I have grown so used to sharing a smile and common courtesy during my trips to the laundromat become a part of my routine that i perform without the slightest thought.
I never did much laundry when we lived on sixty-fourth street. I hated the room, hated how our kitchen window looked into it rather than out past it. The shed, called it, a badly enclosed former back patio that was always either frigidly cold or disgustingly humid. I would always pause at the rusted sink, running water over my hands to counteract the temperature.
When we moved to Reed street i stopped minding it so much. Laundry became a time to escape from the rest of my life, to hide in the basement, to sit on my old green throw rug doing my finger exercises in time to the rocking of the dryer.
The laundromat is somewhere between the two. But, really, it is down the block, around the corner, past the deli, and inside to walk down the thin alley between the washers and the collapsible folding tables to the big machines in the back.
There is the drudgery of getting there, of finding quarters, of the long short block that greets me and my overflowing basket as i turn the corner onto Locust. There is nothing like the rote of it, though, measuring the viscous detergent, laying the towels in first, feeling the ridges of the quarters as i thumb them down into the slot. I am transported into a measured state of calm, all synapses firing, body driven just by the routine and the sound.
There is a certain grimacing comaraderie to us, all toiling toward a common goal. The older black woman with her deep laugh lines and red shopping cart full of winter blankets i gave two quarters to so that she could dry her last comforter. The commanding matriarch barking orders to her clan of children in tropically tinged French kindly offer me a cap of detergent as she spotted me frantically shaking my empty bottle of Tide over a washer. The familiar fleet of chinese women, the owners, always folding, folding, endlessly folding such perfect creases that they would make Gap employees jealous. They have never spoken to me, except for one when my taped up ten dollar bill jammed their change machine.
Last weekend it was a woman, lithe and blonde, standing further down the aisle of dryers. Her movements were studied and decisive, perfectly exemplifying the routine we were both a party to. I mirrored her for a second, sending a a shirt flying away from me like a flag and then pulling it back to my chest, tucking the sleeves down and then in, pinching the collar under my chin as our fingers clipped it in the middle and then lifting my head, letting it swing down to half itself neatly.
She must have caught my synchronization, from the corner of her eye, and i turned to meet her stare with my laundry smile, wide but just slightly held in check, as if i was sharing a secret joke. I was met not with anything similar, not a smirk or grin, but with pursed lips and guarded eyes. Not the reception i had imagined from my newfound partner in folding.
What was she guarding against?, i turned back to my folding to wonder. Was it so hard to be pretty? Was every smile suspect? I kept my eyes down, concentrating on the lines. Lines and folds. All part of the routine.
By the time i was done my basket was so full that i had to use my chin to keep my comforter balanced on its top, and so i never saw the tiny blonde child dart in front of me until after a stern, “Honey, watch where you’re going.” I stopped, peering over my blanket to find an apologetic cherub face before me, looking around my hip and muttering “sorry, mommy.”
A wry grin forced me to releasing my chin-grip for a second as i turned to follow the child’s gaze to thank her watchful guardian, only to find young blonde woman, arms spread wide trying to capture a king-sized sheet into neat folds.
She half nodded in return, mouth obscured by her folding so that i could not make out her lips.
I don’t think she smiled.