Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
When we last convened on this page, I was making insane promises to discuss the metaphysics of cleanliness and to tell stories of doing laundry while on the road. I’m not sure which would be more painful to read, but I know which would hurt more to write, so I’m going to just tell a few tales – all true – about doing my clothes on the road. Pretty heady stuff, eh?
While going through my journals and notes from the road, I constantly find throwaway lines about “stopping for laundry” or “doing a load after I check in” or “needing to find a laundromat.” Over and over, these lines appear, almost as often as prepositions. Doing laundry is woven into my travels as much as having to eat food every day or buying gasoline every few hundred miles. It makes sense, of course, although it’s not always the reality. I must eat and I must buy gas, but clean clothes are not a must, at least when I travel alone. Still, there is something that draws me to these laundromats and I touched on it in my previous column. Doing laundry is a way to slow down, have some human contact and get a taste of what a town is really like, a way to peek into a municipality’s soul.
Everything seems to acquire more focus and intensity when you’re alone in strange territory. Laundry, as well, becomes more meaningful than it is at home, where it’s just a chore.
I was at a motel in Hammond, Louisiana one night in 2015, at 9:00 p.m., and somebody started pounding on my motel door. I was on the phone at the time with a friend back in New York. The correct thing to do in that situation is to absolutely never answer the door and to remain completely silent. I did not do the correct thing. I stood up and asked who it was through the motel room door. Outside was some guy with a heavy southern accent, asking questions about laundry. Was I doing my laundry? Did I have clothes in the dryer? Did I just do a wash? He was insistent. I kept saying “Nope.”
After a minute, I realized he was accusing me of stealing his clothes, because he was asking me how tall I was. So I said, “Wait a minute,” then I got dressed and opened the door. Again, this was not the smartest move, but I thought it would be more diplomatic and might project a more respectable front if I did this face-to-face. In retrospect, it was probably stupid. I could have just called the front desk and gone to bed.
When I opened the door, it was two very young guys standing there. They had a white pick-up truck and the engine was running. They were dressed in hunting camouflage gear and camo caps, and I believe they were fairly drunk. One guy kept asking me if I was sure I didn’t have clothes in the dryer. I kept saying “no” and, finally, I just said, “Listen: maybe there’s a security camera in the laundry room or the hallway. Let’s have the front desk check the cameras.”
That was just me in rational mode, but it gave them pause. One of them stood silent for a moment and said, “We don’t want to do that.” The other one stood, glassy-eyed, and shook his head. In that moment, I think they realized that I was not the guy they were looking for. I also realized that they were just using the motel’s laundry room and were not actually staying paying guests. As they shambled off, one of them said, “Well, whoever did it, we’ve got their clothes.”
About five minutes later I heard some more talking. I cracked open the door to peek out and they did not even notice me. They were talking to a short guy who was trying to be reasonable with them. He kept saying, “Who knows?” in response to their questions. Then, he said, “Let’s go back to my room and take a look at my clothes.” I thought that was an insane offer and quietly shut my door. That was the last I heard of them.
Back in 2002, I was on a road trip with a friend and, after a long day’s drive from the north, we ended up in the hardscrabble desert town of Blythe, California, at a cheap chain motel. We unloaded the car, ate some food and fell asleep. As dawn broke, I slowly opened one eye and there, six inches away from my face, sat what looked like a bedbug. I’m certain it was a bedbug. I have been in a lot of cheap motels, but I have only seen bedbugs a few times, and it’s always when I check under the mattress before I bring my bags in. When that happens, I instantly check out and get my money back. I stared at this unmoving bug for about 30 seconds, then I rolled out of bed quietly and woke up my friend, who was still asleep. She and I loaded the car and we set out for the closest laundromat, which was only five minutes away.
We emptied our bags in the parking lot, put everything in a washing machine for an extended cycle on the hottest setting, then cleared out the whole car, emptied my camera bag, and examined my laptop, along with anything else that had been in the room with us. I got some coffee nearby and wrote a scathing review of the motel on Yelp – the last recourse of the truly desperate. We ran everything through the drier on hot for about 90 minutes. I was pretty confident we were bug-free after that, but I kept thinking about that one bug all day and into the night. For no good reason – maybe it was the bug – we headed north again and ended up in Beatty, Nevada, a town I have stayed in many times. It’s a place to buy supplies, maybe stay the night and then move on. The town calls itself “the gateway to Death Valley,” but I always think of Beatty as the home to “Eddie-World,” a large gas station with a huge bulk candy store, along with some fast food, attached. The station’s got a picture of a young boy’s face – presumably Eddie – on the sign and there’s more to it than that, but I’ll save that for another day.
