Lessons from the laundromat

Shakira Sison
'The laundromat was my first petri dish of American cultural anthropology'

SHAKIRA SISONWhen I moved to New York, one of my favorites was going to the laundromat. 

Being unemployed, I had a lot of time so I spent late mornings or early afternoons waiting for my wash. I’d sit on a bench to the backdrop of Spanish-speaking women or the screaming in The Jerry Springer Show.

I sat shocked that a daytime TV show would feature confrontations between cheating husbands, their wives and their mistresses, the resulting verbal assault and hair-pulling matches, and I thought, “Wow, this is not like Friends at all!”

I spent hours watching the wash, trying to identify my various clothing items as they got tossed around in suds. One by one, they would take turns grazing the bubbled window. I was a skeptical spectator, certain that the machine’s flawless rhythm couldn’t possibly be doing a satisfactory job.

I was suspicious of this contraption that claimed to replace a major chore, in the same way I was suspicious that my days in my new country were beginning to replace everything I knew.

A cultural petri dish

I spent the time texting my friends in the Philippines about how much laundry loads cost or how I thought my cheap haircut was still expensive at US$21.

I watched people and paid attention to their clothes and their mannerisms, what kind of detergent they used and how many clothing items they washed. Did they speak to each other in the laundromat the way lovers met in movies? Did they read books or drink coffee while sitting in the strong odors of Downy evaporating from the vents of the hot dryers?

I wanted to know what company I kept doing the laundry in the middle of the day, when I rolled my heavy cart on the bumpy sidewalk and hauled it up and down three flights of stairs.

The laundromat was my first petri dish of American cultural anthropology. When my partner came home from work, I beamed at my accomplishment and told her stories of these strangers who washed their clotheson Tuesday mornings. It was the high point of my day.

I was told I didn’t have to do laundry as often as I did, but I became obsessed with it. Even if it took many hours of sitting around, I found it fascinating.

I was amazed at how at the start of the chore I’d have weeks worth of soiled garments, but at the end of a movie’s duration, everything would be clean, fragrant, and ready to be folded and stored. It seemed miraculous and instant, in that I could dirty myself and roll in mud, dump my clothes in the wash and amazingly have everything good as new in less than two hours without even getting my hands wet. My old laundry routine took at least two days. 

LAUNDRY. In the US, the speed and efficiency of laundry coincided with the constant need to keep up with routine. Illustration by Robx Bautista

The old wash

In Manila I lived alone and had one of those manual washing machines connected to a garden hose that created a soapy flood when it drained on the floor. After the wash one had to transfer the wet and heavy clothes to the separate spinner that often made hard knocking sounds because of the weight. After spinning, one would hang the clothes to dry in the sun, a step that was ruined if it suddenly rained, or as in my case, if one didn’t have a backyard that the sun’s rays could reach. 

Hot dryers were expensive and unusual, I refused to send out for laundry, and I thought my technique sufficed.

My drying method consisted of arranging all the clothes items in hangers and then aiming the electric fan at them at full blast. It worked and the clothes dried, but many years later I was told by my partner that when we met in Manila, I smelled like a wet dog.

I was mortified and became thankful that I was far removed from that, and ensuring a perfect laundry experience now only required the correct combination of detergent and dryer sheets, and just enough initiative to dump a laundry bag’s contents into a machine. Plus coins. 

Of course, it was never as good as hand-washing the clothes. In college, my dorm mates mocked me because I didn’t know how to make the squeaky sudsy sound of correct laundering they produced when they washed their clothes. They did their laundry together like a team, sitting in a row of stools in the communal bathroom, dipping and and wringing clothes repeatedly in their lathery basins.

I knew what they were talking about. I heard our family labandera (laundrywoman) make those sounds while washing our clothes and sheets, squeezing and scrubbing through every inch of fabric, sometimes using a toothbrush on shirt collars, or a balled up plastic net against faded blue jeans. 

In private, I practiced making the squeaky sounds with my hands and the right amount of bar soap. I learned that making contact with every thread of one’s clothing was sort of a review of one’s day, a reenactment of the ketchup stain or the darkening of pant cuffs after a rainy day.

It kept me honest, and more appreciative of cleanliness because of the difficulty and amount of time it took to get clean.

Consequences of automation

In the US, the speed and efficiency of laundry coincided with the constant need to keep up with routine. Shirt collars were allowed to gray and their armpits stayed yellow until a decision was made for the entire garment to be replaced. One could spray a stain remover onto problem areas and pray for the random spinning to remove the discolored patches.

In Manila, all efforts were made to salvage a hard-earned piece of clothing. In the US, the more valuable currency was time.

Eventually I wore out the clothes I brought with me from the Philippines (or discovered that they were either out of style or the wrong fabric for its cut). Save for a couple of items I kept for sentimental value, none of the things I wear now have ever breathed Manila air or touched its well water.

I don’t remember the last time I labored over a stain on my shirt or washed anything with the expert squeaky sound.

This is because I got a job shortly after my laundry obsession and I stopped romanticizing laundry as a representation of instant gratification. It became a chore. Although I’m too busy to sit around for the whole duration of a washload, I still watch the machines spin my clothes around like a kind of cleanliness lottery.

Sometimes I miss the pause of renewal when my self-prescribed laundry routine forced me to spend a day for washing and another day waiting for garments to dry, one at a time by the physics of tropical heat and electric fan air. Pants dried from the hems upward in a way that said, I’m ready, it’s time to go. 

Now the mass accomplishment of a load says, all at once go, all at once do, don’t stop, don’t ever pause for a stain. Sure, I no longer smelled like a dog, but I found I now worked like one, thanks in part to the efficiency of my wash. – Rappler.com
 

Shakira Andrea Sison currently works in the financial industry while dabbling in several unrelated projects and interests. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison.

Illustrations by Robx Bautista link: http://thecreativedork.com

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