Coming of Age at the Laundromat

In 1971, when I was sixteen years old and still living with my mom and younger brother Peter in Ann Arbor, our old washing machine in the basement broke down and my mom (who could barely pay the regular bills) decided she could not afford to fix or replace it, at least not right away. Who would think this would be the catalyst for me to have a transforming experience.

Tears in her eyes, she pulled the wet clothes out of the broken-down and leaking washer and threw them in a plastic laundry basket. Her life was already heavy on her shoulders, a divorced single parent with two teenage kids, suffering from depression, and just barely paying bills on the child-support payment from my dad. Having to take laundry to the Laundromat (until she could somehow magically move the money pots around in her budget to get a new washer) felt like the last straw.

She stared me straight in the eyes with a look of desperation and said, “I just can’t take this anymore.” I was afraid and not sure what to say, not sure how I could help. I did not like feeling this way. I did not want to hear what I was afraid she would say next about life not being worth living.

“Would you mind taking these to the laundromat, Coop? It’s right across the street from the A&P. The dryer still works, so when they come out of the wash just throw them back in the hamper and bring them home.” I don’t think I had done more than one load of even my own laundry in my whole life, though my mom had talked me through the process once or twice.

I said okay, grateful there was something I could do for this person who I was grudgingly accepting as another human being like me (rather than some iconic parental figure to constantly rebel against). She explained about separating whites from colors and how to use the powder detergent and the liquid fabric softener. I loaded everything in the trunk of our car, pocketed the five dollars she gave me to feed the machines, and headed off. I was always glad to have an excuse to get out of the house when my mom got this way.

My first time at the Laundromat I think I was the only male there. There were a couple women my mom’s age going through the motions with sad eyes, which looked at me somewhat inquisitively as I entered carrying the plastic laundry basket. Our machine at home was the typical top-loader, but here I had the choice of front and top loaders.

Initially I stuck with what I knew, found two top-loaders side by side, and sorted the basket full of clothes into them. I managed to figure out how to use the change machine (which luckily was working) to get the quarters I needed to fire up the machines. I had plenty of change with which I could invest in a candy bar and a can of soda. (We weren’t that poor!) I sat in the driver’s seat of our car in the laundromat parking lot, with my feet out the open door, listening to the car radio as I consumed my Coke and Snickers, noted that the sun had gone down, and thought about life.

It was the first of numerous times I took our family’s dirty clothes to the laundromat over the next five years to wash but not dry it. We never did get that washer fixed or replaced. I had been taking out the trash, making my own meals, and occasionally went to the Food & Drug to buy my mom a pack of cigarettes (with a note) and a six-pack of Tab (for her fix), but other than that I had been doing very little to help out around the house.

I felt good at the laundromat, like I was in a little bubble of peace of mind with all the stresses and strains of life (my own, my brother’s and my mom’s) swirling around beyond it. I could not solve my mom’s problems with depression, loneliness, finances, anger at my dad, lack of self-esteem, and the rest of the load she carried. I could barely move forward on my own issues of self-esteem, not feeling genuine, and not knowing what direction to take my own life after high school. But for those few hours a week when I was getting the family’s clothes washed, I felt no one (including me) could fault how I was spending my time.

I did not passive-aggressively resist this task and make my mom pester me each time to do it (like I had with taking out the trash, see that post). I accepted it as a starting point to move away from frustrating self-absorption toward a more caring persona where I was a contributing member of circles of people beyond myself.

It was a more “grown up” frame of reference, my coming of age as it were. There was no religious or secular ceremony where I stood before a congregation and declared and demonstrated that I was ready to be an adult. There was only a gangly sixteen-year-old presenting a plastic bin of clean wet clothes to his mom so she could throw them in the dryer.

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One reply

  1. […] COMING OF AGE AT THE LAUNDROMAT – I had no official “coming of age” ceremony in my life in a religious venue in front of the congregation. Mine instead was a subtle moment, a period of time when I realized that I had crossed a subtle but profound threshold between just being fixated on myself and being willing and invoking the agency to help and care for others around me. http://www.leftyparent.c… […]

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