About a year ago, my friend Dave recommended that I read a book called A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker, as he thought that something I’d written about on this site was of a similar tone to Baker’s work. I read it, enjoyed it, then read another of his books. A couple of days ago I finished yet another of his books (The Mezzanine) and adored it. It’s all about the tiny details of life. Inspired by this book, and wanting to test my memory, I decided to try to remember as many details about my trip to the launderette yesterday. I began scribbling as soon as I got home and added more as extra details came back to me in the evening. So, the following tale is a fairly detailed account of about an hour of my life. It’s probably quite boring. It’s definitely quite long (four and a half Word document pages using 12pt Times New Roman). But if like me you enjoy tiny details, you may like it. If you don’t like reading long chunks of text on a screen, I made a Word document you can download, print, and read on the bus home from work. Have a good weekend.
Usually there’s a holdall on my bathroom floor, slowly filling up with used clothes to be laundered. Since my cleaning lady came a week ago – and I like to move the bag, to make it easier for her to clean the floor – my dirty laundry has been piled up, overflowing from the holdall in the little chamber by the front door. This chamber also houses shoes, a couple of matching Samsonite suitcases (one for long weekend use, the other for full-on two weeks on holiday use), a Nike football, and some tools.
I picked up the overflow of laundry, and took it and dropped it a couple of metres away on the floor of the bathroom, then returned to get the bag and another empty holdall. I took all the stuff out of the first holdall (brown fake leather; it came into my possession in 1997 after a trip to New York where my bag got trashed in the hold of the plane. This brown holdall was offered as a replacement by Virgin’s customer service lady) and separated clothing from towels and bedding, placing the non-clothes in the other holdall (silver grey Adidas; bought from a Modell’s store near Times Square this last April to accommodate all the stuff I’d bought whilst there).
I grabbed the book lying next to my bed (The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson), checked my pockets for keys and cigarette lighter, and left. My front door tends to stick a bit when I try to slam it shut; I’ve worked out that a little push of the metal tongue that fits the female hole in the door frame will loosen it enough to smoothen the slamming process.
As I left the building, I unhooked the front door that someone had left open by niftily stepping on the floor-level latch and darting out before it hit me on the back. It irritates me that this first line of defence against burglary is ignored by some of my neighbours. I walked on the eastern, shaded side of the street, past a group of women stood outside a cafe, (two young, one older; one of the younger girls has knee-length stripey socks virtually the exact same colours as the old Houston Astros “Rainbow Guts” uniform), and waited twice to cross a four-pronged junction: first crossing the smaller side street, and then the main street to the sunnier side, where I nipped into a local store where the woman calls me “junge Mann” and the man calls me “Meister” or “Nachbar.” Today, the woman was working, so I was a young man when I bought my pack of Gauloises Blondes.
I continued down the street, focussing on the large square light in the distance, which indicated some television or film work was going on. As I got closer, I saw a group of maybe ten people all stood near each other on the pavement, blocking the area between the building and the parked cars. A woman with a clipboard stood nearest to the parked cars looked in my direction, but she obviously believed I had the power to leap over her or walk through people in the manner of a ghost, as she made no attempt to move until I was less that two feet from her and rather impatiently said ‘excuse me’ which resulted in her moving a few inches in towards her colleagues with a tut.
I passed several people watching and craning their necks to see if the group of people contained anybody famous, turned a corner and continued the fifty or so metres to the launderette. (I paid no attention to the potentially TV star-containing group; not because I’m flippantly cool, just because I don’t watch German television and would have no idea about the fame or otherwise of any of the group.)
There was only one person in the launderette, a woman in her twenties with very dark hair and a bright red sweater. I looked around for two empty machines next to each other, found them and filled them both after removing three damp socks (including a pair) and a very clean and warm five cent coin from one of the machines. I had too much stuff to go in the machine I’d allocated for towels and bedding, so a single duvet cover had to be folded up small and slipped into the end-pocket of the silver holdall to keep it away from the laundry that was due to be clean in forty or so minutes. I set the bedding and towels machine to a higher temperature than the one containing my clothes, and walked over to the machine on the opposite wall which takes my money and I pushed three euros worth of coins into the slot, pressed the number 3 button; put in 30 cents, pressed the button which gives me washing powder, and took it to the number 3 washing machine and emptied the plastic cup of powder into the tray, and pressed the ‘on’ button. I repeated the process for the number 4 machine, then put the brown holdall inside the silver holdall, checked the time on my watch (a Bulova watch with a nice brown face and gold hands that had belonged to my grandfather. I’d begun wearing it again only two days ago, having previously given up on it, as it had started to lose time about a year and a half ago. But I really like the watch so tested its time-keeping error over a 24 hour period and found it only slipped five minutes behind, so I decided that, for short periods of use, it was more than sufficient) and walked to a nearby coffee shop; past a smiling man using a laptop on a bench outside a pizza shop, and several people riding their bicycles jerkily along the pavement which had too many pedestrians to make their bicycle journeys smooth.
The coffee shop had only one person in the queue before me, so I got my cappuccino fairly swiftly – paying one woman with the fresh, tanned skin of someone who’d just returned from holiday, while another woman, with a nose-ring, made my drink – and walked back to the launderette. I dropped my bag on the pavement outside, lit a cigarette, and spent a few minutes staring vacantly at the road, snapping out of it when a middle-aged man, small and slim enough to be a jockey, walked past me and I wondered if he was gay or not. A few yards behind him was a young woman in her twenties who could’ve been Linda Fiorentina’s younger sister, wearing shiny black boots that reached up to the lower edge of her knee. The laptop-user outside the pizza place also gazed at her as she passed him.
