Thoughts Akimbo

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When underwear becomes a public affair

There’s only one legitimate way to pass the time while you’re washing your clothes at the coin-op laundry: scowl at your tumbling clothes.

Because, you know, you feel uncool having to be there at all. So after you put in the clothes and soap and things start twirling, the most cool thing you can do is scowl, as if something’s not quite right. Not enough water or soap or something. Hmmm. Frankly, your expression says, I’m a little bit disappointed in this laundry facility and I might just take my business elsewhere next time.

If you’re temporarily stuck without laundry facilities—say, something too disgusting to mention happens with your septic system—you can wash your clothes at a friend’s house. But in those little home machines, your week’s worth of laundry would be a three-hour project. So you have to choose a friend you can have a conversation with for that long a stretch. The only adult I like that well is my daughter, and her laundry facilities are in high demand by roommates and such. If I were to leave a load of clothes in her dryer, for example, someone might move my (still damp) clothes onto a nearby (unwashed) kitchen table so he could dry the shirt he just got a (ketchup) stain on–because he’s in a hurry because it’s his work shirt because his shift starts in 15 minutes!

I try to avoid washing clothes anywhere people have situations that require exclamation points. But that means I have to share the task with that lady with a cigarette dangling from her lower lip who’s folding her husband’s giant boxers and singing along with the country music on the radio.

No matter how high-tech or upscale the facility, there is something slightly embarrassing about public laundry. First of all, it’s the only time your underwear and sheets are likely to see the outside world. Second, you’re expected to fold everything into rectangles at the end, which, as everyone knows, is impossible with a fitted bottom sheet.

My most embarrassing moment happened in a coin-op laundry. I was transferring more wet clothes to the dryer when a handsome young man pointed out that I had dropped something. It was a pair of panties emblazoned with “SEXY TIME.” They had been a sort of gag gift before my wedding, but I still know what Sexy Time means. Although I can’t quite remember when it is …

So that was my most embarrassing moment, but only for about 30 seconds. Because then I scooped up my SEXY TIME panties and threw them into a dryer full of clothes, getting them out of sight as quickly as possible. But it wasn’t a dryer full of MY clothes. My dryer was right next to the one I threw my panties in. So I had to rummage through a stranger’s tumbling laundry, trying to catch the elusive undergarment and untangle it from other undergarments. That moment retains the title as Most Embarrassing.

I’ve heard there are new trends in coin-op laundries in some of the big cities. One urban friend said her laundry now requires her to bring her own change, or pay by credit card. That seems un-American. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that we have the right in this country to show up with a bag of dirty clothes and a dream, and leave with a pile of something clean to wear. I believe that’s included in the Constitution, under Article 92, also known as the Article of Clothing.

In Chicago, there’s a laundry that adjoins a bar, meant to attract people who would rather sip a beer than scowl at their tumbling clothes. I’m not sure if that would make the task any easier, but it might take the edge off my humiliation when I’m trying to fold that fitted sheet into a rectangle.

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