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Observations From Deep Within the Tan & Suds

Updated on December 7, 2011
Tanning machines in the far left corner.
Tanning machines in the far left corner.

I don’t want to use the actual name of my laundromat for a variety of reasons. It’s a regional chain with many franchises and is doing quite well in “these troubled times,” for one. Some businesses thrive during times of general economic misery, almost parasitically. So I don’t want to afford it any free advertising. More importantly, I don’t want to reveal, accidentally or otherwise, the identities of anyone beside myself who is referenced here. Since it has three (largely unused) tanning beds along with its supply of never quite enough washing machines and dryers, I long ago nicknamed it “The Tan & Suds.” Thursdays from 9 am- 3 pm, it discounts the price of a washload from $1.75 to an even dollar. That’s when you’ll find the great unwashed masses, literally, with myself included, there competing for the rare available machine.


Looking around, you begin to wonder. When did it happen? How did we all get so beaten up? The blank stares, disheveled appearances, palpable despair. Was it a sudden capitulation or death by a thousand emotional paper cuts? Thinking back to grade school when we were all scrubbed and shiny, I never imagined it would lead to this tumble dry hall of horrors. Mrs. Fish, my perpetually optimistic first grade teacher, never let us in on the Tan & Suds secret. Some things are just better left unsaid, perhaps.

Certain places acutely reveal the stark reality that lower-middle-class America (formerly known as middle-class America) now endures. This laundromat is one such place, along with working-class neighborhood bars, the 24-hour Waffle Houses, and virtually any urban Dollar Store. One step lower on the desperation scale you find the blood plasma center and Greyhound bus terminals. Back in the Tan & Suds, it feels one step away from such options. Destination destitution.

In the laundromat, no one seems to be thinking even a week ahead, let alone to next month or next year. The future is not a comforting notion. I glimpse vacant expressions on shopworn faces, some overweight, some under. People continuously shuffle in and out like platoons in the army of the defeated. Most don’t dare speak to anyone for fear of God knows what. The demographic that owns neither washer nor dryer is hanging on by a thread and knows it. A battle of attrition, endurance and subsistence is being meekly waged in the face of vanishing blue collar jobs and low-paying service employment. John Mellencamp once sang, “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” The clientele at the Tan & Suds appear to have learned this lesson long before John Mellencamp did.

The Art of Getting By

Confession time: I lost my job in April. Just like that, after 24 years of full-time employment, the rug was pulled out from under. No unemployment pay, no benefits, and consequently, no ability to keep my apartment or support three children. What to do? The same question faced by millions of others in this economy. My brethren at the Tan & Suds might try a homeless shelter, a church, maybe their relatives. A person’s network of available support is generally determined by their social circles prior to needing that support. For example, a person with a college degree and past professional work experience will have a network they can tap for jobs, or if not, at least for food, shelter and moral support. Friends take them in for awhile, then perhaps other friends or relatives, and then their parents as a last resort. By this time, generally, some sort of employment opportunity will have likely re-emerged.

However, the laundromat legion doesn’t have nearly as substantial of an informal safety net. If they lose one of their two or three jobs, or when the $300 per-week maximum unemployment pay runs out, life becomes profoundly more worrisome in a hurry. There is no safety net to catch them as they fall. People who have no other access to a washer or dryer tend also to have no other access to medical care, job training or mental health counseling. And though they may lack formal economic training, they understand the “dismal science” well enough to grasp that they are as close to financial ruin as they have ever been in their adult lives. No one has to explain to them what a “jobless recovery” means.


My clothes are washing: A 25-year-old chain-smoking brunette with an 8-year-old daughter in tow is having a meltdown. The mother is absolutely falling apart, rather than the child. She’s lost her car keys, which she had assumed were in her purse. Abruptly dumping the contents of her purse onto the floor, she hits the ground, her legs making an “M” as she sits rifling through the remnants scattered around her. In an interwoven slew of swearing and crying, she searches frantically. She finds a hairbrush, three tampons, some change, a box of Winstons and finally the rogue car keys. Standing and regaining her composure, the woman notices that her daughter is drinking a ridiculously oversized Styrofoam cup of the complimentary Tan & Suds sludge coffee.

“Doesn’t coffee make you jumpy?,” she asks through her last few tears.

“Yes,” answers her daughter, taking a large, measured swill.


Two dryers have just opened up: A rinsed-out blonde in her mid-thirties storms by, wearing a blue Indianapolis Colts sweatshirt over white pajamas and her house slippers. She’s enraged that the laundromat’s change machine is empty, completely out of quarters, voiding any chance she had to get her laundry done on this day.

She glares my way and mutters somewhat menacingly, “I’ll never be back.” I nod in a gesture of solidarity. We both know she’s lying, though.


My laundry is too close to dry to waste another six quarters on, so I rattle the cart over to the dryers and pile the clothes in, still just slightly damp. The parking lot outside borders a White Castle -I’ll give them the free advertising. It’s open 24-hours and has “No Loitering” signs posted in every window. However, at most booths sit middle-aged men or women alone, killing time, smoking, or staring off vacantly, eating nothing. Mercifully, the restaurant’s employees don’t have the heart to enforce the no loitering edict. (My experience of being unemployed is that simply killing the time is the hardest part of the entire operation, worse than the fear, poverty and uncertainty. Having all that time alone with your thoughts is daunting. The faces in the White Castle clearly reflect this.)

