

cycle down the road to springtime freshness, I find it impossible to

concentrate on the book:

Michel found the campsite occupied by tourists -- a German

bricklayer and his Austrian housekeep ...

What’s that sound? Is a load unbalanced? ... He saw that the

bricklayer’s lederhosen had gold piping ... Yeah, it sounds

unbalanced, I’d better check ... “Please, Michel, help yourself to

some strudel” ... Hey, that guy’s opening my washer!

After 10 minutes of this, I usually put the book down and just

people-watch until my clothes are ready.

Anyone who’s spent any real time in a Laundromat can tell you

there are really only three kinds of people you’ll see in one (well,

four, if you count people-watchers like me).

There’s the Party Liners -- those irritating individuals who go

through the entire laundry experience, from washing to drying to

folding to leaving, with their cell phones pressed against their

ears. There’s the Load Ditchers, who will rush in, dump their clothes

in a washer and rush out -- not to be seen again for another hour or

two.

But by far the most common people you’ll encounter in a Laundromat

are the Mother or Father Hubbards. These are the folks who can’t go

anywhere without four or five rambunctious children in tow. Bored out

their wee skulls, the kids chase each other up and down the aisle,

scream and cry for their mothers to buy them a Pepsi out of the

vending machine -- anything to break up the monotony of watching

washers vibrate and dryers spin.

On one occasion, a dirty-faced boy who had to be all of 4 actually

scaled right up my side, grabbed me by the collar with his

chocolate-coated hands and asked me my name.

“Well it ain’t Jungle Jim, kid, get off of me.”

My clothes at last done in the washer, it’s time to find an

available dryer. Here is where all my efforts to maximize my laundry

efficiency are undone. That’s because the Laundromat I go to has

about the same washer-versus-dryer ratio as men’s-versus-women’s

restrooms at a baseball stadium. Seriously, I counted. The facility

has exactly 64 washers, 19 of them the 55-pound-load variety, and all

of 30 dryers.

The result is a lot of Mother Hubbards, Party Liners and People

Watchers lined up with their dripping clothes, cursing the Load

Ditchers under their breaths. As anxious as I am to get out of there,

I’ll usually let an older woman cut ahead of me once if she seems

desperate enough. Once. Twice, and I tell her she has to arm-wrestle

me for it.

Eventually I get my clothes dried and it’s on to the folding

tables. At this juncture in my wash-day experience, I’m in no mood

for nonsense. If I detect so much as a hint of fuss or bother over

finding a place at the table, I’ll pack it up and promise myself I’ll

fold my clothes when I get home. Thus ensuring 10 days’ worth of

T-shirts and pants that look like I slept in them.

But at least my laundry’s done, and I don’t need to tell you

that’s one of life’s better feelings. I drive off toward home,

happily humming the tune to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” all the way.

* DAVID SILVA is a Burbank resident and Times Community News

editor. Reach him at (909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at

david.silva@latimes.com.


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