Friday, September 15, 2006

The Laundry Room

I never lived in a place that had a laundry room. But three years ago my husband and I bought a little house in Pennsylvania, and a big attraction for me was the laundry room. And I hadn't really realized how much I loved this room, or why, until an old friend from Chicago spent last weekend with us. This friend and I have had a volatile relationship over the course of twenty years. We've gone years without speaking (we're both poets, so that’s just normal, right?), but the one thing we could never deny or ignore was our shared economic backgrounds: we both grew up poor. The bond between people — perhaps women in particular — who grew up like that is a unique and visceral one, maybe even more so in this era of the disappearing American working class. But it's also one that keeps both parties from getting away with any phony stuff: "I know where you come from, sister." No matter what you've done to that person, she'll always understand you because she knows where you came from, and she recognizes that dirty, cluttered, chaotic place as her own.

So, I was giving this friend the tour of the house, and when we came to the laundry room she said, "Ah, this is where the magic happens." I had to laugh. She had referenced our shared desires to impose (or, in a more hopeful way, find) cleanliness and order in dirty, cluttered, chaotic places. Maybe that's the reason she and I became writers: to find (or, in a more realistic way, impose) order within chaos. And I realized that through my diligent attention the laundry room had become the cleanest room in the house, a kind of votive altar to the idea of cleanliness. Many pleasant hours had I spent spritzing and wiping down the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor, cleaning out cobwebs from corners, and keeping the counter free of stuff (only the iron — the big, old-fashioned, shiny all-metal kind — some laundry detergent, a box of plant food, and two folded-up Japanese cloths rest there). An ironing board leans against the wall, adding — in my opinion — to the general air of cleanliness and comfort. I think comfort is the key here: the laundry room is, for women especially, the one place where nothing can go wrong. It might be the place to go, in fact, after things have gone terribly wrong.

In my early 20's, in the early 80's, after a long, complicated night, I used to love to watch the sun come up at the 24-hour wash-and-dry. Most times I wasn't even doing laundry. Sometimes I was the only person there. But it was better when other people were there, because then I'd get the miraculously ordinary motions of the act itself — nothing at stake there — the smell of the wet clothes, the laundry detergent, the fabric softener. To this day, whenever I pass an apartment building venting air from the laundry room, I flash on certain difficult nights and the wondrous deliverance from hideousness that came with sunrise via laundry and its accoutrements.

But now here's the problem: although those days (and nights) are long gone, the memory of comfort after crisis is just as vivid as the crises themselves. Perhaps more so, because comfort — like crisis — can be addictive. And after one learns one can easily manufacture comfort, one becomes a comfort junkie. In the early days, a laundry room or a laundromat was a place forever outside the arena of hideousness because most of the horrors happened in clubs, bars, public bathrooms, parking lots, on side streets, by lakes, on overnight buses, and of course in my apartment and the apartments of others. Thus the laundromat, or any place where laundry was done, was a true escape (and I never lived in any building that had a laundry room). But then, once it's in your own space, even if you only occupy that space on weekends, the laundry room becomes a monster of one's own creation. Comfort can be accessed 24-7 in the comfort of one's home (or just via memory), and so one never needs to hope for it, to ever again deal with the kinds of difficulties one experienced in earlier times. And so experience ends. And the end of experience is stasis, death. There was a reason why Adam and Eve chose the apple of experience, the fall into Time, over paradise, stasis. They chose life and death over death-in-life.

So now what? I've got this laundry room, and comfort. Even when I'm not at the house (our apartment in Brooklyn is still our main residence), I carry the idea of the comfort I've provided for myself everywhere I go. Thus, comfort means nothing because it's everything. Can comfort regain its former meaning, its old piquancy? Do I need to get rid of the laundry room? Or become worthy of the laundry room, of comfort, by casting myself even deeper into experience, so that comfort becomes as intense as crisis and as meaningful again? And if I do succeed in getting rid of the laundry room, can I erase its memory? Does the acquisition of comfort ruin one for experience ever after? I think I need to either mess up the laundry room, or mess up my life. Or both. Either way, I'll be going back to an earlier, more difficult, vivid time. We'll see what happens.

5 Comments:

Blogger Rudy said...

You presented a thought-provoking accounting. I can relate to the order found in the laundry room. I was a single parent since '93 and seemed to find a sense of organization by keeping laundry up-to-date. I still do, even after retiring from work. I'm doing laundry right now. I am always waiting for the shirt or pants that will make a full load. When my son visited me a few months ago, his preoccupancy-staging-visit resulted in my garage being filled with mountain bikes, a plethora of sports equipment, a motorcycle, furniture, and 13 big black garbage bags full of not-quite-clean laundry. By the time he arrived, the laundry was clean and folded in his room. Many times during the journey through the 13 bags, I almost gave in to better judgment which would have meant leaving the bags in the garage. Of course, that didn’t happen. It might surprise you that the fresh smell of clean laundry along with the prospect of exciting experiences that may happen while wearing those clothes appeals to us guys, too.

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