Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Politics of Laundry

I might be renting out a room this summer to a friend. She made a phone appointment with me and asked a list of questions about living in my place in Brooklyn. How far is it from Manhattan? What trains do you take? Do you have Internet? Can I use the kitchen? I answered all her questions matter of factly. Then she asked about laundry.

“I heard you take your laundry on the bus?” she said like it was some sort of urban myth.

I took one of those prolonged intakes of breath.

Laundry is complicated.

When I moved into my apartment, I was too infatuated with the size of the walk-in closet to give much attention to the matter. There’s no laundry in the building, but just like any neighborhood in New York City, there were bound to be Laundromats nearby.

Here comes the political part. My neighborhood in Brooklyn is not gentrified. Coming from a working class neighborhood in L.A. I was no stranger to crime. My mother knew the cholos on our block by name. We had our house robbed twice when I was a kid. I thought I knew what was up. I was like, whatever Brooklyn. I came from the hood. I didn’t think it was a big deal.

The first Laundromat I found was five blocks away from my apartment on Nostrand Ave. I got tired from schlepping my duffel bag full of clothes and detergent five long blocks to the place. When I got there, it was packed with women, children, and granny carts stuffed with trash bags bursting with clothes. I managed to navigate my way through the people and carts toward the washers, which were all taken. I waited until one of the big washers finished washing and the lady in curlers stuffed the clothes onto a rolling cart to dry. I pounced, shoving all my clothes in there regardless of color or fabric or anything. I needed clean underwear. We’ll get to back to underwear in a minute.

So while the laundry’s washing, I notice there’s no place to sit down. I decide to take my bag and detergent with me to get a snack. There was only one Caribbean bakery open on the next block. They had a sign for beef patties. I went in and ordered one. It was cold and not that good. Then I walked back toward the Laundromat to check on my clothes. There was a guy who was uh, belligerently begging? It was like he would’ve mugged me if he weren’t so high.

As I got familiar with Nostrand Ave., I learned that guys like him are not a rarity. When I came home late from work, there were people who were experiencing zero gravity and poverty right in front of me. But that’s just one part of the mix. Nostrand is a busy street where 99 cent stores, Crown Fried Chickens, Halal Chinese Food, and shootings abound. Yeah, shootings. Like the kind where people leave glass candles and flowers on the street corner to mark the place where their loved ones died. And the kind where someone texts me that they heard on the news that there was a shooting at the nightclub that I walk past on the way home from the train. And the kind at the subway stop where they shoot the attendant at the booth and you have to stay home or figure out another way to get someplace.

My friends who are native New Yorkers are like, whatever. Shootings happen. They say it like it’s something they saw on Law and Order.

“Yeah, I used to take my laundry on the bus,” I told my prospective subleter. I tried to normalize it. “The Laundromats in poor neighborhoods are always fuller.”

I felt like a traitor to my own social class when I took my duffel bag down the stairs of my apartment and stood at the bus stop five feet from the gate of the brownstone, and took the bus to Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope and was dropped off about ten feet away from other Laundromats where there were washers and empty seats, and good snacks.

Then I got too busy to do my own laundry and I started to drop off my laundry. More feelings of class betrayal, especially thinking of what my mother would say if I told her I paid someone $20 to do my laundry. The guilt was assuaged when I factored in the physical labor of carrying the bag of clothes on the bus roundtrip.

Then during a conversation with one of my sisters it came up that I drop off my laundry.

“You let someone wash your calzones?” she asked, incredulous.

According to the popular sentiment in our house (promoted by our mother), the most shameful thing you could have or let anyone see is your dirty underwear. According to her, it’s akin to being laughable, incompetent, and a disgrace to have dirty panties, especially for a girl. When she made fun of someone who was a fuck up, she’d call the person “calzones cagados” or loosely translated, skid mark.

So now I was a traitor to my family, and possibly my gender because I let someone wash my underwear.

But I couldn’t go back to spending two or three hours in washing and traveling by bus again. Especially when I got my neatly folded clothes back tightly packed in a plastic bag that was formed into a rectangular prism.

Then a new Laundromat opened up only one block from my house. It was brand new, and kind of empty because it’s on a more residential street. There are seats to sit in, and a TV. But they also take debit cards if you drop off your laundry. I had a choice to stop being a traitor. But of course, I decided to drop off my laundry.

I noticed two things when I started leaving my laundry there. The first was that they use a lot of really strong cheap detergent that kind of gives me a headache. The second thing was that the Caribbean ladies who work there look at me with a little disdain.

I asked my New York friends about their laundry life. One of them said she had to stop dropping off her clothes at a place that used that strong cheap detergent—she said the smell of it on her sheets gave her weird dreams. Another friend said that her Caribbean friend told her that Caribbean women never put dirty underwear in a hamper—they wash it by hand themselves. I’m assuming they must do this everyday. I’m also assuming that’s why the Caribbean ladies at the Laundromat are so judgy when I drop off my clothes and they ask me my name.

When I say my last name, I become a traitor to my race.

While this place doesn’t put my clothes in a plastic bag, they do neatly fold my socks and stack my panties in size order like magic. And they switch up the kinds of detergent they use from week to week, so it’s like my clothes are playing in an olfactory lottery.

But there’s something bugging me about the women who don’t trust their hampers with their underwear. It suggests that underwear tells our secrets about being human, and all the peeing and shitting and fucking that goes with it. And even though I think I know the answer, I ask myself, is it just women who are concerned with getting rid of all the evidence of being human?

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Just read this. Fabuloso, amiguita, fabuloso!
    Reminds me of my mom having to shlep our family duffel bag up and down the hilly streets of our neighborhood in the city of angels, which by the sounds of it ain´t exactly filled with angels same as your new barrio.
    I rememeber once,as a teenager, my mom and I were walking back from the bus stop and we ran into a newcomer. It was obvious he was new around our parts and would probably not be around for very long. I mean he was young and blond and everything. Anyway, she told me about how she had seen him before and how he had insisted on helping her carry her gorcery bags. Not speaking much English, my poor ma was not able to politely refuse. She said he kept talking to her in, claro, English. And she would just smile and say "oh, ok, thank you". Which she thought was very funny because as she put it, he could have been saying "chinga tu madre" or something of that nature for all she knew. Ay, I miss you girls.