I know my underwear is in there somewhere, nestled gently and warmly at the bottom of the dryer. I can see the dryer, it’s on the top row of a long line of dryers. It sits idle, its job finished. They are all finished, every machine at ease after a hard day’s work of washing the dirty underwear, soiled rags, pubic-hair lined towels, period-stained sheets and bedbug-harboring comforters of Brooklyn.
If you ever want to know the makeup of a neighborhood, go to its laundromats. Mine is a melting pot and everyone comes here to wash their clothes, immigrants from Mexico, Poland, Bangladesh, the West Indies, some Puerto Ricans, a random smattering of Blacks and Whites—everyone but the Hassids. One by one the machines yawned open to offer their last loads to mothers, daughters, bachelors and bachelorettes, college grads and retirees. Maybe each of these people surreptitiously smelled the armpit of their favorite yoga shirts, the arch of their socks, the crotch of a pair of boxers to confirm their garments’ most recent baptism. Clean laundry is an unparalleled smell of accomplishment. Perhaps the clean laundry is the only thing they accomplished today, or maybe one of many accomplishments so numerous as to be called chores.
I think of the people I saw when I did my laundry. They are all home now, with clean clothes. I am not. My fresh clean laundry is resting at the bottom of a dryer and I am outside the laundromat rattling at the locked front door like a madwoman. I grab the metal door handle and forcefully yank it too and fro; if it were an infant it would surely be dead. The lights are out but the metal gate has not been drawn so I still have hope I will get my underwear. Maybe the attendant is using the bathroom? It’s not yet ten, so the expectation that I can retrieve my clothes is not unfounded. Soon someone deep in the bowels of the laundromat, maybe looking for light bulbs, will come out soon. They have to. I am not wearing underwear and I have places to go.
But no one comes out. They only thing I accomplish is seeing how truly insane I look. I see it in reflection in the glass door. My antics have exacerbated my cowlick and my unbound boobs wobble gently under my tank top. I actually don’t know the exact closing time of the laundromat. It is not my favorite laundromat for this reason, but it is the closest. Once, a few months ago, I came a little after ten to get my laundry from the drier thinking the place was open until eleven, like the other place is as indicated conspicuously on the front door. But this place posts no signs.
“At ten we close,” said the attendant the next morning when I picked up my clothes before work. They were not fresh and warm, but cold, wrinkled and resentful.
“Okay, I didn’t know that. I tried to look for your hours but they’re not posted?” I tried really hard not to sound angry and when I filter my angry sentences they come out as questions or exclamations.
“Yes, at ten we close.”
“Okay! I wish I had known that!”
“Yes,” said the woman. She was Mexican, with short wiry white hair. She is good at maintaining the flow of the laundry—making sure one does not have to wait too long for a drier. But she comes and goes as she pleases. She’s definitely not there when the coin machine is not working and you need to exchange your dollar for some quarters. With all the coming and going and maintaining the laundry flow I guess she hasn’t found time to post the hours.
Tonight I look for the hours and they’re still not posted. I rattled the door again. Expletives rattle around in my head, but stay there. I may not know where this woman is, or when this goddamn place closes, but I do know that I will not leave here without my laundry.
The attendants must live in the neighborhood. There is nothing else to explain their constant coming and going. I will rattle on this door until it is the only sound in the street, or at least until I figure out what to do next. I do not rattle long before I hear shouting.
I turn around and see a family of Mexicans across the street. Some sit on their front stoop, others lean on their neighbor’s fence. There are mostly men, but among them is a woman holding a baby. Are they the owners? Is the attendant among them? Or are they just annoyed by the rattling?
I cross the street to find out. I must gather the loose folds of my skirt against my thighs lest a car’s breeze lifts it up to reveal the reason I am desperate to get my laundry.
My mother always said you can catch more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar, but I choose a neutral flavor for this interaction. If I am too nice they might get the false impression that I can be convinced that I don’t really need my underwear today. If I am too mean they might not help me at all.
“Hey,” I say. It seems like a neutral way to start. “Do you know where the woman went who works at the laundromat?”
“She left. Is closed,” says a man in a red shirt.
“When is she coming back?”
“She come back in the morning.”
“I can’t come back in the morning. I need my clothes now.”
The red-shirted man looks at the man nearest him, a man in a Mets cap.
“She left,” says the man in the cap.
Since they are speaking for the laundromat they must know the employees, but how well?
“Do you have her phone number?”
Again they look at each other. I am a random, apparently desperate stranger and they don’t know what to do with me.