As I shove the trash bags full of clean laundry into the trunk of my car, a Hispanic man wearing a Chivas soccer jersey strides by, pushing his cart loaded with dirty clothes. Meltdown woman is still there but rinsed-out blonde is long gone. I take one final glance at the White Castle zombies and wonder if Mrs. Fish knows about any of this and if she’d tell her first grade class if she did.


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    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis

      Bobsko: Thank you, Brutha! I appreciate the Chieftain support. Romeo Cremmel used to read my work but he said it made him "weep." Later - & yes I stole "The Art of Getting By" heading from you.

    • profile image

      bobby beef 6 years ago

      another great hub by my good friend and chieftain soulbrother

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis

      Thank you - I appreciate the feedback. Wow- $50k for dealing cards....I'm in the wrong racket.

    • c1234rystal profile image

      c1234rystal 6 years ago

      Well written and with a lot of feeling. I've seen similar situations to what you described in my hometown. But, I'm also from the east-coast which was not as hard hit by the economic downturn. People who don't hold higher degrees are also lucky enough to find jobs at the casinos. Well, I'm not sure if I'd really call it lucky since the casinos are known for being corrupt and not always treating their employees the best. But, someone fresh out of high school can make a 50k or more a year living just by dealing...not bad in my opinion. A lot of my family members are included in this.

      When I graduated from college and went back home, I had an incredibly tough time finding a job. But the plan was to go home, save up and move out. It took about a year of searching to land anything since I was too qualified for retail, yet not qualified enough for upper management type deals of course. Lucky for me, I was living at home, got to save some money and then move back out.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      JD: I'm pondering your point - not about me but about my "comrades." That may be an accurate assumption or a dangerous one. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      JD 8 years ago

      Defintely not vomitous! I want to read more. The concern is that you know you are a passerby to the Tan & Suds. How many of those people you see are relegated to being lifetime card carrying members of the "doesn't own a washer and dryer" club? Most victimized by themselves.

    • profile image

      AshleyHM 8 years ago

      Just to be fair, from what I understand the football field was paid for with football revenue and the booster club money - fundraising and donations. Little of that money came from budget.

      So complain all you want about the school system, I will be right there with you, but the football field isn't the issue some would like to believe.

    • profile image

      KM 8 years ago


      Very well written, and all so true.

      Sounds like you have a nice cadre of supporters here.

    • profile image

      jsmith 8 years ago

      I recently snuck into FC while home from Irak. I do not recognize the place. I ran into some old teachers I had while I was there, and I say old because they looked beaten. One of my favorite and most energetic teachers, Mr. Oblon, not only looked the part but told me himself he was. He said he was beat, not allowed to actually teach students anymore and had no passion for teaching, which is sad because he taught me pretty much everything I know about math and still remember his silly phrases to remember math. I don't know why you were let go Mr. Mitchell but I found it profoundly mind boggling that we have the spare cash to build what is basically a new high school on top of the new one, fill in the entire pool and build a new one, install a weight room that makes our college weight room look diminutive and to top it off, that monstrosity of a football field, but yet we lay off teachers. I am not against sports by any means, it helped me through high school and college, but come on. Why are we sacrificing teachers and therefor education for students for an unnecessary field and more? Then the school system has the stones to ask for more money by exempting themselves from state law to raise property taxes! The audacity! If I were you Mr. Mitchell, I'd write up one of your well know thesis statements, go find the school board & politicians and not leave until you get answers. This is ridiculous. We have totally lost fiscal sensibility and it is costing us teachers, students' learning and our future.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Thank you all for your feedback and support. MK & BW, good to find you again.

    • Pseudonymous profile image

      Pseudonymous 8 years ago

      I don't have too much to say on this that others haven't said already but just wanted to say this was a great read and well written too.

    • Josh100 profile image

      Josh100 8 years ago

      good read. thanka

    • profile image

      Marci Kacsir 8 years ago

      Mr. Mitchell, you've always inspired me. You were one of the very few teachers who truly saw students for who they actually were and it seemed effortless when you adopted an approach unique to each one to get the most out of them. I remember you being the first teacher to realize that I needed to be pushed (and pushed hard) and then called out loudly when I didn't put in the effort (I remember distinctly getting the comment, YOU ARE AN ENIGMA, huge and in red on a test after I gave you some teeter tottering performances, and that was the softest response). I've only ever had two teachers see that and react to it. I see now that this carries on outside the classroom, and I am inspired because you don't just see it - you react to it.

      Thank you so much for this piece, for your teaching, and for being that person.


    • profile image

      wiggsie 8 years ago

      I am amazed at this article. It is very thought provoking. This is something you have always had a talent for. I know that in my day I will now be more aware of what surrounds me and try to observe it not just exist in it. I think the best answer is more STUDING all around! This always helped me with AP tests.

      Good to find you! BW

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      I like your perspective, MG. Thanks for both paragraphs. You're the kind of audience I'm after: smart, funny, and possessing a social conscience.

