I can hear the spinning wheels of the cart chatter as they move across the unevenly tiled floor. The cart’s pilot is a well-dressed woman in her 40s, loudly talking into her mobile phone while she tries to manoeuvre the cart with one hand.
It’s overflowing with white fabric, decorated with crumbs and lipstick – a clue that her that her cart is full of soiled restaurant-quality tablecloths and napkins. Her conversation with the attendants is loud enough for all to hear, and it’s clear she’s at once agitated, rushed and frantic. This is not a place she’s familiar with, nor is it the place she wants to be.
I’m in my local laundromat, and this display has ripped my attention from my morning newspaper. The space is well-lit, clean and mostly quiet, save for the rows of rumbling washers and the rhythmic sounds of clothes flopping around in the glass-fronted dryers. Fellow launderers sit reading magazines or books; some work on laptops. Every time the door opens, the notices on the nearby bulletin board briefly rustle in the breeze.
I’m tempted to feel superior here because I’m comfortable and familiar in this place, while the loud woman is obviously not. I’m tempted to smirk at her questions about the machines’ settings, since I can roll my cart to any machine and operate it with ease, like my mom works her knitting needles.
Because I’m still tempted, it’s clear I have not yet fully achieved Laundromat Zen.
The laundromat hasn’t always been a positive element in my life. When my wife and I moved to the city a couple of years ago, we were excited to find a basement suite in our price range that had high ceilings, counter space, windows and storage – but no laundry machines hid in any of the many closets. This meant that, for the first time, we would have to leave the house to wash our clothes.
Our landlords have a set of machines that we are not welcome to share, the sounds of the thumping spin cycle taunting us through the living room wall. Outside, sweet-smelling dryer exhaust escapes the house a few feet from our entrance. Lugging our full laundry bins and bags to the car is especially onerous under these conditions, and it was easy to grumble while spending the majority of my Saturday morning at the laundromat. There were many things I’d rather be doing; I could be sleeping, going for a run, or even wrestling hair out of the bathroom drain.
But, after spending so much time here, I slowly began to learn from the laundromat. It has shown itself to be a great equalizer in the midst of a frantic, material city. Outside the doors, indicators of wealth and status become obvious. Expensive strollers, designer umbrellas and bags full of organic groceries point to bank accounts more flush than my own.
Inside the laundromat, however, the only currency that matters is measured in quarters and loonies. We all hope for side-by-side machines, but don’t always get them. We all occasionally forget the detergent. And we must all sit, wait, and occupy ourselves while the laundry continues to cycle. There are no shortcuts.
This sitting and waiting has become an integral part of Laundromat Zen. Listening to my clothes spinning in the washer, or watching them being rhythmically rolled around in the dryer, I’m able to relax, knowing that for the next couple of hours, there’s nothing to strive for, nothing to accomplish, and no standards to live up to. There’s only my laundry.
The laundromat also has a unique way of breaking down conventional privacy barriers. Experienced users aren’t timid about displaying their choice of bedroom sheets, bathroom towels or exercise clothes. I was initially shy about taking my wife’s bras and my boxers out of the dryer and folding them.
I soon realized that being embarrassed or trying to hide these was time-consuming and energy-sapping; it would be easier to simply own the idea of advertising our underwear choices to the public. Yes, world, I wear Christmas-themed underwear out of season. The state may have no place in the bedrooms of the nation, but it could certainly get a few sneak peeks at the corner launderette.
My weekly ritual at the laundromat has shown me that everyone is equal inside its doors, and I have learned to take this teaching outside them as well. I must avoid thinking I’m superior to anyone, no matter how loudly they’re talking on their cellphone while they manoeuvre their cart full of restaurant linens. Similarly, I must remember that there’s nobody better than me, no matter what stroller they’re pushing or the origin of the groceries in their bag. I remind myself that wealth and achievement are not harbingers of happiness and success, and should not signify self-worth. Equally important is remembering to look deeply into the machines to check for any rogue socks.
When I first began frequenting the laundromat, the experience cast a pall on my day because I thought I could be making better use of my time. Now, it serves to remind me of what’s important in life, and has given me insight into the human condition that I didn’t expect.
Now, when I begin to strive, compare, and doubt myself, I know it’s time to grab my laundry bins and head for the door.
Jonathan Van Drunen lives in Vancouver.