Sunday, May 03, 2009

If you read this, SuperSkinny Lady, please contact me to clear up the mystery!

The Laundromat's dryers smell.

If I had thought about it, which I had never before yesterday, I would have probably hoped to have lived the rest of my life without finding out that the laundromat's dryers smell, and without, then, wondering what kinds of clothes are so dirty that after they are washed, they smell so bad that they stink up the dryer?

But, then, life takes you down interesting paths sometimes, and sometimes those paths take you to the laundromat twice in just a few months, and at the laundromat you will sit and think "I'm forty years old. Why am I sitting in a laundromat wondering what people have to do to their clothes to get the smell to carry over to a dryer?"

Sweetie and I had to go to the laundromat yesterday, a trip that was necessitated by the computer in our washer breaking down. We've only had the washer for a few months, and already its computer is broken, which makes me wonder this about American society:

Why do washers need computers?

On the list of appliances that I would have thought could survive without having HAL 9000 run them, "a large box filled with water" would have ranked very highly. What is going on in our washer that's so complicated that it requires computers to run it? Fill with water. Swirl around. Drain water. Spin quickly. It could be run by a Speak-and-spell, I suspect.

But our washer has a computer, or, rather, had, since the repairman who came said our computer died and needed to be replaced. I suppose it was lucky the computer simply expired quietly and didn't go out in grand 2001 or Wargames style. I don't like to picture Sweetie heading downstairs with a basket full of blankets and a Hello Kitty doll (we'll get to that in a moment) and entering our laundry room (which is also our furnace and hot water heater and litter-box room) and then, before she can begin loading the clothes, hearing an eerie mechanical voice say something like "Greetings, Sweetie. Do You Want To Play A Game?," to which Sweetie would reply "Sure. How about 'quit screwing around and get the work done'?" "Global Thermonuclear War" would have to wait until the laundry was done, the Babies!' room cleaned up, the kitchen organized, the dishes put away, the living room vacuumed, all the beds were made, errands were run, the front porch was swept off, tomorrow's lunches were packed, the mail was sent out, email was checked and responded to, the cats were fed, dinner was in the oven, and the grocery list was made, by which point J.O.S.H.U.A. would have given up and gone to play "Dr. Slider" with the Babies!.

Even HAL 9000 wouldn't have stood much chance of standing up to Sweetie when she wants to get work done.

Sweetie waited patiently all week for the repairman to get the new computer to put into the washer so that the complicated work of fill-spin-empty could be monitored and implemented by the Maytag Skynet, but by yesterday afternoon, when he still hadn't called, she had had enough and decided we were going to the Laundromat. Looking at the mountain of laundry that had piled up in five days -- laundry that included not only "Hello Kitty" but a stuffed tiger and our bathroom rugs-- I agreed we should do something, and apparently throwing it all out and starting over was not a viable option.

"Hello Kitty," I can now explain, made it in there because Mr F likes Sweetie's stuffed "Hello Kitty." Likes it to a degree that bugs The Boy, who feels that "Hello Kitty" is not manly enough for a two-year-old boy to play with, and who tries to encourage Mr F to play with more boy-ish toys like a stuffed tiger. I try to point out that Mr F doesn't know that "Hello Kitty" is a girl and is for girls, but The Boy doesn't care. He wants Mr F to be more manly, like Mr Bunches is. Mr Bunches plays with cars and trucks, rolling them and crashing them and driving them and throwing them at people, like he did to my unsuspecting, 64-year-old mother the other day. The Boy approves of things like that. He doesn't approve of Mr F holding "Hello Kitty" in a hug and bouncing on the trampoline while watching The Disney Channel.

"Hello Kitty" was in the wash, as was the more-manly stuffed tiger The Boy prefers Mr F to play with, because Mr F had both in his bed the other day when he managed to work his diaper off during his nap... getting the diaper off before he went to the bathroom, resulting in the colossal collection of junk that resides in Mr F's bed needing to be washed, or thrown away, or both.

Mr F's bed is always messy. He likes a lot of stuff in there. On the day of the De-Diapering, he had a stuffed tiger, a stuffed Hello Kitty, two of his own books and one of the romance novels Sweetie likes, a little computer-ish toy that will say the alphabet and sing the scales when buttons are pressed, an old baby teething ring that makes rattling sounds, his toothbrush, two empty DVD cases, a few random sheets of paper, and an interestingly-shaped piece of plastic that I believe was the container Sweetie's razors had come in.