    • profile image

      Manish 8 years ago


      First, I am still trying to get my head around you being let go. To this day you are the best teacher and one of the best mentors I have ever had in my life.

      They way you see the world and are able to express the truth that people know but never say is amazing. And for some reason, I dont think Mrs. Fish would ever tell her kids about this side of life. Let the kids keep dreaming of brighter tomorrows, hopefully it will rub off on the rest of us.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Terry - I can definitely realte to your particulars. Mine are fairly similar. Artemus G. (loved your work w/ James West, btw): Thank you very kindly. I appreciate both of you reading this and commenting. Stay in touch. KM

    • Artemus Gordon profile image

      Artemus Gordon 8 years ago

      I am glad that I stumpled onto your hub. This is really well written and should make us all stop and think.

    • terry vincent profile image

      terry vincent 8 years ago

      I enjoyed your HUB and look forward to reading again.

      I too am not employed, though in my case I got too laxed and now the wake up had settled in when I was no longer working since June of 2009 and had been denied, approved, and denied on unemployment benefits, I am just hanging on with my brother's support and lending of a spare room they let me have while I fight back to being a full time, part time worker some where USA. I really can appreciate what others have to point out in views.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Thanks, Misti! Please keep reading.

    • profile image

      clarkmisti 8 years ago

      What a vivid, heartbreaking story. Please keep the writing coming...I eagerly await the next hub!

    • profile image

      ccushing 8 years ago

      This is all so true, and that fact makes me depressed as hell. The fact that you point out that none of us has the real world in mind when we are children makes me tear up, thinking about how Gavin sees the world at 8 years old. I hope by the time he's an adult I can look back at these observations and say, "Wow, things really have gotten better since 2009," and not the opposite. This is some of your best writing, and I mean even out of the things you haven't posted to hub pages.

    • profile image

      Rich 8 years ago

      If misery loves company, at least none of those people will ever be alone, just lonely I guess. Nice job.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Emmo; as to your question, maybe they're too busy struggling to survive to see it? I'm not certain. We get conditioned to accept a lot that I question. I love that you red this and commented...makes me feel important.

    • profile image

      Emmo 8 years ago

      I loved the article in its truth and poignancy. My question is when will the masses see what you have? Even what they themselves are living and rise up to change the failed system that holds them in control? Viva la Tan and Suds Revolution.

    • profile image

      shopgirl17 8 years ago

      Very well written. Thank you. I can relate. I lost my "real" job in 2008. I'm a store manager now for 1/4 of what I made. I am hanging on by a thread.

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      I am thrilled and humbled to have you all as readers. It's so satisfying to have an audience that clearly gets the message I am attempting to convey. Please keep reading and if you can suggest my work to a friend or relative, I would appreciate it.

    • MagicStarER profile image

      MagicStarER 8 years ago from Western Kentucky

      I agree with Ashley HM, above, about the degree of empathy you show the characters in this article. This is a very good illustration of the real America - what it looks & feels like, and also the silent comraderie of the downtrodden.

      I'm in a life situation similar to yours. Too sick to work anymore, waiting to get approved for Disability, no income, no health insurance, no doctors nor way to get my medications (they cost over $700 a month) Just doing without...

      I would suggest a new law. All Senators and Congressmen should be required to personally visit this laundromat once a week and wash their clothes there on dollar day.

      Maybe then they could figure out some better legislation for Americans.

      Good write! Very good!

    • profile image

      AshleyHM 8 years ago

      I really like the empathy and respect you show the subjects of this article. Often we forget the humanity of others when we view their situations, but you are real and honest without being patronizing or condescending.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 8 years ago

      First and most important, what a well written and compelling hub. I am so sorry you lost your job. You clearly show how smart and with it you are in your writing and even though I don't know you, I feel certain you will survive . Actually survive isn't quite right, I am sure you will triumph.

    • profile image

      B Davis 8 years ago

      Excellent writing. I can see them and feel their pain.

    • profile image

      Japes 8 years ago

      I really like this. It doesn't seem real until it happens to you. I really like the way you ended it. Maybe a part two on what has given you the strength to keep going. Keep writing.

    • E. Nicolson profile image

      E. Nicolson 8 years ago

      A wonderful read, and sadly, all too accurate. We ranks of the unemployed are swelling yet trimming down to the basics at the same time. Up to a point this can be a good thing, but when does it stop?

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      You're my best reader yet, so thank you sincerely. The Zulu saying, I really like that.

    • ljulian profile image

      ljulian 8 years ago

      A haunting portrayal of life in America for too many good people. The other day I read that in some Zulu areas of South Africa people greet each other with a phrase that means "I see you." You truly "see" the people and their heartache. Your best writing yet...

    • keithmitchell5 profile image

      keithmitchell5 8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Thanks, Babushka. You are my favorite Russki and that's never going to change, even if Alex Ovechkin comes to the AP Reading. Friends like you made 2009 what it turned out to be - extremely good.

    • profile image

      Katia 8 years ago

      I could relate to this story so much. Almost made me cry. I love my job and cannot imagine losing it....


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