This last winter, I was killing some time on the Gulf Coast of Florida and went to what was billed on Yelp as a “Coin Laundromat” in the town of Lutz, not far from Tampa. I did not have a lot of laundry to do, but I wanted to check out a local laundromat.
It was at the end of a gravel dead-end street, off what passed for a strip mall. At the end of the road were two dumpsters and a bunch of lizards. I walked in and went to the change machine, which refused to take my bills. A woman was sweeping and I immediately noticed something on the floor that was moving its wings like a hummingbird. It was not a hummingbird, even though it was close to one in size. It was some kind of bug and it could not get airborne.
The woman with the broom kept trying to gently move it out the door. She had no desire to kill it and I doubt she was a Jain, that ancient Indian religion that prohibits killing anything, including bugs. I kept staring at it, violently flapping its wings on the floor, and was in the process of deciding to not do my laundry there. She noticed me staring and, as though she were referring to a good friend, she said something that I did not expect to come out of her mouth. She said “It’s a feature, not a bug.” This is something that programmers will say to excuse bad code. I don’t believe she wrote code, but what do I know?
I said nothing. I wordlessly picked up my small pile of clothes, got in the car, located another laundromat, about 15 minutes away, and drove there. This place was called WashLava and it was based on that new app economy we all love so much. I walked in. It was clean, sterile, and devoid of all life, except for one guy who was sitting there, waiting for his wash to finish.
There were instructions painted on the wall in huge letters, telling me to download the app and then hold my phone close to a machine. I grumbled and said to the guy “You mean, we HAVE to use a phone? There are no coins?” He said “yes” and I grumbled some more. He then, good sport that he was, said “Well, at least you don’t have to go looking for change.” I began to respond and decided not to. I went to buy a box of detergent, but you needed coins for that and I had no change, nor was there a change machine. Someone had overlooked that detail.
Luckily, I had two small boxes of detergent in my car, so I got one. I downloaded the app to my phone – cursing modern life the whole time – and then I added a credit card to the app. I found a machine with a green light on it, put the detergent in the slot on top of the machine, then put my clothes in and held the phone next to it. Nothing happened. After repeating this sequence for a while, the machine next to mine said “start the cycle for $3.” There was no way to change things. Cursing again, I put my remaining box of detergent in the proper machine and tried to start it, but enough time had passed that the machine had timed out or gone into glitch mode. I finally discovered that I could still press the actual button on the machine and it would start. This was probably a holdover from the days when humans used their fingers to manipulate physical controls. After 45 minutes, I had to contend with the dryer.
At 8:35 in the morning on a fall day in 2015, I was in a quiet residential neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It was raining, of course, because it was Portland. I was sitting in the parking lot of a laundromat and had a load in the washer. There were 23 minutes left on the machine until the clothes had to go into a dryer. This laundromat was in a large shed-like building, on the bottom floor under what looked like a big garage. It was the Celebration Christian Church and I heard some kind of droning, live grunge music emanating from the upper floor. Coming from a lapsed Greek Orthodox background, I did not quite get it, but that’s the way it was. Whatever works for people, right?
An hour before this, I had stopped outside another laundromat, which looked ideal for me, in that I could park directly outside. Elko, my dog at the time, could have watched me from the car. This was important to him and to me. Sadly, the manager never showed up to open the doors for business. I was there at 7:30 in the morning, puttering around, reading. Another guy pulled up next to me at 7:50 in an expensive car. This was another exciting day on the road. Finally, at 8:15, I saw the guy in the expensive car getting ready to leave, so, I rolled down my window, he rolled down his, and I told him I had found another place, called The Missing Sock Laundromat, and that he was welcome to follow me, which he did for 1.5 miles over the course of five minutes. We had a caravan, this stranger and I. He followed me into the parking lot and pulled in next to me. I rolled down my window and said, “This looks good.”
He said, “Do you know if they take Visa?” This question astonished me. I had never heard of a public laundromat taking Visa to that point in my life, but he asked me, so I said, “No, I don’t know.“ He said he was going to try a different laundromat that he had just found on his GPS. Then he said, “Why are you in town?” I said, “A little bit of this, a little bit of that.” And he said, “You’re not here for the Intel job, are you?” And I said, “No.” And– that was it. I put in my load, and he drove off. I assumed he meant Intel, the company, but I did have a fleeting thought that he could have been talking about intelligence work, in which case the whole laundromat meeting might have made more sense. That’s when I heard the grunge music upstairs begin as I loaded my wash into the machine.
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