On Laundromats

A Monday washing, New York City, c.1900. Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection, Library of Congress.

The greatest social spaces in the great city of New York will soon be lost. Admittedly the subway stakes a good claim when the 2 train’s dispatcher calls the world to a halt between 14th and Chambers; we see the shackles of class, color, and commuter etiquette broken in a general display of grumbling discontent. “I’d whup his ass,” declaims one man of the individual he presumes to be the cause of the delay. It takes three minutes for the air conditioner to expire and thirty-seven minutes for the tracks to be cleared following an NYPD investigation, the trace of which is the acrid stain under everyone’s armpits. The train moves, the community ceases, and it becomes cold, very cold, and, by Atlantic, too cold. We reek. We must wash.

O come ye to the laundromat! Great leveler of this town. Here the people expiate the sins of stolen cigarettes and pink perfume kisses, streaming in off the street and feeding quarters to rows of machines. Denny is from Missouri, Carmen is from Colombia, Tobias is a Teuton, Faye is pure Seattle. The syncopated whir of washing drums a rhythm of unnecessary movement: a lean, a hover, a peer, a sit.

“Excuse me,” Tobias asks the woman swiping her phone, “have you got the wifi password?” Carmen swipes on. Toby was seventeen when he spent an exchange summer in Seville—over two decades ago now—but he oils the gears of his memory sufficiently to ask again, “¿Tiene el cod wifi?” She does. Where’s his Spanish from? Andalucia. When did she come here? Four years ago. When did he come here? Two years ago. They chat, not fluently, but sufficiently to improve each other’s day.

In some small corners in some great places the pure act of washing remains communal; bodily dirt is expungedalong with mental clutter. One thinks of the Russian banya, the Turkish hammam, the Japanese onsen. I’d recommend saving up a good scrub for when you are in Ekaterinburg, where every crack of the birch on your back must be marked with a cry. Thoroughly cleaned, you settle down before beer, vodka, pickles, and sandwiches to discuss whether pelmeni is best served with butter or sour cream.

Thoughts are as miasmic as sweat; they require the soap of conversation, verbal or otherwise, to clean. Our lives have been reduced like raspberry jam to the syrup of pure individualism: we broadcast images of ourselves to ourselves, narrate hashtag anecdotes of ourselves to ourselves, wash ourselves for ourselves and yet rarely share who we actually are. Indicative of our increased solipsism is the metamorphosis of the washing spaces—the bath and the shower were once supreme communal spaces, now they are utterly private. When we wash ourselves we listen to the radio or the water or our own twisting thoughts, yet there is little value in this moment of privacy, for it is negatively defined. The woman in the ad for bubble bath who settles into her tub to “get away from it all” seeks to relax because everything else is just so goddamn stressful.

While public bathing has fallen from favor, I am fortunate enough to live in New York City, where, along with the lucky majority, I can break the bubble of the self and wash my clothes in company. On Thursday I went to the laundromat. For fourteen days I had worked triple what I had slept, and my clothes overspilled the Ikea bag pushed to the back of my closet. At the laundromat the reusable Swedish blue was standard fare, but I have long yearned to upgrade to one of the Santa Claus sacks I see slung over the shoulders of true veterans. With the help of a few hefty shoves my laundry squeezed into the machine’s implacable drum and I sat down to watch the television suspended above the stacks.

“Folks we’re in for three seasons of weather,” announced the forecaster, “tomorrow we’re going to see sun, rain and snow. Unbelievable!”

Two seats to my right sat a fifty-year old Jamaican woman; she was waiting for her clothes to dry. Folding his clothes on a table in front of me stood an advertising exec with crisply cut glasses. Her eyes, his eyes and my eyes converged on the meteorological maps portending winter’s brief end and winter’s speedy return. “Can you believe it?” said the woman. “Can you believe it!” said the man. “Can you believe it?!” said I.

And so we came to chat about snow, wet snow, sleet, rain, Jamaica, cricket, Europe, university, and New York, and, despite the differences in our wash cycles, conversation tumbled on. When one left, another came, and our clothes spun round and round and words babbled comfortably with other words. I arrived with an amorphous mass of tense linens and sullied threads, but I left with clean, folded clothes.

New York is an odd city that hangs onto its outmoded belongings like an immature adolescent. But even here the era of the laundromat is coming to an end. Between 2005 and 2015 there was a 10% drop in the number of licensed laundromats in the city, a result, no doubt, of high rents and apartment upgrades. This decline is accelerating as a myriad of vowelphobic apps vie to land a decisive blow: Cleanly, trggir, Hangr Lane. We sink lower into our couches, we sink lower into ourselves as, along with food, sex, and drugs, we can now order laundry to our door.

Of course, New York is also the great city of irony, self-analysis, postmodernism. So, naturally, as the laundromat dies it can be appreciated again, but only as an affectation of times gone by. Or perhaps we’ve gone through irony and will seriously return to the laundromat. Either way the ironic spin quickly becomes dull. In Williamsburg a chic laundromat has just opened that offers Bushwickian blend coffee and draft Kombucha. It promises a return to social washing, only it’s not social, it’s an extortionate appropriation of a genuinely social experience repackaged in the pseudo-cultural wrapping of Instagram and clean graphics. For as soon as the laundromat becomes an “experience,” it loses the sort of functional banality that leads people to share in the washing act and, ironically, it loses its specialness.

The advent of the laundromat spelt the demise of the washing lines that once spanned the courtyards of New York’s tenement buildings. These beautiful lines of ghosted windows transferred messages, parcels and even beer bottles between residents. Monday was the designated washing day when the whole community would share in what was a miserable chore. So the laundromat was itself a social regression as much as a functional development. The city evolves. Life becomes easier and easier. We live increasingly alone.

Contributor

George Grylls

is an Englishman in New York. He studies Architecture at Columbia University.

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