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
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
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
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
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
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