It was one of the hottest summers in Boston. The smell of heat and dog piss and bad, doggy or human breath rose from the pavements of Allston and Brighton. Particularly before it rained, which it hardly ever did, but I have since learned that the word for the smell before rain is petrichor. A great word. But man, it stinks. The only other notable smell was the sugar cinnamon donuts from Twin Donuts, which was on the way from my apartment to my job as a laundromat attendant. I’d ride my bike really fast, holding my breath the whole way, til I got to Twin Donuts. I’d exhale like a mad panting thing and then breathe deeply, taking in the mixture of coffee, cinnamon, sugar and fat cops. They have a certain smell, or did, of aftershave, sweat, and sugar. I’d gulp it all in, because I knew there was some fresh olfactory hell waiting for me at the laundromat. The sack from Bagnell st, which I think had a small, residential old people’s home. We’re talking major incontinence issues.
The laundromat was a new business venture, thinking back on it I believe it was a front to launder, no pun intended, drugs money, because right next door there was a pizza joint, and both businesses were owned by the same guy. He just seemed very cokey, and the main laundry attendant was cocaine thin. Extremely beautiful. very good at folding laundry. In that speedy, efficient way. She probably could have been new wave model, or an extra in a pop video. But she had a kid and it was complicated. She needed a nine to five.
The business office was a large, cool basement space downstairs from the pizza joint and laundromat, and when I went for my interview, I thought of doing a Gilda Radner impression and just saying “I clean up, OK?” but instead, big fucking opinionated mouth that I am, I went into a mini tirade about how I would just do my job and it was a honest, hard-working job and thank goodness not some big corporate thing where the boss had a copy of “How To Win Friends And Influence People” on his desk and said your name repeatedly, to show that he was really focused on you. This was a huge mistake as it turned out it was his favourite book ever, and he said my name repeatedly.
But I still got the job. I was pretty cute in those days, and my cuteness perhaps made up for my opinionated assholeishness. It didn’t get me the job in McDonalds, where the initial question sheet stumped me. Why do you want to work at McDonalds. I wrote, “Because I want to feed people burgers and fries and shakes and make them sated and happy.” I really wasn’t being sarcastic. I thought this is what they were looking for in an ideal employee.
But I didn’t get that job, or even an interview. Instead, the hottest summer ever, or so it seemed, I worked in a long hot room full of dryers giving off even more heat. We took dry cleaning in as well, but sent it somewhere else. The dry cleaning people were richer, and always vaguely apologetic. They’d point to a red stain and shrug, “Wine,” and mention some fancy pants vintage that was beyond me and I’d nod sagely, like I knew all about it, oh yes, we’ve had rather a lot red wine spillages lately, we can take care of all your wine spillage needs.”
Some of them , women , would whisper, “Semen” and I’d cry “Goodness me, I do not need to know the origin of the stain, I’m sure our people will take care of it. They are very good at nocturnal emissions.” And sometimes they’d take this as a cue to further the conversation and say “Actually, it was a day time job, in a car, and he was a fucking animal. Combat Zone.You know the score.”
As if I, a humble cleaner of other people’s messes, would know of such things. I would nod and say oh gosh yes, animals, the lot, as if I had a clue. Although I was not a virgin, technically, I was virgin esque, verging on the virginal. I much preferred the company of my new best friend Clare, who was over from England that summer, sleeping on my floor, and also employed at the laundromat. We had lots of friends, many of them boys, but no boyfriends. They kind of got in the way.
The job was routine. To make it more exciting, there was a tv in the corner, but all it seemed to play was “General Hospital” a popular soap set in a hospital. How fitting, as I was up to my arms in soap most days. The storyline at the time involved a woman who had fallen in love with her rapist. This seemed so unlikely, I preferred the hum of the washing machines. Some punk band had written a song about it, and it so gelled with the popular psyche at the time I still wonder why they didn’t get famous. The main line went “No one’s feeling well, at General Hospital”
Most days in the laundromat, apart from sweating to death, I felt fine. If things were not too busy, the pizza guys would come over and give me a hundred or so flat cardboard pieces to fold into pizza boxes. It must have confused the customers. “Can you do me a large service wash, and hold the pepperoni?” But that never happened. Most people understood that the poorly waged had to multi task.
