This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes

Tony Nelson

The dryers at the Vend-a-Wash on Chicago and Lake go round and round, like hands on a clock measuring enormous amounts of time. People stare dazedly at the bank of stainless steel circles, as if expecting something to happen. In fact, they're hoping for something to stop happening. We are trapped here, all of us, by society's expectation that we walk the streets free of spaghetti drippings and pit stains.

The Vend-a-Wash is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation. Even in the dead of night, if you creep past in your car, you'll spy people folding their slacks and underwear, illuminated by cold, refrigerator lighting. A large staff, all in red T-shirts, busily scoots about with mops and rags, wiping up soap and soda spills, trying to maintain order. Getting clean is dirty business, as anybody who's ever dumped a box of powder detergent can attest. Or maybe it's messiness born of waiting.

A pack of tiny Mexican kids sloshes toward the front door, their arms hanging limply inside rolling laundry carts. Momentum and, I would assume, the desire to escape, draws them to the exit. Soon, the tangle of carts is so thick it's impassable. An older employee with tidy white hair and a stern face--the poster on the wall identifies her as Mickie--comes by and breaks up the jam, pulling carts back to the middle of the room.

The kids look up at her, stung. They don't know what to do. A boy bolts toward the candy machine and throws himself against its window. Mickie is unimpressed. "Stop running, please, thank you," she commands in a staccato monotone. The boy begins singing loudly, "One, two, three, four, five" and so on, counting the items in the machine to an unfamiliar melody.

He's got stiff competition from the whirring washers, the occasional jackpot from the change machine, and Jennifer Lopez's "Love Don't Cost a Thing," banging from a jukebox that features both the best of George Thorogood and Baladas, lo mejor de lo mejor. Around me, people are snapping, folding, and stuffing clothes into all manner of sack. A Latina woman with long, frizzy hair and extremely tight jeans repeatedly opens a dryer to test whether her clothes are done. She rustles a couple of black garbage bags in her hands. Her two girls, wearing identical yellow dresses, beg for quarters.

As one would expect of a place where people are routinely held against their wills for up to three hours at a time, there are many slots in which to place a quarter. There's the soda machine, the coffee machine, the candy machine, the popcorn machine, the jukebox, and a computerized puzzle machine called the Megatouch Force 2002.

And then there is the clown. I want to kill this stubby clown, perched on a swing, smiling behind plastic, spontaneously begging, "Please talk to me!" His name, according to the writing on his cage, is Ziggy and, as advertised, he "talks to you!" Kids are magnetically, manically drawn to Ziggy, and when they put in their quarters, they receive molded butterflies and dogs that end up in Mickie's territory on the floor. What does Ziggy the talking clown have to say while coughing up these trinkets? "Thank you! Please come see me again!" And then you give him another quarter so he'll repeat the line. It's like the snake eating its tail.

A young white guy in camo pants sits deadeyed on a folding table, swinging his legs. A woman wearing African scarves crumples a piece of paper. A tall, heavy black man places his hands on a dryer window and leans in. He stares expectantly through the glass, watching several pairs of tennis shoes rumble around inside. He wants them to dry, but due to some mysterious glitch in the physics of evaporation, they won't. A girl throws a plastic rocket against a wall. Her mother, wearing a heavy blue tracksuit, watches it land next to a set of steam irons that heat to 325 degrees. She doesn't make a move. Again, someone has activated the evil clown. "I've got a surprise for you!" it teases in a tyrannical little voice.

As I fold my laundry, I glance at the pile belonging to a triangle-shaped Mexican woman. I know as well as anybody that you're not supposed to look. But one of the few, guilty pleasures of the laundromat is getting to see people's underthings. Her clothing is all velour, I notice. Velour pants, velour tops, velour lingerie. Even velour socks. I glance at her high-heeled flip-flops and then at a miniskirt that's slit practically up to her waist.

Our eyes meet and she smiles as if to say, My life is a million times more sensual than yours. And I think, Well, hell, she's probably right. The woman shoves her fuzzy duds into a laundry bag and departs. Next goes the camo guy and the woman with the tight jeans.

When, finally, it's my turn, I feel as gleeful as a parolee. It's a tremendous relief that matters not one bit to the revolving cast of characters at the Vend-a-Wash. Nothing has changed or will change. An American Indian woman paces wildly, waving her tattooed arms in the air. "I lost my cigs," she says. "Has anybody seen my cigs?"

The dryers at the Vend-a-Wash on Chicago and Lake go round and round.

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