There is a zen proverb: After enlightenment, the laundry.
I have a corollary: Buddha was never in a laundromat.
I understand (as theory) that the monastic humility that fuels a mindful life should be able to flourish inside a laundromat.
But having spent a considerable amount of time inside of one over the past few years, I’m going to tell you that the enlightenment conversion rate is higher in the Himalayas than it is at the local coin-op.
If you were looking in from the outside, you’d think I was wrong. People are shuffling around, eyes cast to the ground. It’s certainly ascetic – the laundromat I go to is made of cinderblocks painted the color of week-old snow. And silence? A roomful of Trappist monks is an episode of Glee compared to this.
The laundromat is not going to be filled with high fives and chest bumps. Hell, people don’t even greet each other or make eye contact. There is a sense of discomfort for which there is no exact word.
The laundry tribe feels excluded. By the act of needing the laundromat, we are declaring that we are not members of the gaping middle class. This self-judgment resonates, because as Gerald Howard recently wrote in Tin House, “…the whole concept of class came to be seen as almost a choice rather than a fate, as the powerful mechanisms of the meritocracy and the vastly expanded opportunities for higher education placed millions of Americans on the escalator of social mobility.”
In other words, we are in the laundromat because we wouldn’t step onto an escalator.
I’m sure that this would not be true of all laundromats. I’m sure that somewhere in Greenwich Village there’s a laundromat filled with philosophers, debutantes and transsexuals. I live in the heartland of the meritocracy, a highly educated suburb in the Midwest. People may be behind on the mortgage, but they are doing their laundry at home.
Take this couple, for example. One day, in the middle of this past summer, I was standing outside of the laundromat while my clothes were drying. (The only place hotter than outside a laundromat in July is inside a laundromat in July.)
A car pulled up and a young couple got out. They were displaying a giddiness that is rarely observed in our tribe. The woman walked up to me and asked when the laundromat closed.
I told her that as far I could tell the laundromat was 100% unstaffed and therefore never closed.
“Good. We just got married,” she informed me. “We’re leaving on our honeymoon tomorrow and we need to get our laundry done.” Her husband sidled up to her. It was clear that they were going to tell the crazy story of their laundromat visit to their friends when they returned.
I congratulated her. She asked me if she could buy detergent inside.
I told her that they had some in the machines, but maybe she should go to the store and buy a big bottle?
She froze me with her gaze. “We’re just here because we want to get the laundry done quickly. If I wanted a big bottle, I’d go home and get it in my own laundry room.”
I really think they’re going to be happy.
They are not us. We, the true laundromat tribe, are there because we have no options. Demographically speaking, we are almost certain to live in one of the 35,000,000 rental units in the United States. Psychographically, make what you will of the two most common ads that are taped to the wall: taxidermy and sex toy parties.
The mere idea that there is a laundry tribe at all is difficult to understand. Laundry is universal, and it seems like there should be some way to transform the laundromat into a venue of choice.
Kmart has experimented with putting laundromats inside its stores, and everyone has heard about laundromats that are teamed with taverns or live music. I’d like to suggest some ways people who own washers and dryers could be persuaded to fill their pockets full of quarters and head to the coin op.
- Book clubs are fashionable. Members could put their clothes into the washing machine, conduct their discussion, take a break to put the clothes into the dryer, then finish the discussion.
- For reasons I do not fathom, people seem to be willing to go pretty much anywhere if they get to smoke a hookah pipe. Why not a laundromat?
- If you are the kind of person who goes to films and not movies, you might be tempted by a combination art house/laundromat. Imagine watching Mister Lonely or The Lollipop Generation and then trashing the film while you fold.
- America’s most popular spectator sport – NASCAR – is a natural match for the laundromat. You could have each machine decorated in the colors of a different driver, so a Jeff Gordon supporter would use the #24 machine and have access to video and radio transmissions from Gordon’s car. When you insert the quarters, a sound effect would play “Diggity, diggity, diggity, let’s go washin’.” No one would ever use machine #3.
- How many down and out improv troupes are there? All of them? Rather than competing with movies, sports, television, bars, and bowling, perhaps improv troupes could lower their sights and start by entertaining people with no other option. Performers would expand their repertoire to include new bits like “I left a quarter in that dryer,” “Are those my socks?” and “I need to borrow a dryer sheet.”
- Other starving artists could do the same thing. In order, the items most often in abundance at a laundromat are nicotine, despair, and empty wall space – perfect for an art gallery.
- Christian churches seem to be taking over everywhere else, why not here? Besides a comic book store, name a better place to find the forsaken.
- How about therapeutic massage? Licensed massage therapists could give a deep-tissue massage during the wash cycle and hot stones during the drying cycle. Scented detergent could become a form of aromatherapy.
- A “Happy Ending” massage parlor. Probably the most lucrative option, it would also add a new use for dryer sheets.
I don’t expect much to change, though. People only change things they are dissatisfied with, and for the passive laundry investor, this arrangement works just fine. Maybe the laundry tribe, like Buddhist monks, is better suited for the margins of society.