Homeownership is sure now, not because I inked myself to years of debt but because I bought a washer and dryer.
Should I get an apron to cover my poodle skirt and dance through a Fifties Technicolor set to express my domestic joy? I hope nobody thinks so. I am not like the daughters of that era, deeply trained in good girlishness by mothers who remembered washboards. Mom and Dad always had a washer and dryer. I never spent nights sitting in laundromats, sitting still to watch machines spin.
They are a used high-end GE pair, a rich cherry red: a color for a sweet muscle car, not laundry. The house is all off-white and beige, so they stand out. They seem massive in the seller’s storage space, hunkered under old liquor boxes labeled BOOKS. The front panels delve deep into the mystery of laundry, overrun with buttons and a massive chromed dial offering cycles the Fifties post-war bonanza never dreamed of. I am at a loss to explain why appliance makers think their machines should be as overfunctional and difficult to use as a multiline office phone.
Ever cost-conscious, I get them used. A friend’s blog post tip turns them up–$700 for the set. The poster provides no contact information, but digging through past posts gives an email, phone number, and the clear sense of someone who needs to raise cash. For sale, they all read.
The friend goes with me to check them out, wandering south of the city with directions not much more specific than the wide, green suburban part of town near the airport. A woman greets us outside the gate, heavyset and jowly in her sweats, her eleven-year-old daughter running circles around her in a child’s uninhibited nonspecific joy. The storage place has that odd sadness I find in all such places: a sense of transience and the pure commercial utility of taking advantage of others’ plain needs.
An older woman with white hair and small, dark-framed eyeglasses shepherds a little boy of three or four as he wanders around exhumed belongings. He has the plodding steps of a little kid in a place he would rather not be, blond and blue-eyed with a penetrating stare of a little kid in a horror movie. The removed items are typical: an ironing board with a white-and-green striped cover, a late-model Ikea-type lamp with multiple pastel plastic shades, a large fan with dust caught in the motor vents. My friend talks to the two women out in the alley as I look over the machines.
I have a space like this too, all my worldly possessions secured by orange metal doors and ten dollar padlocks. You pay by the month for the little box and the yellow incandescent light, the smooth concrete floor and, somehow, the sense of close safety when you are in there in the little space left between your possessions. Is this not like Oscar’s attic room, perfectly serviceable and safe, more than enough, wholesome in its every square inch fully used? Still, it seems sad. It does not seem like a place to launch from.
The little boy plays with a measuring tape, greatly fortuitous for me with my worry the machines won’t fit in the little space I have. I move some boxes, note the machines’ red tops are scratched and scuffed, note they are both 27 inches wide and 31 inches deep, give or take. A red panel is missing from the washer, and both have a few white scratches. I open the doors and write the model numbers down, almost impossible without glasses in the dim light. The girl and the boy mill around in the way, but I say nothing. The older girl seems oblivious while the little boy takes in everything with silent intensity. He disturbs me the way all little kids do. He resembles the young me staring out of pictures.
With the precious information I emerge. Darkness is falling. It’s Friday night and there is nowhere to really go, but I am enjoying it being Friday. The little girl runs ahead as we drive out, mom scolding to wait, don’t, stop. The little girl tries to put the code in anyway but mom gets it right. The scolding is gentle. The little girl is clearly happy.
The woman’s story is the common rough-luck story of our age, which could be Dickens’ age, or Voltaire’s. Moved to the city from Moses Lake after things didn’t go well. Living with her boyfriend’s mom. Has no car. Loved the washer and dryer with having four kids and has held onto them with the hope of getting into their own house. Mom plays bingo so the car is only occasionally available for her to meet me there.
Laundry has always been pleasant to me, even as a little kid. Something about the agitator’s RUM-rum-RUM-rum, or the sorting of colors from whites, or the whole process of collecting, doing the work, taking out of the dryer and putting away. I have a very clear memory of sometime in middle school doing the family bedding and realizing I could do this forever, somehow, as a job: taking things and washing them and getting them out when done. It felt adult and secure, a graduation from childhood. To my seventh grade mind, laundry was a link to successful adulthood. Doing the sheets every week felt really, really good. This has not changed.
My charity toward the unlucky was once very sparing. How could you not see getting married at eighteen is a bad idea? How did you think you would support a kid at nineteen in marginal service jobs offered by a little semi-country town? Or, of course your parents are mad at you for taking their car and running it into the ditch. People were stupid, victims of their own inability to not walk into clearly marked traps.
This has changed. It happened sometime in early high school when I refused to have public opinions about anything, lest I run counter to the dominant mindshare of Jesus-blessed sin-starving capitalism. Maybe it was my innate mammalian sense of fairness, maybe it was Star Trek, maybe some random piece of mail for Mother Jones or Utne Reader that somehow led to reading this and that. But it was clear there were haves and have nots, and the social machinery to help the nots, when not being actively dismantled under various guises, didn’t work so well. The clearly marked traps aren’t clearly marked or even traps when they are all you know, when every path leads to their dark mouth. Choice is there, in varying degrees and with varying offers. But my lifetime observation is there are certain people who are born to the wrong parents and things just do not work out for them.
This woman once had a house to put her washer and dryer in, was once not reliant on her boyfriend’s mother’s charity to get around. There are many people like her. In these times there are a great many for whom such straits are utterly new. They deserve more than a storage space and some guy to haggle over how much he’ll put up for a washer and dryer.
When I offer her $600 for the pair the next day, she agrees instantly. Handing her the money she shares her quiet relief. You saved me, she says, and I can see the weight lift a little. The little girl has been in school two weeks without supplies; now she will have them.
When I was younger I would feel such a transaction a score: I saved even more at the end. Now I feel dirty, confused. Should I not have suggested less? But I wonder where the boyfriend’s mom’s bingo money comes from, where it goes, what kind of priority that is.
In the new house the washer is too heavy to get up the stairs, but the dryer goes in place. It is very, very red, red as red ink, red as a scarlet A.