I knew laundry was going to be expensive in the city. And we make a lot of it.
There’s one coin-op machine in the garage of our four-unit building. I’ve been here for two weeks and have done seven or eight loads already. And I’m just treading water.
The game changed when James noticed me run a load through the dryer twice. I explained the process by which I could, usually, avoid this, running the loads after each other and letting the wet things carry over into the next dryer cycle. James asked me if I couldn’t dry the things around the apartment. I tried to paint the picture of a zillion miniscule kids’ things hanging all over the apartment ongoing and into eternity.
He told me to try the wash-and-fold two blocks down.
I am loyal, deep into my DNA, but my natural resistance against trying something new was silenced, in this case, by the intriguing idea of someone else washing AND folding my laundry.
Thus, my next city adventure stretched itself out before me.
The weather was sketchy on Monday and I spent the morning watching the sky as I emotionally prepared myself to literally drag my dirty laundry through the streets of San Francisco.
At length, it was time. I managed to pack both laundry bags of kids’ clothes on the big stroller, one hanging out of the bottom and one sitting in the seat. For good measure I threw the kitchen towels and bibs into one of the bags. My daughter walked and I put my son in charge of pushing the baby in the small stroller. And off we went, me with a passion stemming mostly from the adrenaline of embarrassment.
My three-year old daughter was shouting something at me as we went down the block. She finally caught up to me and pointed out the trail of kitchen rags back to the door of the apartment. We gathered them back quickly. My five-year old son who talks about farts all day long couldn’t even hide his disgust as he handed me a bib decorated with a smear of dried banana browned to a point more closely resembling something like mucus.
We got to the end of the block. It was at this point that it started pouring buckets of rain.
We ran back to the entryway of our building.
Not to be deterred, I loaded everyone and everything into the car.
We drove the two blocks to the laundry. There was no loading zone. I started considering how far I wanted to carry the laundry in the rain and how far away I could park and still leave the kids in the car.
I circled the block four or five times getting honked at by cars who could sense my equivocation. I finally convinced myself that it wouldn’t be totally irresponsible to park across the street where I could see the car from the window while I did my transaction.
I proceeded to parallel park. Suburban Barbara has not had much practice at this. It’s hit or miss. This time was a miss as I corrected, corrected again, pulled out and tried again from the beginning, all within viewing distance of the laundry shop where I can see the man behind the counter watching which, if you recall, was one of the benefits of this particular spot in the first place.
And when I finally drag my laundry in and fling it up on the counter, he looks at my bags and inhales sharply through his teeth.
“I’m sorry. We don’t do wash-and-fold.”
“Well, uh, do you know anybody who does?” As if my sole purpose of walking in was to get a referral.
“Yeah, there’s this place on Clement and 32nd.”
At this point, whatever embarrassment there was over carrying around bags of dirty laundry has given way to the velvet steel of my determination. I cross the street in the rain back to the car. One of the handles of my laundry bag breaks.
We drive to 32nd and Clement and, behold, there is a ten minute parking zone right in front of the big windows. This time I totally nail the parallel parking. No one was watching.
I drag the laundry through the rain again and into the establishment with the humble appellation of “Jim’s”. I put my laundry on the counter. I feel honesty is best for everyone at this point.
“I’ve never done this before,” I say.
“Ok,” said the lady behind the counter a little warily.
“How does it work?”
“I wash your laundry and you pick it up.”
“I just pick it up.”
“I fold it for you and you pick it up, yes.”
“How much do you think this will cost?” I ask, gesturing to the childrens’ entire wardrobes.
She weighs my bags. As she ties them closed I wait for her to notice the slimy banana bib and reject my clothes. Perhaps wash-and-fold places have standards? How presumptuous of me. I feel strangely vulnerable, so intimate is this new relationship. I watch as it is literally placed on the scale to be weighed.
But she doesn’t hesitate; she taps the weight into her calculator. Here is the price. It’s not unreasonable.
“You’re going to wash and fold my laundry?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she looks confused.
I feel like I must. Yes. I must. “What is your name?” I ask.
“Michelle,” I repeat it back to her and roll the name across my palette. My eyes may have glistened.
“I’m Barbara,” I say.
We shake hands, but it feels more like a hug.
I dare to ask, “And it says something about pick-up and delivery?”
“Yeah, where do you live?”
I tell her.
“Oh, yeah, you’re close, five dollars.”
“And you’ll pick up my dirty laundry, wash it, fold it, and bring it back to me?”
“Yes,” she’s smiling now. I am very entertaining.
Michelle. I say the name again in my head, the name of the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Thank you, Michelle,” I take a business card as she hands me my pick-up slip.
“See you tomorrow,” she says.
Little does she know that it has never been folded so fast. The laundry won’t know what hit it. They had it easy with me, but Michelle obviously means business. Won’t my kids be surprised when they come looking for their clothes in the laundry basket and instead find them, gasp, in their drawers?
Would you believe that at some point during this transaction the clouds had parted and I stepped out into brilliant sunshine, made doubly brilliant in wet reflection?
I was so inspired I could think of nothing but this quote from my least favorite Shakespearean play,
“O, Brave new world that has such people in it!”
This whole adventure took little more than a half an hour. And, yet, the largeness of this moment was not wasted on me. My laundry paradigm was forever shifted.
I looked disdainfully at the coin-op washer and dryer in the garage as I pulled past them and realized that I would have to come up with another use for my laundry basket.
The only downside is that I am now without excuse. I guess I’ll finally have to change the sheets.
Michelle and I are now fast friends. When I picked up the clothes we chatted on about my children as if they were not waiting just over there, watching me from the car window. She apologized for the large bag she had to use to give the clothes back to me but, “It’s a lot of laundry!” she said.
Yes, Michelle. Yes it is.
And this morning we had a cozy chat over the phone before I sent a few more loads with the pick-up man Jim himself.
There’s something in this about love being born out of service rendered or service received. Maybe something in the image of taking in a stranger’s dirty laundry and giving it back to them folded nicely with respect? I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
At any rate, it’s something for me to ponder until I bring her the sheets.