Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Laundry Room

I still remember laundry days when I was young.

Like so many processes in the house, including dishwashing and shoveling the driveway, my father was possessive over laundry out of a sense that no one else knew how to do it right.

At first blush, the absence of my having to do such banal chores sounds like a gift--that I had the luxury of having extra time for homework and extracurriculars and writing and reading and watching movies without these domestic responsibilities. But when the implicit commentary was that I was incapable of doing such things correctly, it made each of these chores simultaneously a rite of passage and the object of intimidation because I’d never really learned how to do them.

As a kid, I didn’t think much of laundry. The days simply came and went when my father stripped the sheets from the bed, removed the towels from the racks, emptied the hampers and started the loud, clunking laundry machines at the foot of the stairs in our raised ranch. Those stairs led directly to the front door and the moisture from the washer would fog its window. The whole house smelled of detergent. Always eager to save a buck, my father was reticent to run the dryer, and so in the days to follow, damp clothes would often hang from the shower curtain rod, and from kitchen chairs; socks and underwear would line the perimeter of laundry baskets sitting in the corners of rooms.

I went to camp packed with enough underwear, t-shirts, shorts, and socks so that I wouldn’t need to do laundry for the three weeks I was away.

In the late stages of junior high and into high school, I grew frustrated with how infrequently my father wanted to do laundry, forcing me to either wear my favorite shirts two or three times between washes, or to forego wearing them for weeks at a time. I grew jealous of a friend who wore the same red t-shirt and khakis at least three times a week and admitted to doing loads of laundry with just those two items of clothing so he could wear them over and over again.

I went off to college and like so many of my peers--particularly other young men--learned to wash my own clothes. In his typical fashion, my father had given me a theoretical lesson on measuring detergent into a machine, loading clothes, setting the temperature of the water and starting a washing machine, but the practice of actually doing so, like most mechanical operations, baffled me.

My first time in the college laundry room, another boy and I stood by the washing machines, clearly equally baffled. Fortunately, a young woman came downstairs to fetch her clothes from the dryer and guided us through the process.

And so I was off and running--laundry-independent, and I relished the opportunity to wash clothes on a weekly basis, and took advantage of the ostensibly free machines (the costs, assuredly, woven into housing fees) to machine dry each article of clothing. I grew familiar with the etiquette and common practices of such facilities. That contrary to suggestions we heard over orientation about thwarting thieves, no one waited in the laundry room while their clothes washed and dried. That if you left your clothes in the dryer too long after the dryer had stopped running, people would unload it for you--some of them neatly folding your clothes (in a way that was likely meant as a peace offering, though it always sketched me out to think who might be handling my delicates), some dumping them in a heap on top of the machine. That most polite folks afforded you a five-to-ten minute grace period before they unloaded for you, but others were impatient or in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered.

I considered all of this a part of my education, and a part of a broader thesis that college was not only about learning course content, but learning to live away from home and in other communities and to operate like a functioning adult. I lived in the dorms for three years and did my laundry in the basement in each location, then, in my first off-campus apartment, hefted my laundry basket outdoors to visit the laundry room in a neighboring building.

When I moved to Baltimore, I encountered another basement laundry room in which centipedes, spiders, and cockroaches the length of poker chips consistently wandered the floors and walls.

When I decided to move to Oregon and to move with Heather, we talked about what we wanted out of a living space. We agreed to start with two bedrooms so there would be doors to close when we each needed to work, and sheer space for our respective stuff. We agreed about not wanting to be on the ground floor, and not wanting to live anywhere too close to bars or Greek life that would be too loud.

And I prioritized having a washer and dryer in the apartment.

Having the washing facilities right inside our place may seem like a luxury, but I was tired of feeling the need to keep quarters on hand, make myself presentable, wander up and downstairs, and battle bugs just to wash my clothing. I wanted to stay. To do laundry at my leisure. Never to have to wait for a machine.

And I got my wish.

I came to take our washer and dryer for granted. Laundry still felt like a chore, and more often than not, I still ended up cramming it between the margins of things on the weekend.

Just the same, as I write about laundry, I suspect I’ll look back on these days fondly--as a period before I wasn't responsible for owning and maintaining laundry machines per se, but just the same didn’t need to leave the comfort of my apartment to use them.

And I suppose that’s the nature of chores. We think about them. Plan around them. Dread them. Endure them. But for all of this, they’re ultimately a necessary part of life.

I recall hearing the Jason Mraz song “Geek in the Pink” when I lived in Syracuse, and trying to espouse its enthusiastically delivered opening lyric, “It’s laundry day!” as anthem to gear up for the routine. But later, in Baltimore, I discovered a song that seemed to more genuinely represent what laundry was about--“Laundry Room” by The Avett Brothers. It’s a beautiful, layered song, juxtaposing (broken) love with the impossibly dull. One of my favorite lyrics:

Keep your clothes on,
I’ve got all that I can take.

I still listen to this song every now and again as I gather the sheets from the bed. As I fold and hang clothes once they’re clean and dry. And as absurd as it is to romanticize something so simple and domestic, I remember all of the different laundry rooms, family and friends that led me to that moment.

I am a breathing time machine,
I’ll take you all for a ride.

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