All this might be an illusion but all the same I cannot question the things I have experienced. Memories belong in this category.” ~ Shohei Ooka 

Living in New York City, or, I suppose, any large and densely packed metro area, laundry – as in access to washers and dryers – is a thing, a challenge, an inconvenience, a marker of how much cashola you have. Rich folks have w’s and d’s in their large, rich people flats; they send out, to specialist cleaners – his shirts, jackets, and pants, her blouses and dresses – among other items; their staff (housekeeper, cleaning women) will wash the rest, including the unmentionables. Being not rich-y-rich, not even close, I still find it quite thrilling that I can, even over two decades after leaving NYC, wash my own clothes and everything else that needs washing in my own home, whenever I want (whenever I want!!!) because I have my very own washer and dryer. In my house, at my permanent disposal. Oh joy! Oh rapture! Basic/major appliances on hand and always ready: what a gift, and I am grateful AF. 

Carrying even one bag of laundry several blocks is such a specific sweaty task, even in, maybe especially in winter (sweating while also freezing and slipping around, anyone?). When I lived in the East Village, the walk was about four blocks up 2nd Avenue to a reasonably clean spot, but the laundromat closest to me in my next neighborhood on the Upper West Side was another whole story. On Columbus Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets, it was – I kid you not – scary: dark, ancient, with worn and dirty walls scarred by graffiti half-heartedly wiped away, and yellowed by age inadequate florescent lighting over-head. I went there for a couple of years, the whole process took about 3.5 hours, and you dared not leave your wash unattended, so it was time to read and people watch, if you were brave enough to look at the other patrons, because looking at someone could be taken as an insult, an intrusion, a judgement in that place, that neighborhood, during those early years of the 1980s. 

The woman who ran the place, owned it too, I guess, would do your wash for a fee, but I found her so terrifying I rarely approached her for any cause. A chain smoker, she had a backroom she might’ve lived in, not sure, and she was big, foul mouthed, and very, very angry, it seemed to me, all the time. Just asking her for change to use her machines was a challenge, kind of like asking an alligator to share its dinner? Doesn’t she want me to spend my money here, so – making change would seem like part of the service? But no, for gawd knows what reason, it infuriated her. She was like the mom in fairy tales who is actually a monster with a lashing pointed tail hidden under the tent dress she wore, the kind who eats little kids, including her own. And if you’ve never had your wet wash dumped out of a dryer you’ve fed several dollars into, dumped right out onto the questionably clean floor, as I did after stepping away for five minutes, you haven’t lived. 

Not as close by was another much smaller, cleaner, less worn laundromat run by a man who was short and skinny, always on the move; he was always smiling, too. That seemed a bit suspect, but still, I stopped by one day – it was an extra whole and very long block away from my apartment, so it was unlikely I’d use it – yet it seemed he truly was genuinely nice, the atmosphere was one of cheery industry, women chatting with one another primarily in Spanish or what I assumed was Mandarin, and, in this place, everyone seemed to be taking care of one another, less piranha feeding frenzy-like, more controlled chaos only there was clearly order, and kindness, if you stuck around, which I did. Eventually, because I noticed he also did people’s laundry for them, I asked how much would it cost for him to do mine? For that bag? For this bag full. Five dollars. No way. Five dollars? Five dollars. Okay! I always gave him ten. 

He was really nice, and getting someone who was kind to do my laundry was really, really, really nice. Heading off to college at eighteen, I didn’t know how to do ‘the wash’, because my mother was a fucking freak who treated her washer and dryer like they were her most precious possessions, the family jewels of a weirdly specific sort. Hers. Twice in my life she physically attacked me for attempting to use her washer, and while she was happy to instruct my sisters in how to do wash, and did my brother’s laundry until the day his domestic cat of a wife took over, she absolutely refused to teach me. I don’t know all of the reasons why that was, but in general she liked to stymie me, however and whenever she could. No problem, how hard can it be? It’s wash…everyone does it (well, everyone except my brother). 

When I ran out of clean clothes my first semester at Syracuse U., I took that same future five dollars’ worth canvas bag, my bottles of detergent and bleach (that’s what you use, right?) to the laundry room on the first floor, where I was thrilled to be able to fit all the clothes in a single machine (because why not, right?). Hooray! I added detergent and bleach (that’s what you do, right?), and – turning my back on the machine to read a history assignment – discovered thirty minutes later that I had a washing machine full of Pesto Bismol pink clothing, except my jeans and corduroys, which were chock full of pink and white spots and streaks. What. The. Hell. I figured out that a red cotton skirt I owned, which was no longer entirely red, had ‘shared’ its color because…bleach, I guessed? Shared. Oops. Straight from the washer into the garbage can, except for the salvageable bits I could still possibly wear. Thank goodness most of my clothes came from the thrift shop, although I did mourn a few I had bought new with my own money. Better luck next time? There was another, older student in the laundry room that day, while I waited for her to leave the room (no way was I going to take the puke-pink wash out in front of her), and for my machine to finish its cycle, I watched her separate her whites from her colored clothing, and put bleach in with the whites, and the whites only. Oops.  

