Last Saturday (the 11th), the need for clean clothes could not be avoided. The landlady’s towels have suffered from a fusty, gently rancid odor I would like them cleansed of. It’s already in a big pile in the floor, ready to go.
Down the back steps is the washer, a very old harvest gold Maytag with two sets of three buttons to control temperature and cycle. It sits on a concrete pad shielded by the upper floor in a grotto open to the backyard. A working washer here seems out of place, and her detergent bottles have faded from the sun.
The washer is powered from a long green extension cord and a set of two-to-three prong adapters. None of the electricity I can find there seems safe to use, covered as it is in rust and the outlet plastic crumbling, so I run the cord upstairs into the kitchen. The microwave works on that plug, so my suspicions about the washer are confirmed when nothing happens. Nice try, anyway.
Laundromats are not a big feature of my past. My parents always had the American Middle Class dream of a little (or not so little) detached house with a lawn and the modern amenities, which included full Kenmore laundry. The solid white machines with their grey-and-white enamel tub and drum stuck it through 25 years, finally giving out in high school. It was quite traumatic for my mother and her laundry fetish.
I didn’t deal with coin-op laundry until college, with a friend whose name I don’t remember. He lived on-campus in an old house converted to apartments, somehow getting one of the rooms reserved for divinity students. I walked with him to the nearest laundry, on Vickery between Rosedale and Lancaster, where machines roared and the blast furnace heat was even worse than the Texas July.
Off and on through my twenties I’d need a laundromat to wash comforters in a machine that could handle them. The strip mall by Albertson’s had one, just a half-mile from the first house my then-wife and I owned. It seemed strange for a middle-class neighborhood of tri-levels, with its orange bench seats straight from 1973’s Greyhound station and handwritten signs to not let kids sit on machines. The people sat in the plastic seats with a resignation as deep as the lines of their faces. The machines made their pleasant sound of doing the work you have avoided.
In the present, I decide I’d rather spend money than ask for assistance, possibly avoiding another fire to knock out the remaining electricity. The Google provides options. Someone has rated one four stars. What can that mean in terms of a laundromat? I package the clothes in the malodorous towels.
Tyke’s is on the corner of Kilauea Avenue and West Lanikaula Street, which is not as glamorous as you are imagining. It reminds me of the Texas town where I grew up: a long rectangle building, brick, no windows, parking in front, each space stained with a loamy black oil bindu. As in Texas large families mill outside, each with at least one screaming child; late-teens-early-twenties harmless wannabe toughs hang out of car windows talking on their phones; ethnic music plays at a polite level; laughter; smoking. The girls, pretty for now in their youth, play keepaway with the boys who seem more interested in something else. The door placard proclaims something like:
OPEN EVERY DAY
Inside it is busy, the wide selection of industrial machines humming. I remember some of the poverty thinking so fascinating and noble when younger: cram everything in the 25 lb machine for six bucks, two less than two loads in the front loaders. Hot costs the same–use hot. Hang out the towels to dry, because they take too long.
I realize this voice from the past after I have put everything in two front loaders and counted out eight bucks in quarters.
People watch TV while the machines run. There are two, one set to one of those eye-scratching ‘reality’ shows with overprivileged but easy-on-the-eyes-in-a-slightly-trashy-way women, the other to a free cable cut of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Older women watch the bimbo show; young parents and their children down to infants watch men blown to pieces on the French battlefield.
I go outside to read. A child is still crying amidst a gaggle of Hawaiian teen girls. Two boys have a lot of business starting their impeccably clean pickup trucks, pulling away, driving off for a few minutes, and coming back to a different space, parking with the excruciating attention reserved for adjusting a fine watch. It’s humid and grey. I walk around the back of the place, see the rusting air conditioning condensers, hear a gas main hiss.
There is nothing to fear and I’m not afraid, would not even think of being afraid. People are just here doing their laundry, playing music, hanging out. When I go back in I am surprised my loads are done, and an old lady wheels me a cart. I say thank you. She just smiles.
There are whites like me, what they call haole. The native Hawaiian men wear wifebeaters and backwards ballcaps, the women oversize tshirts and short shorts. Everyone has flipflops except for a paper-thin white girl wearing deck shoes so she crushes the heels. Nobody says anything about the barefoot white guy doing his laundry.
No air of desperation is exuded by the place or the people folding, the kids running a yelling. Outside the kids in the parking lot idle their immaculate vehicles with decals for FBI – From Big Island and To Build A Nation, sharing fast food on warm hoods. The older ones, from the ones in their twenties with the kids to the old wrinkled women, don’t seem resigned or pitiful–characters out of Dickens. They are doing their laundry and watching free cable in the air conditioning.
The dryers take quarters: six minutes. I’m unpracticed in estimating how long a dryer needs to run. In the end the towels are damp but dry enough, and everything folds up.
Clean clothes pile on the back seat. Kids on the sidewalk, with gold chains and striped wifebeaters, look at me with an alert nonchalance.
“Whyso got no shoes, man?” the tall one says.
For an instant, I feel the slightest shadow of fear. But it’s ridiculous. “Don’t need ’em.”
For a moment, they give me an even, on-hold look. Then they smile and flash me the geevum sign. “Alright, brah,” the tall one says.
That is how clean clothes feel.