Mr Bunches is just the opposite: Nothing is allowed in his bed, which is a pristine plain of blankets compared to Mr F's junkbox. Try to put him to bed with a stuffed animal, and he throws it back at you. The only thing he'll allow you to put in his bed with him are his shoes, which last night he made me put on him before he went to bed so that he could sleep in his sneakers. He loves those shoes.

We had six giant bins of laundry to take to the Laundromat, and so, at about 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon, we loaded up the SUV and headed off to do some laundry, college-style. I asked Sweetie if she was going to bring along the book she was reading.

"No," she said. "We're going to spend some time together." At which point I decided to leave behind my iPod and Entertainment Weekly.

The Laundromat was surprisingly crowded for early Saturday evening on a nice day. We had to make our way past a bunch of people who had hogged up the good, giant washers right near the entrance. An older lady sitting on a chair guarding her washers said "Look at that! A man helping with the laundry," as we walked in, a comment that required me to give her a smile-and-nod, the most minimal acknowledgement of that joke that society allowed me.

There were, I noted almost immediately, four other men in the laundromat. I wondered if each of them had been greeted with the same joke -- and I wondered why, if I was number 5, she was still so surprised that men were helping with the laundry.

I knew my way around this Laundromat. Even though it's been 9 years since we first had a washer and dryer in our house, I'd been here recently when one of the cats went to the bathroom on a chair cushion and I'd had to come here to use the industrial strength washers to try to save the chair, which otherwise was 24 hours away from being put curbside. (It worked, but in case you ever visit our house, I won't mention which chair it was.) That time, I'd come with Mr F and Mr Bunches and we'd spent the time alternating between playing ball and me trying to get them to quit opening other people's dryers, because when they did open them, the clothes would fall out and I'd have to go pick up stranger's clothes and that's disgusting.

I doubted I'd spend my time the same way, here. Sweetie and I quickly got $20 worth of quarters (that sounds like a lot, but it turned out not to be enough) and took up a whole row of giant, front-loading silvery machines. We got them going and sat down in the horribly uncomfortable chairs that Laundromats provide, and tried to figure out what to do over the next hour or so. We settled on talk, and, secretly, I also settled on Spy On Other People And Wonder If They're Creepy.

Our topics of conversation included "Lines From TV Shows That We Thought Are Funny," "Jokes About Oldest Being Lazy," "Relatives," "What Do You Think The Twins Are Doing At Home While The Boy Babysits" and -- my conversational starter: "Do you think running a laundromat would be an easy way to make money?"

My position was yes. I supported that by pointing out that nobody even needed to be there to run the business -- just unlock the doors and let people go. They can't steal the washers and they can't be sure you're not checking in, plus everyone kind of polices everyone else. "And," I pointed out, "They don't even seem to be trying to clean it up between customers." It was true, too -- the fake plants they had between rows of washers were dusty and tired and sad-looking, and the floor had lint and dryer sheets all over it. While it wasn't messy, it wasn't clean, either.

Sweetie was noncommittal, probably because she didn't want me to start planning to open a string of Laundromats in my next bid to get rich and move to Hawaii (Headline in Hawaiian paper's "Society" Page: Laundromat King of Middleton, Wisconsin, Relocates to Small Island In Tropical Paradise." Sub-head: "Sweetie said it would never work, but here we are.")

In between those conversations, we watched the other people in the Laundromat, which drew a wide range of types. There was the married-or-dating couple, a guy in a Badgers t-shirt with a woman I first took to be his Mom, but then decided was his much-older (or at least much-older-looking) girlfriend. They had with them a wide-eyed little baby who kept staring at me everytime Mom/Girlfriend carried him past. At one point, Boyfriend/Dad was playing with the baby and stood him up on top of a ledge atop a folding table, and I got nervous for the baby in case Dad/Boyfriend dropped him.

Then there was Outside-Reading-Guy, a guy who came in, threw his stuff into a washer as near the door as he could, then sat outside reading a book. He didn't sit outside because he was smoking or anything. He just sat outside on a chair he'd moved there for that purpose, and read a book. It was a nice day, but not so nice that it made sense to sit outside, and I wondered if he felt superior to the rest of us and refused to sit with us, the way I felt superior to the rest of them because I had a washer at home (albeit one without a computer) and so I didn't really need to be here.

"Hey," I wanted to say to Outside Reading Guy. "You're not better than me. I read, too, and I've got a washer at home." But I didn't, because I didn't want to have to explain that it was broken, and also because Sweetie and I were relating to each other and talking.

