Dirty Laundry

Scenes from London: Waiting for the Big Bus to arrive; hanging out near Buckingham Palace; Bobo’s Bubbles; the laundry mistress, and my kids in my sister-in-law’s front garden.

There are times when you just want to be alone, and the need for solitude outweighs everything else.

That time struck as we prepared to check out of our hotel in the Kensington section of London and move to Dulwich Village for our nephew’s wedding last Saturday.

Faced with a pile of dirty laundry, the Curmudgeon announced that he planned to arrive at his sister’s doorstep and ask to use her washer and dryer. I suggested that that probably was not the best idea because she’s mother of the groom and might have more pressing things on her mind.

Mature adults don’t show up at people’s homes with dirty laundry, particularly on the eve of a wedding. A clear sign of adulthood is figuring out the location of the closest laundromat, or hiring someone for the task. Mature adults don’t travel with bags of dirty laundry hoping to find a free washer. You outgrow that stage of life when you collect your college diploma and enter the real world, or at least that’s how I was raised.

People traveling with dirty laundry are at best tolerated, at worst scorned. I can’t stand when my son brings home piles of laundry during vacation breaks from college. It’s the only thing I really don’t like about him being home.

My family is a little laundry challenged. We get it into the washer and dryer, but folding it and getting it out of laundry baskets and into proper drawers and closets is a bit of a miracle. I’m not sure how other people handle this, but I’ve reached a point where I’ve threatened to throw out laundry that isn’t put away within 24 hours.

The Curmudgeon brought plenty of clothes to London, but managed to produce an impressive pile of dirty laundry after about four days. As we prepared to switch hotels, he announced that he’d ask his sister Sarah to use her laundry as we all gathered for a pre-wedding dinner at her house.

Seriously? Um, no. Faced with the prospect of traveling with a Hefty bag of dirty clothes across London or finding a laundromat, I chose the latter: Bobo’s Bubbles, just steps from our hotel.

I arrived at Bobo’s with my son, who helped me figure out how to use the washers and track down English coins for the machines. But I was happy when he left me alone with the dirty clothes, the spinning machines and the laundromat mistress, who made change and dispensed advice with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance.

We’re all so dense when it comes to industrial washing machines, aren’t we? I couldn’t even open a commercial washer without her expert guidance. A fellow customer was admonished for failing to press the black button to start the dryer. “It’s not going to work if you don’t turn it on,” she said. Duh.

I almost never go to laundromats because I’m blessed to have a fairly new high capacity washer and dryer, and can do laundry any time I want. But there’s a beauty in an old-time laundromat that’s almost lost in today’s world: a place to process your laundry from beginning to end, without squishing it between a million other tasks.

A laundromat means one thing: washing, drying and folding clothes. And though I-Phones and tablets have made it possible to make the most out of your waiting time, I chose to do it the old-fashioned way: sipping a cup of coffee, plopping myself in a plastic chair and staring at clothes spinning in the dryer.

The dryers become like huge kaleidoscopes if you stare long enough, a smattering of colors that change with every spin. Some people’s clothes spin more systematically than others. Ours were a jumble of socks, sports bras and bright gym clothes that seemed a lot more chaotic than neighboring dryers. Perhaps our clothes say something about the people who wear them. Or maybe I was just staring at the dryers for too long.

The laundry mistress ran a tight ship, taking pains to ask if I had a big load or small, and whether I wanted detergent with conditioner or without. She emerged with two huge Tide pods, advising me to toss them into the drum and warning that my cold wash would be finished in 30 minutes, 15 minutes sooner than a warm or hot load.

“Enough time to go out and get coffee,” she said. “Put your suitcase on top of the washer and come back in half an hour,” she said.

As she folded, she lamented her workload, saying she had not stopped since she arrived at work at 8 a.m. It was 10:45 and she had not yet had time for even a sip of water. I guess no one wants to wash their own clothes these days. At least when she’s only charging 2 pounds for a small load, 3 for a big one.

I felt for her. I processed six loads of laundry on one day before our trip and was exhausted. I couldn’t imagine doing laundry day in, day out. It’s non-stop, tiring, back-breaking work. But she noted it pays the bills.

“Things could be worse,” she said. “At least I have a job. And it’s been a good day. A man with a dog came in today and wants me to paint his dog’s portrait. I get to do my artwork.”

She emerged from a cramped back room marked “private” with two paintings on rough canvases: a portrait of a fluffy cat and a handsome dog. She was trained as an artist, specifically a sculptress, in her homeland of Spain, but said she thinks her real talent is in painting portraits.

I can’t argue with her. Her paintings are quite lovely. I can’t paint – it gives me a tension headache – and am always impressed when people can. You never know what hidden talents the laundry mistress has up her sleeve. Beyond those fingers and hands folding clothes is a gifted artist.

I returned to the hotel with the clean laundry neatly folded in a suitcase, expecting to be the hero, the one who saved everyone from the curse of dirty laundry. But everyone was agitated and angry, complaining that my insistence on doing laundry had screwed up the packing process, and some clothes were still a little damp.

Truth be told, I didn’t care all that much about the laundry. I would have done practically anything at that point to get away from my family for just a few minutes. Traveling is a luxury and a privilege, but sometimes it can feel smothering, even stifling. Sometimes being alone in a stuffy laundromat and staring at tumbling clothes is what you need to regroup and get your head right. Sometimes talking to a laundry mistress is all the therapy you need.

21 thoughts on “Dirty Laundry

  1. When my kids were at home and at least middle school age, I stopped doing their laundry and after a few times of them not having clean clothes(or at least the ones they wanted) they got on the band wagon soon enough. You are right about not showing up to a relative with a bag of dirty laundry, men can be a bit dense especially when it comes to their sisters.


  2. Ahhh….I don’t have laundry in my apartment. We have a laundry room in our basement. On that alone I don’t know how laundry gets done in our house…..but…my daughter will be well prepared for commercial machines….


  3. I loved the United Arab Emirates where for a nominal fee, they would do my laundry and dry cleaning. Much cheaper than here. I have very bad memories of being locked in a basement in Forest Hills, Queens when I got stuck in an elevator while doing the laundry. We have a little laundry room in the house. When we go on vacation, my husband doesn’t mind doing the laundry. He is ex-military and thoroughly versed in how to get around this pleasantly. A morning walk alone in London sounds like a nice way to get some time alone.


  4. Leave it to you to find a laundress/painter in a foreign capital. I do my own wash, folding and hanging without spousal assistance. Not much of a chore when you’re doing it for one.


  5. I am one of those rare people who actually finds doing laundry sort of soothing. As long as I’m doing it just by myself, that is. Now my husband is very happy to help do laundry, but rarely actually puts his clean clothes away. He just leaves them piled on his dresser, until it gets to the point where I’m afraid the pile might fall over. Only then does he put it away!


  6. I used to have to take my comforter into the laundromat because our washer wasnt big enough. I loved those days! Three hours of peace and quiet. I would read or write. It was my escape.


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