Observations From Deep Within the Tan & Suds
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.