One day, less than a decade later, and after several years of using the laundromat with the always moving and smiling man, I came back from a midtown audition appointment, dressed in a billowing pale green skirt, white striped silk-ish blouse I still miss, and heels. It must’ve been for a soap, the audition, and as it was a hot summer day, I exited the 103rd street subway at the farthest north end to reduce my outside walk by a block. The steps at the 104th street exit are very steep, and I joined a wall-to-wall crowd slowly making its way upstairs like little sardines in a pack. As we began to gain sunlight, I was hit on the back of the head with rocks, twice, and found that I was bleeding; several of others in the group were hit also, and, looking up, I saw a group of young boys’ heads around the metal barrier above the stairs. Hurt and angry, when I got to the street level, I gave those little shits hell, and then proceeded to walk to the Post Office on 104th street to get some stamps. I was shaken, and still angry, and the heat that day was oppressive – but the bleeding was minimal and I would soon be home, after all. The boys, however, had decided to follow me, and as I made my way down the block a few catcalls followed me as well, nothing new in that, but what was new were pieces of street garbage zinging past my head, or not, hitting my back and legs. Ridiculous. Thankfully, respite was close, so, hastening my steps, it was done and over, and I was safely inside the P.O. While standing on line to get my stamps, a young girl approached me – warning me – that I shouldn’t go out there, because now there was a bunch of boys who were waiting for me, and I was going to get hurt, really hurt. I was stunned, disbelieving – what?! Is this my own special Lord of the Flies moment, or what? She had to be kidding?!                 

She was not. 

As I finished at the window, I noticed a gaggle of small boys had entered the Post Office; they were whispering together, and were clearly keeping me in their sights. Fun stuff. Why, of all days, today, when I was in heels, FFS? Heels, and a billowing skirt. Why of all days had I decided to be a snarky cow, correcting children not my own, with whom I didn’t have a relationship, most of whom were kids of color, when I looked like the epitome of an entitled white lady, which I was, and am, but argh. For whatever reason (denial?) I didn’t reach out to anyone else in the Post Office; it couldn’t be that bad, right? So out I went, walking as fast as possible down the street while again, cans and bottles, rocks and whatever came to hand, began raining down on me from behind, several landing, mostly on my legs, back, and shoulders. I started running as best I could in my cursed heels, making it to the laundromat about a city block away where I threw myself on the mercy of my – acquaintance, the guy who did my laundry, a man who was not much bigger than the kids who were harassing me, if that. 

Out he went without hesitation, returning a few minutes later – the boys having been scattered by – whatever he did; I was much too freaked out to watch, or witness. I was merely, hugely grateful. Was it five minutes, or ten, when he came back? I don’t know, but he told me it was okay, he’d dealt with it, and that I was free to take as much time as I needed before heading home. He knew these kinds of things, and how they can happen, but assured me they wouldn’t bother me again. He said he wasn’t afraid of bullies, and the only way to deal with them was to show no fear, ever. They were cowards, and easily – although I know he didn’t use this word – cowed. He then showed me what I had noticed before, but had never dared ask about: the tattoo on his arm, a series of numbers, telling me it was a souvenir of the concentration camp he’d lived in, and survived, as a child in Poland. I had seen it, of course, and thought that’s what it was, from the Holocaust, but who could I ask if I was too shy to ask him, which I was, same with my wondering where he was originally from, his accent having given his foreign birth away. He laughed, flexing his muscle on that same arm, laughing at – at himself? At life? At triumphing over the gang of kids? At surviving? He explained that this, this time in the camps in Poland, was why he was so short, he was starving there for years, before the liberation, but he had lived. And this was why he came to New York, to America, to be free, and safe, where he could work hard and make a life for himself after seeing the very worst of human behavior. He was forever grateful, and now, nothing scared him, certainly not a bunch of little kid bullies from around the block.

After that, we were friends, not sharing lunch and gossip friends, but friends, even though we never knew one another’s names. I stopped by to say hello whenever I was over that way, and bought him a gift for the holidays, grateful he was there, grateful, period. After that, he was my hero, for many reasons, and I loved him for his always smiling, always moving self. Those boys never glommed together again, that I knew, but I continued to look up every time I used that subway exit, just in case, and I stopped wearing heels to and from auditions, carrying them in my bag while sporting sneakers, ready, always, to run if I had to. 

My friend the laundry man died of a heart attack on the job, about eighteen months later. I don’t know how old he was, but he could not have been much more than fifty, and it was terrible, a tragedy. I found out when I brought a bag of laundry for washing; there were women weeping in the narrow space, hugging one another, mourning him in Spanish, and Mandarin, English, too – enough for me to find out what had happened. No one there that day knew of his family, or who to contact; his body had been taken away by ambulance that morning; no one was in charge, everyone was in charge. I felt ashamed I never asked his name, or if he had family living. It seemed too personal, possibly too painful. But, I should’ve asked. Not long after that, I moved to mid-town. He had lived nearly thirty years in the U.S., spending his days in a long, narrow room filled with women and children and the noise of the washers and dryers, and he was always smiling.