We had several large machines set aside for service washes. I was OK with this and even good at it. I learned to hold my breath when the sacks from Bagnell came in. Crikey, the stuff that comes out of old people. One day, it will come out of me.
So one day I put on a service wash, and these usually took about 45 minutes. You knew the end was nigh when it started to spin really fast. And it would rumble and shake, like it was having a little fit. Quite something to watch. And I thought, oh, it will be about five more minutes, and after this time had passed, I went to the machine and saw it had just started its cycle again. I wasn’t even on cocaine. This was just some terrible mistake. They didn’t tell us how to fix mistakes. They just told us to press some buttons and if nothing worked, ask one of the guys from the pizza place.
I just thought, well, it’s not exploding suds, it’s not gone on fire, it just needs to do its thing again. Hopefully it will be OK. Most people had social lives and didn’t collect their laundry for a day or two.
The thing is, I am really bad at disguising confusion. I just stared at the machine and shook my head, trying to figure out why it was doing a second cycle. A man came over to me and asked “Is that your machine?”
I said well, no not personally mine, but I am running it at the moment, though it would seem to have a mind of its own today. It’s gone into its second cycle. Perhaps it reckoned the clothes were not clean enough.” I shrugged and gave a semi smile.
He shook his head and looked, frankly, suicidal. “It’s all my fault. My machine is next to yours and I put the money in your one by accident. Now you have to wait for like, ever. And I’ve lost money.”
Was this a call the pizza guy situation? No, I could handle it. I said, “Look, it’s OK. I’m sorry about your money. I’m not sure if I can reimburse you, I need to ask the pizza guys.”
He looked confused. “You want pizza?”
“No, the pizza guys are sort of my bosses.”
He said that he didn’t need the money, he was a graphic designer, he earned a good wage. He had put the money in the right machine, next to my one, after all, and they were spinning, sudsely, in perfect harmony.
We got to chatting, I can’t remember what about. Nothing in particular. Perhaps brands of fabric conditioner, or these new sheets you could toss in the dryer to make your sheets smell nice and eliminate static electricity, a big problem in such a hot, dry city.
He glanced at the tv. “General Hospital?”
Yes, it’s not very credible, some girl Laura has fallen in love with her rapist.”
He shook his head sadly.
I said, “Look forget about the second cycle. It’s not a problem. I have to be here anyway.”
He apologised lots and finished his laundry and left.
A few days later, I got an envelope addressed to me at the laundromat. I wasn’t even aware that anyone knew my name there, or for that matter, that anyone apart from Clare and my friends and family and employers knew my name at all. It was a fat, manilla envelope. It smelled good, like new stationary and crayons.
I opened it carefully and it was a stapled together booklet, 16 pages. It was full of glued on pictures of all sorts of things ( none of them dirty or untoward) of things I liked. Sugar Pops, a children’s breakfast cereal Clare and I lived on. Pretty dresses. Flowers. Rivers. Trees. Kittens. Some stranger knew what I liked. Who knows, maybe it’s just predictable girl stuff. ot the Sugar pops, but everything else. This was both unsettling and deeply exciting at the same time. On the last page was a letter.
“Hi. I’m the guy that put your laundry on a second spin, by accident. I am so so sorry. Please accept this book by way of apology. I think you are very kind and understanding. And pretty.”
I wasn’t and I’m not, but I sure loved that little book. It was really the highlight of that shit job over that hot, dog piss summer. That and Clare. The guy had left a number and I rang to thank him, when I got home. This was the pre cell phone era. He asked me for a date at Twin Donuts. I said no. It was against company rules. I had made that up on the spot. I liked the card, but sensed he was a depressive, as I was. We’d probably go a on few dates and make a joint suicide pact, after our coffee and cinnamon donuts. And he would get in the way of Clare.
I lost the book many years ago, long before I moved to England the same year Clare move to Germany. We are still great friends. Now I am a customer at laundromats, or laundrettes as we call them in the UK. I read tabloids and listen to the gentle hum of the machines, and a Tubercular attendant coughing over other people’s clothing in the back room. There is no pizza place next door but a fancy cafe/ recording studio where pale, thin, black dyed haired boys with guitars come limping along the road. It beats General Hospital by miles.