It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that doing laundry in Manhattan can be a big pain in the ass. Living in a building without its own laundry facility necessitates one either to visit the nearest (or cleanest) laundromat, or drop off a bundle to any one of the copious pay-per-pound laundry facilities in the neighborhood. I choose the latter, because there’s only so much crap I’m willing to put up with in life, and spending the better part of a Saturday on an uncomfortable plastic chair guarding my skivvies like the Hope Diamond is not one of them.
By now you already know how in love I am with my apartment (not); however, one of the few perks of living in my building is the laundry place on the ground floor. Manned by Alice, an affable Chinese woman of indeterminable age, The Cleaners unsoils your soiled garments and delivers them right to your door that same day, all for the rock bottom price of 60¢ per pound. Not a bad deal for a working woman who doesn’t want anything to do with a bottle of Tide.
The only problem is, the quality of the cleaning has always been a little suspect. What’s delivered is not your momma’s laundry pile – cuddly soft, smelling faintly of lavender – it’s more like prison laundry – stiff and scratchy, smelling faintly of basement. Though the clothes are not quite as “April fresh” as I would like, and I could have my clothes cleaned somewhere else, this place is cheap and it delivers (I know my own limitations and laziness is at the top of the list). So in recent months my answer to the laundry quandary was the creation of two piles: one that goes home to mom, and one that goes to the ham-fisted Chinese downstairs.
Everything was just ducky until a few weeks ago, when a new woman, Lily, suddenly replaced Alice while she went home to China for a few months. Although this regime change should not in theory upset the apple cart, there are a few subtle differences between the two laundry mistresses worth pointing out. Alice is friendly and genial, Lily has never cracked a smile. Alice always remembers my name and my apartment number, so rarely do I ever need to exchange a word with her when dropping off a pile. Lily recognizes me as well as an amnesia patient, even though I’m there every week at the same time with the same amount of laundry. If I have no cash when I drop off a bundle, Alice graciously allows me to pay after delivery. Lily makes me pay up front and scoffs at me when I hand over anything larger than a $5. “Big bill,” she snorts when I hand her a $20, still warm from just having hatched from the ATM.
In short, I’m afraid of Lily. She reminds me of those severe, uncompromising mothers of whom Amy Tan paints such a vivid portrait in ‘The Joy Luck Club’. About two weeks into the substitution I found myself longing for Alice’s return. Until I found out a key piece of information about my laundry service that Alice has heretofore never divulged.
The episode went something like this: A typical Monday morning. I go downstairs and plunk my laundry onto the scale. Lily remarks “10 pounds, $6.00”. I hand her a $20, to which she replies, “Big bill.” She then asks “Where’s the detergent?” to which I reply,
“The detergent you give us to wash clothes.”
“I don’t have any detergent here.”
“Then how you get your clothes clean?”
Yes kids, for the past 10 months, I have had my laundry “washed” in water. No soap. No softener. Water. No wonder it smells. No wonder all my underwear and socks have turned the same color gray.
I will assume a portion of the guilt here, since I have in fact noticed the numerous detergent containers sprinkled all over the shop, each with people’s names and apartments written in black Sharpie. But something in my genetic makeup doesn’t quite allow me the luxury of the critical thinking skills necessary to deduce that perhaps I myself should bring my own detergent and fabric softener. Still, one would think that, when I first walked into the laundry shop 10 months ago as a new client, Alice might have given me the heads-up that I need to supply my own supplies.
Lily and I go on staring back and forth at each other across the counter for a few seconds, me dumbstruck with the alarming realization that the past 10 months of sweat, soot and any other assorted crap floating around the air in Manhattan has not been cleansed from my garments, but swirled around in lukewarm water, then redeposited on said garments. As for Lily, the look of contempt on her face as she stares back at me says it all: “You stupid white woman.”
After having recovered from the shock-horror of that morning’s revelation, that afternoon I promptly bought some fabric softener and the economy-size Tide, wrote my name on them in black Sharpie, and delivered them to Lily.
To which she replied “Big detergent.”