Laundromats featured often, and prominently, in the American detective stories I devoured in my childhood. Open late into the night, and operated by surly attendants who handed out tickets, they seemed to be quite exciting places. There, women talked indiscreetly about rich old grandmothers or cheating husbands, men washed bloodied clothes after dark deeds. Perry Mason would, by some sleight of hand, get hold of a time stamped ticket and prove that the crime could not have been committed before 11.30 PM; Nancy Drew would call the cops to capture the man taking home the suspect washing.
Compared to all this, washing clothes seemed quite a mundane task at home. Forget laundromats, even washing machines were rare in my neighborhood. Wet soapy clothes were slapped on the washing stone in the backyard by our maid, Nirmala while she chatted with the neighbor’s maid Shantha across the fence. The road side Romeo’s appreciative whistle, “chechi’s” unreasonable demand to work next Sunday, the faint burning smell of fish curry on the stove – all topics under the sun were within bounds against the “thak-thak” of cloth on stone. She would then hang the clothes in a colorful line on the terrace, cussing us kids for inadvertently pulling some off the cloth line, while running around. The “dhobi” came home once a month for the heavy washing… counting the dhotis, bed sheets and curtains from the heap on the ground. Grandma would give him tea, ask after his family and argue about the tough betel nut stain that he missed on her favorite blouse. Very rarely would we go to “International Dry Cleaners”, the only one in town, for delicate silk sarees or my father’s safari suit that he wore once a year. The owner would look at us with the disdain she reserved for such infrequent customers, and wrap the dry cleaned clothes in crackling paper that I loved. But, for all her snootiness, the establishment was quite a far cry from the American laundromats of my imagination.
For whatever reason, I have not had occasion to visit a laundromat in all these years here in the U.S.. So, when our washer broke last Saturday, I volunteered, with zen like eagerness, to go to the nearest one, snowstorm or not. There were no attendants in sight—my books, obviously, were written before credit cards were in use. There was no evidence of criminal clean up either, to my mild disappointment. The few customers in the room did not smile or talk or even look at one another. This is New Jersey, people!
But there was one memorable old man, suffering from Parkinsons, gently bobbing his way from the washer to the dryer with a full load ; it broke my heart when he gently took out and straightened with infinite care, a woman’s georgette blouse before loading the dryer.