Wash Out

Washing machine
Photo by Ambitious Creative - Rick Barrett on Unsplash

My brother owned a laundromat called Cleansing Tide, and he gave me a job there after I ran out of money.

“It’s mostly making change,” he explained when he offered me the job. “You can do that, right? Give people quarters?” Of course I could give people quarters, even though most people I know would rather get theirs from a machine. And yeah, I did get it wrong when I gave out all of them and went to the convenience store across the street to get more instead of the bank branch next door. This is when I was working the day shift still, early days. But all right, that was on me.

“What’s with the quarters, though?” I asked him when he was explaining it to me like I was a third grader.

“You know that machine that makes change, I rent it and the company takes a cut, right?” he asked me. “The margins on this place, they’re skinnier than your pants.”

But I didn’t think it was about the cut the machine renters took. My brother was hard for customer service. He wanted you to interact with a person instead of a machine. Those were his values. I didn’t even know about the guilt wash at first.

We had drop-off service, so much per pound of laundry, drop it off and we’ll wash and fold it for you. There was a rack of clothes to be dry-cleaned where I’d write up the ticket and bag your clothes for someone to take away and clean off-site. There was money in that, and it needed someone who could smile and write down a phone number at the same time.

But the real money was in the guilt wash. There was a machine in the back, people probably thought we shipped these items out, too, to a priest somewhere, maybe, who sprayed the lipstick on your collar from a bottle of holy water, and who rubbed your dirty underwear with communion wafers. But we did it in-house. My brother said it was sweat equity.

The machine was made up of parts you’ve seen before in your middle school social studies book. It looked kind of like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The guilt wash has got a washboard and some rollers, technically I think they’re called a mangle, or maybe just one of them is, and a press, a flat plate of oxidized metal with holes punched through it, and the parts are mounted on a great metal tub, dented and kind of dim so that it barely reflects back the fluorescent light from overhead. The tub is stained, I don’t know from age or imperfections in the metal or what. But I wouldn’t wash my dog in it, if I had a dog. The whole thing weighs more than I do, and my brother kept me back there for a whole week of nights training on it. There was paperwork I had to sign, with him as a witness and everything.

The sorts of people who dropped off guilt laundry might surprise you. Sure, there were nervous, schlubby men who snuck out in the middle of the night to drop off their clothes (the guilt laundry window was open 24 hours, but I only ever saw people drop clothes off for it on the overnight shift). But there were quiet old ladies and teens who I didn’t want to think about what they’d done. There was this one lady, she drove an Uber, she dropped off items of clothing like we were a lost and found. She always paid in advance, and she never picked up her garments when they were done.

Mostly, I tried not to think about it too much. The guilt wash was hard work. But when you saw the people who were dropping stuff off, it was hard to stay mad at them. And it was a business, and we offered a service, and what would the point of that be if no one took advantage. Spending five years of your life developing something that it turned out no one had any use for was more my kind of thing. My brother had found a lucrative opportunity that let him sleep at home while money rolled in.

It was busy over the Christmas holidays, and then it got quiet for a while; we’re a Catholic area, primarily, and maybe people were on their best behavior because it was Lent. I got to know the regulars. Bruce was a stand-up comic who used to teach chemistry. Barbara was up all night because she had too many ideas to sleep, just like I used to be, so she did her laundry after dark.

I used to smoke cigarettes outside the laundromat with another regular named Lauren. She danced under the name Rebecca a couple nights a week and came in with stacks of dollars folded every which way. She took over a whole folding table to spread them out and get them in shape. Lauren had a little girl who stayed with her sister on the nights that Lauren danced and did her laundry. It was hard for her, being away when her daughter had nightmares and was soothed back to sleep by her sister. She was telling me about it, almost crying, and I didn’t like to see her like that. I told her I heard the phone ringing inside, and Lauren gave me a dirty look. The smoke from her cigarette curled around her hand like a boxing glove.

Lauren always used the same machines. I pulled open the door and took her daughter’s blanket into the back room. It didn’t take long; I just fed the blanket to the rollers and turned the crank that tightened the mangle and then it was done. I’d done a good thing, even if Lauren mightn’t see it that way.

When I came back out, she was pissed because one of her washers had stopped. I told her it was an electrical short and gave her enough quarters to restart the load, but of course that put her behind schedule and kept her out even later. She spent most of the dry cycle of the last load outside smoking. I watched her poke at her phone on the curb when I returned the blanket to her laundry basket. She was angry, but she’d feel better when she wrapped her daughter in that blanket.

The shift ended, I went home and went to bed. I was asleep when the government regulators came. My brother told them he didn’t know what they were talking about, but they knew someone had used the machine without following the compensation protocol. Turns out the licensing was pretty strict, which I would have known if I paid better attention during the training. My brother called a couple times to come down to the store, but I didn’t hear the phone. To be honest, I intentionally left it on the kitchen table when I slept so I wouldn’t hear it. Not just that night, but on the regular.

I wasn’t the kind of person who you’d need to contact in an emergency, usually. It was mostly over by the time I’d even heard about it. My brother admitted everything, that I hadn’t been trained properly, in violation of the terms of the franchise license. This, even though I’d signed off on the training, literally, at the end of every night, and the records were in his office in a binder alongside a dozen other binders on compliance, repairs, everything like that. I don’t know why he didn’t show them the papers. Maybe he thought he’d get off with a slap on the wrist, that they’d come down harder on me. I don’t know.

In the end, he got three years in prison. He’ll be out in eighteen months for good behavior. I know he will. They brought in a new management team at the laundromat, some stuck-up government types, and they thought they were teaching me discipline by giving me the day shift. Like it bothered me to see the sun once in a while. They didn’t find anyone reliable as me to work the night shift. No one wanted it; people want to be out there, drinking and partying and watching other people dance, and they quit after two weeks. So after two months, I was back on the night shift.

People always want to ask me if I ever brought in anything of mine to run it through the machine, like I did Lauren’s blanket. But I didn’t. I never did anything that needed that kind of processing. And if I did, I’d want to suffer through it the natural way, whatever that means.

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