The signs are everywhere. When I step out of the shower, I dry myself off with a pilly beach towel that I bought from the Echo Park Dollar General three years ago (it has the characters from Dragon Tales printed on it). My pillowcase smells like drool—on both sides. My only viable wardrobe options are an oversize flannel shirt with two buttons missing, a pair of too-ripped jeans, and one fuzzy sock with a llama printed on it.
I can’t deny it any longer. It’s laundry day.
For the first time in my life, I live in an apartment without a washer and dryer either in-unit or in the building. My apartment is perfect otherwise: hardwood floors, lots of natural light, gigantic kitchen. Plus, there’s a laundromat right around the corner. The only problem is, I absolutely dread going there. I put off doing my laundry until the last possible second every other week.
At first, I thought the issue was simply laziness. But after about the fifth time I dropped my underwear on the floor of the laundromat as I scrambled to move my clothes into the washer, I realized that the real reason I avoid the place as much as hygienically possible is that it makes me feel too exposed, too vulnerable.
There’s an unspoken power dynamic abuzz in the laundromat, and I am obviously at the very bottom of the food chain. I have yet to master the art of taking up an appropriate amount of space on the folding table. I am either too passive, settling for a corner of a table that a beefy dude is wrestling gigantic king-size sheets onto, or I’m too aggressive, claiming an entire table with clearly not enough laundry to justify my requisition. And then there are the seasoned laundry experts—women who can fold a T-shirt with crisp lines in under three seconds, who carry their soiled clothes and linens in a sturdy metal cart instead of a cumbersome plastic basket that digs into hips and makes wrists ache. (I wouldn’t even know where to purchase this kind of wheeled contraption!) I have so much to learn from these women.
By the time I’m on my second cycle in the dryer, I’m usually feeling pretty bad about myself. As always, I try to calculate how much of my paycheck I’d need to set aside to drop off my laundry twice a month instead; as always, I come to the conclusion that I definitely can't afford it.
But then something will happen that drastically changes my outlook. An old man will pick up a clean sock that has fallen to the ground and hand it to me with a warm smile. I’ll meet the eyes of the teenage girl working the front register as we both sing along to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” on the radio. A small child will choose me as her coconspirator in a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek with her sister, and I’ll let her hide behind my laundry basket.
That’s when I’ll realize that the laundromat, even though it's an anxiety-producing nightmare, is also a site of common humanity. It hosts parents trying to teach their tweens about responsibility and the correct detergent-to-water ratio. Couples kissing and joking as they move armfuls of damp clothes into heavy-duty dryers. Twenty-somethings working on screenplays while they wait for their machines to signal the end of the wash cycle. We’re all just doing our best, cleaning our stuff together.