Trouble at the Ridgewood Laundromat



Neighborhood: Featured, Ridgewood

From 1964 to 1974, I lived in a brown-bricked apartment building near the corner of Palmetto Street and Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood, New York. The Mathews Brothers built 650 of these 6-unit buildings, sometimes known as Mathews Flats, early in the 20th century. I lived with my brother and sister and our parents on the second floor of a five-room railroad flat.

Just outside the rows of Matthews buildings stood a rusted elevated railway that had the “MJ” or “M” subway lines roaring along the tracks and interrupting our TV watching or family conversations.

As I grew older in this noisy neighborhood, I progressed in schooling from grade school to middle school and then to high school and was also assigned to progressively more challenging chores–taking out the garbage, going to the store, and doing the family laundry.

It was in 1973 that my parents assigned me to do the laundry. It was a chore I hated.

Every week, along the shadowy sidewalk, I pushed a shopping cart loaded with bags of the family’s dirty laundry until I would end up at the location of a coin-operated laundromat. I headed inside the first floor storefront, thinking about the work and time involved in doing the family wash. Unlike today, when I can drop off and pick up the wash from the laundromat proprietor, in those days I had to stay and wash and dry the clothes myself. This whole process took about two hours. Now, if the time it took to do this wash were the only problem, I might not have dreaded doing this chore.

At the beginning, when I loaded the family clothes into these washing machines, I would sometimes overload them in a futile attempt to economize, so that I would not have to hear again from my parents who had questioned why I was spending too much money in doing the family wash. Yet, in trying to please my parents, I ended up angering the laundromat proprietor–a white male with a receding hairline whose name was Tony. He would scold me for overloading the washing machines, which often resulted in the water building up to a too high level, causing the machines to shut down. The angry proprietor then had to open these machines and drain out the water before they could function again. Eventually, I managed to find the desired balance of monetary economy versus machine functionality.

For several months, I continued bringing the family laundry to this laundromat. Sometimes while I did the family wash, Tony would have a radio on that played 1970s songs that I liked, making the dreaded chore a little easier to bear.

Then, one day, Tony was gone. He was replaced by another proprietor–an Asian male with black hair named Joe. Unlike Tony, who was unfriendly, with Joe it was possible to have a conversation. I thought there would be no more problems doing the family wash. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Whereas Joe never made doing this family chore any more unpleasant than it otherwise was, there were two neighborhood girls who hung out at the laundromat who would prove to be trouble. One was named Betty, and I never did learn the name of the other. Both soon showed their sexual aggressiveness. One girl or the other would ask me this question, “Hey, ‘high-waters,’ do you have a big dick?” This vulgar question shocked me, for I was a very shy adolescent who did not have any girlfriends. I said nothing and ignored them while I did the family wash.

The two girls continued their vulgarity in subsequent encounters with me. On one particular encounter, when the girls were voicing their explicit descriptions of the male anatomy, Joe who was within earshot, overheard them and smiled. He uttered afterwards, “Big dick! Big dick!”

I looked at Joe, realizing that he had poor self-control. I suspected that he was headed for trouble.

Over time, Joe would disappear with these two girls into a small back room within this laundromat. I could hear yelling and moaning from Joe and these two willing teenage girls. I suspected that Joe was molesting them.

I realized that Joe was headed for ruination.

One day, a brown-haired woman dressed in blue jeans entered the laundromat while I was doing the wash. She spotted Joe and walked up to him. The woman told Joe that she and her friend would never patronize his business again. Joe stood silently, as this woman quickly departed, and I continued to monitor the progress of the washing machines.

Around mid-1974, after I entered the laundromat, I observed that Joe was not smiling, but rather he looked upset. Joe grimly announced the following: “I lost four thousand dollars!” I said nothing, but I knew that Joe’s proprietorship was doomed. Instead of talking with him, I proceeded to do the family wash.

On the following week–which was shortly before I moved to an apartment in Glendale–I entered the laundromat and saw that Joe was gone. His replacement–a middle-aged Asian female–responded haltingly when I had asked her for change. I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that this initial meeting would be the last time that I would see this woman with an unknown name who pronounced the word “dimes” in this way-“di-mas.”

Years later, in the early 1980s, I visited where I had lived in Ridgewood, Queens. After reaching the corner of Palmetto Street and Cypress Avenue, I searched to see if the laundromat was still there. It was gone, replaced by a clothing store. I turned away and headed eastwards on Cypress Avenue in the direction of my parents’ house in Glendale.


Ronald G. Mazzella is a freelance writer who has published three nonfiction pieces and one poem. He is hoping to publish a recently completed manuscript soon.

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§ One Response to “Trouble at the Ridgewood Laundromat”

  • Tsb says:

    Sometimes a piece of writing leaves you asking questions, and sometimes this is a good thing. I’m debating whether it is a good thing in this instance.

    The first question: why, while this sexual bacchanal was unfolding in the laundromat’s back room, does the narrator frame it as a molestation of the girls, and not Joe? For that matter, why does Joe repeating these girl’s phrase, “big dick “indicate that he has poor self-control?

    There’s something almost mythological about these taunting girls, their appetite in their aggression, and in that one phrase about the scene in the back room, they are reduced to helpless teenagers.

    Which maybe they were. I feel that should be developed one way the other.

    Then there is the question of the $4000. It’s a pretty thrilling moment in the plot of this short piece. But it’s never explained how or why Joe lost $4000.

    My first thought, which I suspect is incorrect, was that he had to pay it in some kind of settlement involving these girls and his behavior. But remark about self control makes me think it was something along the lines of gambling or some other vice. I don’t know what the reality is, but I would like to know what the narrator thinks about it.

    I love the attention to the built environment here, I’m basically here for laundromat stories. I think we should probably try to do a book of them. And I’m starting to think that the real energy of this website are the voices from outside Manhattan, even though it began within it.

    But not entirely sure I love this piece in it’s current form. I think what I most want from it, is the point of view of the narrator. At first the Dragnet show Joe Friday dead pan is extremely appealing, but at some point I want his voice, his speculation, his nostalgia, his fear, all of it to present itself in more evolved, mature form.

    Get me Rewrite!

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