The real estate maxim “location, location, location” dictates that just building it won’t make them come, you have to build it under their noses. While this may hold for the surfeit of restaurants and Starbucks in New York City, the exact opposite is true for laundromats. Wherever, and however shoddily they are built, people come, even those who aren’t using them for their intended purpose. Take the one on the corner of Henry and President Street, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. This linty, linoleum-floored hovel has remained under-managed and over-populated since the beginning of my Sunday afternoon visits nine years ago, yet I always see the same three elderly people there and their lingering presence in this intermittent place both touches and horrifies me. In fact, for them, the laundromat’s cachet seems to be its forgiving, voyeuristic atmosphere. Its slovenly surface provides excellent camouflage to their loneliness and personal disarray while still offering the social benefit of being out in public.
I try to get in and out as fast as the machines allow. On a few occasions, out of lethargy or a desire to observe my neighborhood through its washing trends, I stay and poke around. The Carroll Gardens Courier and three-month old US Weekly magazines, left in piles on the front window sill, occupy me for half a wash cycle. There is always a grainy photocopied “Need-a-Hand?” advertisement, whose paper fringes have been torn off or scribbled on, taped to the laundromat’s main fuse box by the door. The clothes carts have never been replaced and their wheels are so clogged with rolled-over human hair that they must be pushed in jagged, energy-draining spurts. All rules and warnings from the management are scratched on small pieces of white-lined paper with no attention to visibility. I have lost many dollars putting coins in a dryer before stumbling on a “does not get hot” sign lying on the floor. Local teenagers abuse the pay phone. Couples hold ocean-sized sheets between themselves like jump rope. Children pound the soda machine and cry when their mothers, toting bushels, yank their arms. The toe of a long, black, pill-studded sock in the ‘lost + found’ waggles from the roar of a grimy standing fan in the corner opposite the chair of the earliest-arriving resident.
* * *
She deposits herself early by the right hand window facing Henry Street which I pass in the morning on my way to the subway. At first, I gave my glance at her the same amount of interest I give when I contemplate the sidewalk disappearing under my feet. She entered my thoughts very gradually until one day, by the utter absence of variation in her habit and mien, I became fixated on her. Her gaze never meets my appraising eye; it is always trained diagonally across the street. She is the personification of worry, a breathing dread, druidic in a beige silk headscarf, a mole grows amid the faintest mustache. I have never seen her either standing or walking. She simply materializes there every morning and is then secreted away at nightfall before I return from work. I often wonder about parallel experience. At the second I am writing this, what is she doing, and a minute from now? Does she know or care that the new Nolita is three blocks away? I imagine the laundromat’s quietude, tolled by the ping of a drying nickel, comforts her, as it sometimes does me.
Last week I got my hands on an entire New York Times sitting under the nose of Mary, the other older woman I track, who takes her place by the soda-machine at a later shift. She waved the paper off into my eager hands as though its presence were a nuisance. Appearing to be under heavy sedation most of the time, she resembles a pile of unwashed laundry left unattended on a chair. Her disheveled and graying dark knots of hair are her most lively feature. She rouses herself from her torpor to drink Manhattan Special, crumb a roll from Mazzola’s, and utter harsh, incomprehensible diatribes from within her hunched shoulders. Her grimace is mean and distorted. No one seems bothered by her co-opting of precious clothes-folding space, so much has she carved her territory in the left corner table. As the afternoon nears evening, I see she lurches over to where the staff gather to fold, favoring her short leg. They treat her kindly, if distractedly.
And then there is an older gentleman. He is the most heartbreaking, because he appears genuinely lonely, not so far gone as the other two. When Mary shifts her seat to the staff area, I have seen him slip into her chair and bend over whatever mess she has left behind. He always wears a neat, white sailor cap, and a light beige barracuda jacket. In the colder months this boyish outfit is beefed up with a cardigan sweater and giant, bright red mittens. His ruddy complexion makes me think he has spent his life working outdoors, and is he retired? Widowed? He never talks to anyone, but seems aware of the goings-on, poised to speak if spoken to. He shifts chairs periodically to glean the most activity from the bustling clientele.
* * *
The private act done in public reaches an apex in a laundromat. Perhaps these friendless souls are nourished on the skirmishes and intimacies that we all know can break out at any minute. They cling to, but are not a part of the machinery. Or are they? I haven’t seen the worried woman in months. I want to find out what has happened to her, but fear finding out she has died. The gentleman, recognizing me from his weekly sightings, nods shy greetings to me. Mary endures. None of them, to be sure, are writing essays about me. These three have found an unlikely hospice in the fray of a public washroom, and inspired at least one follower.