Lessons from the Laundromat

San Rafael

Our San Rafael home

During the month we lived in California, we stayed in a basement apartment in the affluent part of San Rafael. The home stood behind a locked gate. Our apartment behind a locked door. The washer and dryer locked behind a second basement door, not available for our usage. A family lived in the house and a woman rented the carriage house over the three car garage. Periodically we ran into someone while coming or going. We’d wave and occasionally stopped to chat for 30 seconds, rarely longer.

I know this life well. In Colorado, Pat and I lived in our own gated community with people I saw daily, exchanged greetings with, but never anything more. In 13 years, I never visited another home in my neighborhood, and my neighbors never visited mine. It was that standoffishness created when careers and children dominate each day. Time, I’m sure, was my convenient excuse.

During our month in California, I washed and dried our clothing, sheets, and towels at the local Laundromat. Unlike life in Bratislava, where our miniscule washer and non-existent drier required near constant attention, an hour later, I left with everything clean, dry, and folded. I liked this attention to task and never minded the Laundromat.

I met the other side of San Rafael–the elderly, black, and Hispanic—the working poor. The last time I mingled with the Laundromat crowd, I was in my early 20s and in college. Even starting out in a shoddy flat just outside the city limits of Detroit, Pat and I owned a washer and dryer.

Here at the San Rafael Laundry Bag, I sat on one of the plastic chairs connected into a string of four and watched the 30-year-old Hispanic men dutifully wash and dry mountains of clothing while playing with their young children. This countered the assertion of a Mexican woman in an ESL class I taught in Denver that Hispanic men are macho and not engaged in home chores or child care. All I can say is, I never saw a Hispanic woman at the Laundry Bag.

I watched the elderly—retired poor, I imagined, wash meager bundles of dirty clothes. And I watched black women who generally came alone.

The last time I went to the Laundry Bag, a group of three people: a middle aged man from Peru (who I overheard say he had been living in San Rafael for twenty years and still worked at the Whole Foods), a black woman of my own age, and an elderly white man came together in a circle, hugged and kissed each other, and then each said, “I love you” before leaving with their plastic baskets filled with folded clothes. “See you next week. I hope you have a good one.”

And it struck me. I never find a story in the United States because here, I hang with my crowd. We are alike in our economics. Our homes are vaguely the same. We frequent the same restaurants. When I venture into the unknown of my familiar surroundings, I find a story. Like in the Laundromat.

Categories: The United States

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13 replies

  1. Julie. This post is why I love you. I love you. Hope you have a good one.

  2. Hi Julie,
    If your book turns out to be only half as good and readable as your blog you will have a best seller on your hands. I suppose this is an example of ‘life beginning to grow too large’ that we sometimes miss the gentler, more personal moments it can show us and the insights into other lives we miss, or dismiss, so easily.
    Keep looking in the ‘less usually accessed’ places for more such stories, I like them.

  3. We miss our dryer as well, but have mastered the use of the clothes drying rack.
    We have yet to stumble upon a laundromat here in this little city in Poland but we are sure there must be one. (We’ll ask our good friend Jacek; he’ll know.)
    Most of the years when I was growing up we had no dryer and my mother and grandmother would do laundry for all 12 of us. She dried it on a clotheslines in the backyard or in the basement. My dad would sometimes take the clothes to a laundromat where he did the book-keeping, so he helped out as well. I had completely forgotten those little details of my life.
    Thank you again for another memory provoking post.

    • Hi Dan… Pat and I got used to always having clothes drying in the apartment! And next year, we will have it again. I kind of liked it. Yet visiting the laundromat had some advantages (the locals being amongst them).

      • Great post! There is an entire America that no one ever talks about, writes about. It is the America I live in, or perhaps, on the edge of. Many are surprised how little difference things such as race or culture matter when everyone has the same struggle to cope with life, generally. The similarities are much greater than any differences.

      • I so agree with you, Robert. Thank you for this comment!

  4. This is a great advice for story-seeking writers. I’ll have to share it with my students!

  5. So have enjoyed reading your travel memories. What is it about laundromats and the memories we attach to them? I remember losing almost half of my wardrobe to over javexed countertops in Bayeux…eating some exquisite cicchetti surveying the drying cycle from the terrasse of the bar next door in the Cinque Terre…the very kind Scot lassie, whilst I was off sampling whiskies, who hung outside all my unmentionables in Dufftown..this mundane, and sometimes pesky chore, is a way to intersect with the locals like none other!

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