Extinguishing the cigarette with my shoe, I went back inside the launderette. Now there was a man in there who looked busy with two plastic tubs (dark blue and pale blue); moving wet, clean clothes to the tumble dryers. I set my coffee and bags down on the counter, put my back against one of the machines I was using, and lifted myself up to sit on the counter; reminding me of how the carriages of a Ferris wheel pivot with gravity. I unzipped my coat, took the book out of my pocket and began reading, back-tracking a little to re-familiarise myself with the last of the paragraphs I’d read earlier in the day whilst sat on the toilet. I glanced up as another person, a woman in her late-twenties in a dark red coat, came into the launderette and breezed past quickly, and I re
turned to the book. I didn’t have the concentration needed to really read, though. My mind wandered, I looked out of the windows at the people passing, surprised at how many people mirrored my gaze with their gazes into the launderette. I looked at the backlit advertisement for a local cinema on the wall to my left, and at a van stopped in a traffic queue with water and two smiling waves (with faces like those usually drawn on crescent moons) painted on the side in inappropriate-for-a-vehicle house paint. The red-coated woman came back to the front of the room to put her coins in the machine. Her dyed burgundy hair was surprisingly thin on top.
With seven minutes to go on both of my machines, I went outside for another cigarette, something I always do when there are only a few minutes remaining in the wash cycle, the cigarette allowing me to return to a finished wash. As I smoked, the possibly gay jockey went past in the opposite direction.
I must’ve smoked quicker than usual, as three minutes remained when I returned, so I slurped down the last of my coffee, dropped the paper cup into the bin on top of a half-empty plastic fruit salad container and a scrunched-up beige striped shirt, and read to the end of a paragraph in my book, then placed it in a side pocket of the brown holdall.
When the washing stopped, and the light that said it was safe to open the machine came on (at the exact same moment as a click unlocked the door to the machine), I crouched down and tried to pull out my clothes without dropping any on the floor. I was testing myself. Ordinarily, I’d put my bag beneath the door to catch stray socks, but occasionally, I like to play this game. I only dropped two socks in the process today, but I did ruin an already semi-ruined white sock when I removed a chunk of bundled-up t-shirts, and caught a bit of thread from the sock on a rough edge of fingernail. The more I pulled the bundle away, the longer the thread got; pulling the open end of the sock in on itself like a duffel bag. After removing all the clothes, I lowered my head, put my hand inside the drum and gave it a spin to check for socks trying to escape their life on my feet.
I folded my clothes with vague neatness so that when I returned home, hanging them up to dry would be easier with all the socks together, all the underpants together, etc. I folded my three New York Yankees t-shirts with the backs facing upwards. These dark blue t-shirts have identical fronts (the interlocking NY logo on the chest), but the backs are different, featuring the names and numbers of three players (Jeter 2, Cano 22, Gehrig 4; the latter of which I bought on the same day as the Adidas holdall).
Emptying the second machine was easy, it came out in one big chunk, which I stuffed straight into the silver holdall; my patience for folding used up completely with the other bag’s contents. I zipped the bags, zipped up my coat, put the one bag strap on each shoulder and left with a quick glance back just to make sure I’d not left anything, and began my journey home.
I took a slightly different route. If you imagine my journey to the launderette as a tall L shape, then my return journey along parallel streets was the upside-down, 180 degree rotated L that would complete a rectangular journey and leave me at the point where I’d have to re-cross at the traffic lights where the Rainbow Guts socks women had been stood earlier. This time, of course, my bags were heavier, containing, as they did, wet laundry. But I always dry my clothes at home by hanging them up or draping them over radiators. I tell myself this is to help save electricity and the environment, but I know that really it’s to save money and to spend less time in the launderette.
The silver Adidas bag made squeaking noises at the places where the plastic buckles on the ends of the strap and main body of the bag met. It wasn’t random noise, though; it was an enjoyable rhythmic krik-a-krik-uh, krik-a-krik-uh. As soon as I noticed the rhythm, though, I became conscious that it was the specific way that I was walking that created the rhythm, and my consciousness made it more difficult to effortlessly keep that same rhythm.
I moved to another part of the pavement as I passed a woman with a double pushchair (for twins) so that she didn’t have to alter her course. A few steps later, an attractive woman with a splendid jaw line and a large black mixed-breed dog did the same for me with my two large holdalls.
I turned left onto the last edge of the rectangular journey, and a young woman with blonde curly hair up in a ponytail, dangly earrings, and ill-fitting black jeans stepped out of a bakery and walked in the same direction in front of me. I didn’t notice her face, but as one man, then another, afforded her long glances as they passed, I could only assume she was attractive.
This time when I crossed at the traffic lights, both sets were green as I took them. As I got closer to my building, a woman passed me on her bicycle, and I looked at the smile-shaped skin of her lower back exposed by her low trousers and short jacket that rode up with the extension of her arms to the handlebars. I fished in my coat pocket for my keys, which came out along with the removed top section of cellophane from the cigarette packet I’d bought.
I trudged up the stairs, opened my flat door, and dropped the bags on the floor outside the bathroom door with a flex of the shoulders and thumbs under the straps, like an old-fashioned fellow would remove his braces at the end of a long day. The bags dropped to the floor with a heavy thud that, for some reason, brought an image of a detective’s shoulder holster dropping to the floor around his ankles next to a pair of his lover’s silky underpants during the love scene of a cop show.
I walked to the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and took a swig of semi-skimmed milk that emptied the carton, walked back to the little chamber to hang up my coat, noticed a hooded sweatshirt I’d planned to wash still hanging there, and returned to my bags to begin hanging up the clothes to dry.