“No,” they say in unison.
“Is she the owner?”
“Where does the owner live?”
The red-shirted man shrugs.
“He lives nearby, right?”
I pretend to know this truth to be self-evident. If the movies have taught me anything, it’s that the more information you purport to know, the more you’ll get in return.
“I no know,” says the red-shirted man. “You can come in the morning?”
“I cannot come in the morning.”
The red-shirted man exchanges more looks with the capped man. The woman on the stoop says something in Spanish—nothing to do with the owner’s domicile or the employee’s whereabouts. She simply wants to know what the heck it was I want.
As the red-shirted man explains things, the capped man leans towards me.
“He lives around the corner, third building,” he says in a hushed conspiratorial tone, as if he were explaining where the local crack house was.
I nod, thank the man, and hurry off before his companion decides to renew his effort to convince me to come back in the morning.
I turn the corner, past a small apartment complex and a house, and stop in front of the third building, a narrow three-story multi-unit home with a gate, a small postage stamp sized patch of grass for a yard, and wide porches on the first and second floors.
There are three doorbells and three mailboxes. All windows are bereft of light except a large window on the first floor that faced the street. I try to spy movement in the window. This might not be the owner’s window, or even his house. I’ll ring every doorbell I could find, and if this isn’t the house I’ll try all the others on the block until I procure someone who can help me procure my underwear.
I stare at the house, mentally fortifying myself to canvas the whole block if I have to.
“Hey!” A male voice shakes me to attention. I turn and see a short black man of indiscernible age approach me. His accent suggests he is from the West Indies.
“I hear you’re looking for your clothes.”
“Yes, yes I am.” Apparently my racket had alerted the whole neighborhood to my quandary.
“You’re at the right place. Try the first floor. The guy’s name is Mohammad.”
“Yes, do you see how the grate is open? They do that when they know someone still needs their clothes.”
“But how are people supposed to know how to get in? Why can’t they just stay open?”
“Everyone knows where Mohammad lives!”
“Well, I didn’t know where Mohammad lives!”
“You must be new to the neighborhood.”
“I’ve been here for almost two years,” I protest.
“That is new,” he laughs. “I’ve been here almost thirty years.”
I concede that it is, indeed, a very long time and open the gate to Mohammad’s yard. The man nods at me as I make my way to the porch and ring the bell.
Mohammad’s frame quickly fills the doorway. He does not seem fazed by me, a complete stranger, standing on his porch.
The man, who is tall, doesn’t look directly at me, but over my shoulder at the thirty-year resident and waves. His neighbor waves back. I have been vouched for, and Mohammad directs his attention to me. “Yes?”
“Hey Mohammad! Sorry to bother you, but I really need to pick up my clothes—I thought you guys closed at ten, so I got to the laundromat ten minutes before and it was locked!”
“Okay,” says Mohammad. “Let me get my key.”
I join the neighbor on the sidewalk as Mohammad retreats into the house. While I wait for Mohammad he tells me about a DJ gig he has tonight in the Lower East Side. He shows me a postcard and tells me I should come and bring friends. He saunters into the night when Mohammad ambles up nonchalantly swinging his keys.
I wait to see if he would address the issue at hand here, that his business had closed prematurely, putting me in the precarious situation of wandering commando around the neighborhood—a place full of children and people who subscribe to religions that forbid them from showing the face, hair and ankles, but he did not.
“So…what are your normal hours? You close at ten, right?”
“This month is complicated. It is Ramadan, so I cannot be there so late.”
“I see. But it was a woman who was there?”
“Yes, sometimes she leaves early.”
We cross the street and I hold my skirt down again. I stand behind Mohammad as he unlocks the door. His numerous keys clap against the glass. The person I see in the reflection now is composed and collected, an ordinary customer waiting to pick up her laundry.
I do not wait for Mohammad to turn on the lights. I rush to the drier and quickly dump my clean clothes into my granny cart. I do not hold them up to my nose or bother folding them. Mohammad turns on the light and passes by as I grab a wad of underwear as colorful as collection of tropical bird feathers.
I should not have felt sheepish about my underwear. Undergarments are to a launderer as vaginas are to gynecologists, but I treat them like contraband anyway and quickly stuff them into my bag.
Mohammad is sitting at his desk, counting the day’s earnings by the time I’m done.
“No problem!” He looks up and waved at me.
I drag the granny cart through the door and into the night. I look across the street and see that the Mexican family is watching me. I wave and they wave back.
It is good to have clean underwear.