Everything I needed to know, I learned at the local laundry mat. Coin laundries are often stark, undecorated places and through the years I’ve put more hours and quarters in them than I’d care to calculate. You see quite a slice of society in your local laundry business and since I spent most of college and a good chunk of our early marriage using them, I thought I’d crack the dryer door open at all that laundry mats have taught me about mankind and myself over the years.
Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is their own little kind of crazy. Some more than a little. The sooner you embrace yours and other’s inner wonkiness, the better. I frequently tell people that it’s the ones who don’t know they are crazy that you worry about.
Here are the most intriguing folks I’ve observed, while waiting for my skivvies to be laundered and tumbled:
These creatures lie in wait but make no effort to conceal. They are a fidgety, nervous bunch who tend to sweat a lot. They are always prepared with quarters and laundry detergent pre-dosed just waiting for an open machine. If you are not standing there with hand outstretched when the “bing,” informs you that the load has completed its last centrifugal swoop, they are onto you like cheese on macaroni.
If a Hoverer was to be divorced, their ex would be one of these guys. They have a “leave it and forget it,” policy. They may come in one morning, start 12 loads and return the next day wondering if maybe they had left a few socks lying around because they were short a couple. They show no realization, remorse or even awareness of what their la-zay-laundry attitudes have done to the other 20 or so patrons who wanted to use the machines in their absence.
These are by far my favorite to observe in the wild. Usually, but not always, they are of the male species. They are the creators of the equivalent of the clown car of Maytag. As they pull clothes out of the washer to place in the dryer—more and more just keep coming. And coming. Until every last inch is consumed and the poor socks are left gasping for air. I have to fight the urge to walk up, gently tap them on the shoulder and whisper oh, so kindly, “You know those are going to take three hours to dry, right? And at least 30 quarters?” But I don’t. Somehow the universe keeps on spinning without my input, so I let Mr. Laundry-mat Joe learn his lesson the S-L-O-W and pricey way.
But honestly, one of the greatest and most humbling lessons occurred at our last apartment complex when I was dragging seven loads of laundry to and fro across the frozen parking lot, grumbling all the way. Our ghetto apartment had no laundry hook-ups and two adults plus four small, messy children equals mucho laundrey-o.
I really tried most days to see the bright side and be grateful that we had a home, a job and a beautiful (yet loud-ish) brood of children, but sometimes the Oxy-Clean got under my skin and I would heave the bags with absolutely no spring in my step. Not an inch.
So, one particularly snowy, bitterly cold winter day in Iowa, I was doing the weekly hoisting of bags to the coin laundry and saw a man standing with his back to the door just inside, emptying his clothes from the washer.
As I unlocked the door, I had the words in my head prepped, sliced and ready to deliver some quippy comment about how, “Wasn’t this such a pain? And could you imagine anything worse than having to carry all this laundry all this way…” But as the greeting portion came out and he turned to reply, I caught something in his voice, his eyes and maybe a smidgen of his soul in his hello.
It wasn’t just his accent, which was obviously from another continent, but something about him made my complaint void and adolescent. I speculated he had experienced more arduous tasks than moving a closet full of clothes cleaned by one electrical machine into another electrical machine that only asked for 75 cents in return.
I also assumed that he had observed more pain and treachery in his lifetime worth more sympathy than watching a perfectly healthy woman carrying two loads of clothes in polyester hampers with machine-woven handles. He only said one word to me. But that “hello” was more helpful than a tap on the shoulder—it changed me.
I became more aware of and grateful for the common luxuries in life that we tend to grumble about: “I can’t find my keys to my $20,000 car!” or “My blender broke right in the middle of making smoothies!” Inconveniences, yes. Troubles? Not so much.
The United Nation’s Refugee Agency currently estimates there are over 14 million refugees on our little blue and green sphere orbiting the sun. And each of these people are just that—people. People who have needs, wants, dreams and who used have a whole lot more of them than what they currently have.
I get that there are political, cultural and security issues that are tangled, complicated and wearying. I completely understand that boundaries, currencies, payment and logistics all weigh into an intricate balance of needs versus ability to give. Thankfully, I am not a policy maker nor one who has millions to give to the poor. I barely have a stiff $20.
However, all I have, am, or will be I am willing to give. All I have been given has been unearned. All my gifts are to be given freely without prejudice or feelings of ownership. And if that is to someone who looks, worships or speaks differently—it does not matter—I will give. I will welcome. I will befriend.
I’m not saying we need to feel guilty for having running water or live in a tent so we can donate all our rupees to the poor. I just think we can do both: have stuff and give stuff and it all starts with being grateful and giving what we can.
Now that I have a washer and dryer in my own home, I hope I never grow complacent in my gratitude for it. I hope I remember the laundry mat days, all the crazy people and the kind conscious tap on the shoulder from the immigrant who kindly taught me, “Be grateful. Be grateful.”