It felt like the hottest summer on record, but I was working in a laundromat , in the summer, with most of the dryers going full blast. Nobody ever put the dryer on a low setting. What was the point of that? No matter what, slow or fast, it cost a quarter for not much time. It said five minutes but it was really more like three. Nobody ever timed it. Most people put the dial up to one number below downright electrocution. There was a ton of static in the air. If you accidently touched someone shaking out a sheet fresh from the dryer you would both be shocked into a Bad Hair Year. And it would hurt enough to gasp, and to blame each other. Who is the shock giver and who is the shock-ee? Who knows? The person who pays the quarter? With all the dry static, my curls grew vertically, towards some sort of static electricity force field. It could have been a party trick, if I threw parties at the laundromat.
I did service washes. We used the cheapest laundry powder and strong smelling fabric conditioner, so our customers often came out in rashes but at least they smelled good. I was also there to give people change for the machines, begrudgingly. It was almost in the script. You have to look pissed off if people ask your for quarters because you need them yourself. There was no magic key to turn the machine on, just quarters like the normal people used. You had to make it like your were doing them a gigantic favour, giving them the quarters that you might have to use yourself.
If something went wrong with a machine, there was nothing we could actually do about it, except look at it in a studious way, as if we knew what we were looking for. We would look at the thing, maybe stuck mid cycle, still full of dirty clothes and water, and we would look at this bit that unfolded at the bottom, with wires, and look back at the person and say, “You used too much soap.” That was the reason for everything. The dryers never broke. They were designed to rip people off, so it made no sense for them to break.
The three attendants were me, Clare and Denise. Denise got the most shifts because she was a single mother and needed them, and she never minded doing the service wash from the old folk’s home on Bagnell st. You really never knew what you were going to get in that sack, but always bodily fluids and bad smells. It was never gonna be something simple like ring around the collar, or football pitch grass stains. Bagnell st contained the fluids of those in their death throes, even if they didn’t know it. The water had to be on the hottest setting I think it was called Hospital Wash, if only by us, but it may have said it on the dial. It was a long time ago. And it was hard not to gag when you stuffed the sheets into the machine. Denise had a stronger gag reflex, maybe anti gag reflex. She chain smoked outside the laundromat and in the back room, where the powder was, she would line up lines of coke, which was given to her by way of partial payment. Coke made her really good and fast at folding sheets, and kept her impossibly thin, even though we were only a block away from the temptations of Twin Donuts, and next door to a pizza place, which had the same owners as the laundry place.
My roommate got Clare the job first. She was staying with me that summer. Then Clare got me the job. I almost didn’t get it . The interview was held in a back room which served both the pizza place and the laundromat. The guy behind the desk had a rictus smile and a haircut we knew as The Dry look, a side parting, very stiff and fluffy and dry. He asked me a few basic questions, nothing deep, like, why did I want to do washing.
I had been asked a deep question on a MacDonald’s application and failed it. The question was, why did I want to work at MacDonald’s? And I didn’t want to put, to earn money, as it sounded shallow. So I put, “I want to feed people nutritious but affordable food and make the world a better place for you and me.” Clearly I had confused my notional Miss America speech with my job application. I never even got an interview. So when I went for the laundromat interview, I tried not to be deep. I would just answer every question with “to earn money.”
The guy asked me a few questions about what I did, what I was studying, that kind of thing, and then asked me what I liked doing in my spare time. Was it a trick question? Could I say, “I like to earn money in my spare time.” Or would that sound too pushy? I said I liked to listen to punk rock records, and to read. He perked up a bit at the reading thing. He asked what I liked to read , and warming to my theme, I said, “Oh, I like most books except that self help stuff, like How To Win Friends and Influence People because frankly if you read that stuff , you probably have no friends to influence.”
He kept grinning. It looked slightly more mechanical. Then he pulled out a book from his filing cabinet under the desk and it was How To Win Friends and Influence People. And I said, “Of course, not that I’ve read it. It’s probably incredibly useful, in the laundromat industry and by extension, in life itself.
He said, “Nobody likes a smart ass, but I need a girl, so you got the job.”
( to be continued)