Lent Reflection 1: The Laundromat


Amos Disasa and his father Jerman shared essays inspired by our Lent 2012 theme “Reintroducing You” during our mid-week lunch gatherings at The Spot on Blanding. Each week Amos and his father, inspired by a common theme and connected by one very long journey, read one essay. The genesis of the project can be explored here. The archive of essays is here.


Amos’ Essay on the Laundromat

When I was young I assumed that everyone in the city went to the laundromat. This over-generalization can be blamed on the fact that I lived in sprawling apartment complexes until I was in 10th grade. My friends, which were always my neighbors, did not have washing machines in their apartments and naively assuming your tiny little life is an accurate representation of the rest of the world is still permissible in childhood. Some people remain in this cute innocent state, forever. They will grow up to be unbearable fundamentalists with a worldview as big as their block.

The laundromat, I now know, is the loudest/quietest place in the world. I mean to say that the noise is persistent, surprising, and diverse, but it is almost never organic. People do not talk in the laundromat and yet, it is not a place where one should go to meditate or sleep.

Sure, some of the sounds are soothing. The wirl of the industrial washer on it's spin cycle is hypnotic. The steady hum of a dryer lasts much longer but lacks the decibel volume to drown out ambient noise. If your imagination is vivid, the gush of water pouring into the washer at the start of the wash and rinse cycles will transport you to the banks of a mountain stream.

However, these subdued,calm sounds are only half the story. The industrial washers that whirled a hypnotic spin cycle must eventually stop, and when they do, it always sounds like something broke inside the hulking metal box. Also, every laundromat offers a change machine that drops extra-heavy quarters from what seems like the roof into a metal tray producing a shrill,violent racket that is tolerated only because we are all elated it received our dollar bill without complaint. Finally, the dryer doors are too light to defend against the excited mother that yanks them open out of sheer delight that her time at the laundromat is almost over. The yank sends the glass and aluminum door crashing into it's neighbor, waking all of us who sit quietly beside mountain stream.

For me, this inglorious symphony of sound still echoes through my story. Today a washer and dryer are stationed in the center of my home. I rarely use them though, as my wife Sarah prefers to manage the monotonous task of washing the bibs, socks, burp cloths, towels, and t-shirts. My ascension to the upper middle class is clear in the multiple loads of laundry completed each week. I'm rich, and rich people enjoy the subtle luxuries of life, like throwing clean clothes in the hamper when you're too lazy to fold them. Ababa, my father, never tolerated such deviations of common sense. And there was a time when I did not either.

It is possible that one or more of my younger brothers joined us for our weekly trip to the laundromat. However, my memory of the laundromat does not include them. Each Saturday we stacked the back seat of our car with two laundry baskets of average size. In hindsight, I'm not sure how a family of five and then six, minimized their laundry output to this extent. Before we left home, the clothes were separated by color. On top of one basket was a tupperware bin filled with powdered detergent, usually Gain, Surf, or some other budget brand - but never Tide. I suspect that the absence of fabric softner was either due to Ababa's thrift or our ignorance. Either way, I don't recall ever complaining about my clothes missing that certain softness.

While each of our apartment complexes offered community laundromats, we opted instead to take our two baskets off site to the laundromats with larger commercial washers and dryers. Ababa claimed that they offered more value. I didn't complain about what I now believe to be a terrible inconvenience. Once we arrived, we did not leave. Ababa believed that you should always finish what you start. Multi-tasking, seemed to him then, and even now, to be counter-productive. So, he encouraged me to bring a book or one of my highlights magazines to read while we waited for the completion of each cycle.

I do not remember ever loving these weekly trips to do laundry. But strangely, what I imagined to be a form of cruel punishment then, is now a cherished memory. Recently when my dryer broke at home, I had to use the coin laundry down the street. It was the first time in many years that I'd returned. For three weeks I dragged what was now four baskets for three people to the laundromat. I was not prepared for the flood of memories that greeted me upon my homecoming.

I noticed the laundromat is the last egalitarian hotspot. You can't hide your stuff there. By your very presence you admit that you can't afford a washer and dryer right now, or that yours is broke. Your favorite 80's style two tone black sweatsuit that you put on each night after work is on the community folding table. The sweatsuit is right beside your socks that you just realized have an obscenely large hole in the heel. At the laundromat you are only as rich as the value of your laundromat issued debit card. And nobody even tries to pretend that they have a "two o'clock" that they have to rush to --- dryer timers don't have any patience for your schedule. To the right of the homeless guy washing one of his two outfits and getting a break from the cold winter chill passing through Columbia is an immigrant, like me, folding a ridiculous amount of clothes for her whole extended family. Beside her is a young working couple with their eyes on their their three kids who are determined to climb in the washers. And sitting silently to my side is a shift worker squeezing in a spin cycle on his one day off. The two of us stare at the bank of dryers where his company-issued uniform is doing a two step beside my privileged preacher undies. This is the gospel according to the laundromat. My only regret is that I didn't have my son with me.