The most inexplicable person in the Laundromat was SuperSkinny Woman, this lady that came in there looking almost two-dimensional, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. She didn't have a bag or laundry basket or anything. She had a tiny container of detergent and what I first mistook for a small purse. It wasn't a purse; it was her laundry. From that bag -- about the size of my fist-- she quickly pulled a tiny amount of what must have been her laundry, put it in the washer (before I could see what it was) and then closed the lid, started the machine, and left.

Who, I wondered, goes to the laundromat to wash laundry that has the mass equivalent of one sock? She couldn't have had much laundry in that purse-thing. I wanted to go open her washer and see what she was washing -- the gloves she'd worn while murdering her husband? -- but you can't just do that.

In fact, looking at people's laundry in a laundromat seems strangely forbidden, something I realized when I was looking at our laundry -- watching "Hello Kitty" go around the dryer -- but our laundry was in between the Spanish Couple and The Guide Woman, a three-person group made up of two older Hispanic people, a man and a woman, and a girl who was probably in her twenties and dressed like she was going to a not-so-reputable health club; the girl periodically showed the older pair how to work things and spoke to them in Spanish but didn't talk to them much otherwise -- and our laundry, which I was looking at, was in a dryer between the Spanish Couple's dryer and the Guide's Dryer. As I watched our laundry, the Guide began unloading her laundry, then looked at me, and as I looked away, realizing she thought I was looking at her, or her laundry, she turned to take her laundry out of the dryer while shielding it from my view.

So I guess it would have been okay if I'd watched her laundry in the dryer, with its giant glass front, but not if I watch her laundry as it's folded into her basket.

At some point, Sweetie and I switched from talking about things that came to our mind to, specifically, talking about going to pick up pizzas for dinner and also when will this laundry be done? We began checking the dryers -- all six of them, scattered around the wall-- periodically.

One thing that's always bugged me about Laundromats: having my clothes separated by others' clothes. We had to pick and choose dryers on the wall of dryers, so that we had two here, and two there, and two over there, because people had apparently randomly selected dryers, interspersing their clothes all over the place, which made it hard for me to even keep track of which dryers had our clothes in them, except for the dryer that had "Hello Kitty" in it. If I have to go again, I'm bringing five or six different stuffed animals and putting them into each dryer load to mark my clothes, and also to give my drying some visual appeal.

As we checked the clothes, I became aware that not only were they not getting very dry, they were also getting... smelly.

At first, I thought Well, it's probably because they're wet, they'll de-smellify once they dry. But that didn't make sense, because they hadn't been smelly when I got them out of the washers, they'd smelled clean.

As the loads, one-by-one, got dry, the truth became apparent: The dryers had stunk up our clothing. At first, I was too distracted to focus on that because SuperSkinny Woman had reappeared and removed her microlaundry from the washer, putting it into a dryer further down and disappearing again, and I wanted, desperately, to go look at that dryer and see what it was she could be washing -- one square of a quilt?-- but I couldn't come up with an excuse to walk down there, look to my right, and come back.

That, and Sweetie was saying "Do you think the clothes smell?"

"Yes, they do," I agreed. We got them into the bins and looked at them for a second, wondering what to do.

"Maybe if I run them through the dryer at home," Sweetie suggested. "With a lot of dryer sheets," she added.

"That might work," I agreed. Of course, they were already mostly dry, but they clearly couldn't be worn. I could smell the musty odor coming off of them -- they smelled like laundry that had been thrown into the woods by the Mob and left there for a jogger to stumble across weeks later, at which point David Caruso would crouch down by the pile of terrible-smelling laundry, take off his sunglasses, and grouse: "Looks like they've been permanently pressed."

We picked up the laundry and bundled it back out to the car, loading up and swinging by the pizza place on the way home to get some dinner. Back home, I trundled the still-smelly laundry into the laundry room, where Sweetie began loading it into the dryer while The Boy set up for dinner.

Later on that night, as I got the Babies! into their sleepers from the night before, the only sleepers they had that hadn't been Stunkified by the Laundromat, Sweetie said "I'm going to have to rewash all the clothes."

I don't know what could've happened to those dryers, and I'm a little worried that the smell will never come out of the clothes, even after they're Computer Washed at our house. Of course, if it doesn't come out, then I'll at least have the thrill of knowing that we should've gone with my plan -- throw it all out, start over -- in the first place. That plan had an added benefit, too: If we'd gone with my plan originally, I wouldn't have tossed and turned all last night asking myself over and over the same question:

What could SuperSkinny Lady have been washing?

Coolness continuum:

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