Jerman’s reflection on the Laundromat

Washing Clothes: From the River to the Laundromat

The art of washing clothes by hand is probably as old as the need of wearing clothes.  For me, when growing up in rural Ethiopia, my first memory of clothes was my kitta, a simple shirt hanging down from the shoulders to the knees with no breeches going with it.  It was the only garment I owned.  It had to last me at least for a year, that is, until the next dry season comes around to harvest cash-promising crops such as coffee.  Coffee beans were sold to buy other clothes and other commodities.  My kitta was a rare treasure. I needed to protect it from being tattered while I tried to also keep it reasonably clean, clean from dust and mud but not from my sweat.  At an early age, we kids had to learn how to use the sewing needle to be able to mend our only garment.  My kitta served me by day from the embarrassment of being naked and by night from the brutal cold when the body was not moving, thus difficult to stay warm.

As a little shepherd boy, I washed my kitta perhaps once a month on the edge of the river where there was a flat rock bottom to allow for furious rubbing and kneading, to get the branded dirt off.  Soap was an item of luxury.  Only well-to-do families could afford it.  In place of soap, I used handode, a tropical plant whose leaves, when crushed and squeezed together, produces a slimy, foamy juice that is mixed with water to serve as a dirt-removing agent.  It worked very well.  My biggest worry, however, was the length of time it took to get the shirt dry.  We kids had only two choices: either to spread the wet shirt on a bush or tree branch and wait naked somewhere nearby until it got at least semi-dry, or put it right back on after washing and squeezing the water our and let it dry on our body, which is usually the choice most of us took because it dried faster with the assistance of the added body-heat.  To keep ourselves warm, we kept on moving and playing.

I have always washed my clothes by hand.  I still joyfully and habitually do it, not only because it is difficult to abandon old habits, but more precisely because life in the United States has made it more convenient to wash my clothes by hand.  There is plenty of water inside; you do not have to go to the river to haul it to the house, or haul your clothes to the river to wash there.  Further, you have both cold and hot water readily available in the house.  Add to that luxury the availability powerful, liquid or powder detergent! Washing clothes and dishes by hand has absolutely become an enjoyable task that takes only a little time to complete the job.  The soap cuts through dirt and grease instantly.  The job can be finished while you are still whistling.

When we began our life as a family in Columbia, SC, back in 1983, our University Terrace Apartments had wash-and-dry machines.  Fortunately (for us), it also had clothes lines to hang washed clothes.  We washed our clothes by machine and hung them on the lines.  Later, when we moved out of the University Terrace Apartments and moved around the city and lived in two other apartments, we used our weekly family laundry time as a means of tying us boys together more purposefully while the mother had a little time by herself.

We loaded up our old, yellow Subaru sedan with dirty laundry of 6-member family and trekked to the Laundromat every Saturday morning before grocery shopping.  The opportunity generated diverse accomplishments.  We learned how to patiently work together, though, I admit, I held the veto power.  The task had to be attended to all the way from start to finish.  As a result, we developed the habit of “no task is left unfinished.”  We practiced the value of attending closely to task, organizing method of achieving goals, and the need to tolerate one another.  We also got to how to talk to other people whom we could have never met.  We separated, folded, and stacked each clothes item by its owner and by its type.  When we got home, there was no fight or confusion over what belonged to whom or what had to go where.  Furthermore, we read books, we observed people and their family clothes, and we marveled at how much money the Laundromat business was making.  We even envisioned for ourselves and for friends of ours how to start this lucrative business.  It was here too that we observed the devotion of Jehovah Witness to spreading the gospel.

In those years, our life was made simpler and the lessons learned from the experience were a life-long enrichment. When we finally moved out of an apartment setting into our own house, none of the boys required the supervision of their parents to do their laundry.  Except this time, sadly, there is rarely a mixing of their clothes even in the washing machine.  The independence gained replaced the sense of community.

Today, while these boys and other friends humorously and sometimes seriously urge me to catch up with the time and learn to “enjoy” speed, flexibility, and timeliness, I yearn for the renewal of my soul through the joy of living even a simpler life than what I am experiencing.  I am accused of being too slow, too rigid, too backward, and too stubborn.   I do not know how to defend this simple position I hold: I do not rush to get there as much as I rush to believe I WILL get there.  But who will listen to me!  Whether I wash my shirt by hand or in the wash machine, or at the Laundromat or at home, each morning, just like other colleagues, I put on a fresh, clean kitta.  The lent season is a powerful reminder that, when we intentionally return to the details of the tapestry of our lives, renewal and resurrection are in sight.