I am the odd man out among almost everyone I know in that both laundry and dishwashing are sacraments in my personal philosophical practice and virtually everyone else I know hates those things with a kind of virulence that I personally reserve for church, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, watching team sports that are not curling, and attending weddings.
I thought for a while that it all came down to my adoration of laundromats, one of the new things in the world I discovered when was expelled from high school and left home at seventeen to find my way outside the familiar environs of decreasingly-rural Scaggsville, Maryland. They were and remain superb places from which to watch people, to take in overhead conversations and the mechanics of how other people talk, and to come to peace with the root cause of popular boredom, which is an inability to sit quietly in a space, doing nothing but letting the mind roam, or taking in radio drama on a portable music player.
I suppose that it’ll never be considered a domestic art on the level of cooking, because you can’t eat clothes, as a rule, and the subtle delight of making your clothes last longer and wear better lacks the appeal of the instantaneous, but when I rhapsodize over my pleasure of the process of laundry, I get the same ever-so-slightly rolled eyes I get from trying to convey the joy I get when approaching a sink full of dirty dishes and then methodically turning chaos into order. I cannot solve the world’s political problems, defeat the divisions between world powers, or correct the suffering of people living far from me, but I can wipe out the sink at the end of the day with rack of dishes drying in the dark.
Where I live, there is some vestigial cultural fondness for the particular scent and experience of taking freshly dried laundry off a line and folding it, but it’s not something that is sufficiently nostalgic as to change people’s level of interest, but both the process of artfully hanging wet laundry and collecting those dry clothes possess an energy that speaks to me.
When I was in the most fundamentalist throes of my laundry fixation, I bought a well-worn 1951 Apex wringer washer to fully embrace the experience, which led my blue collar Baltimore grandmother to say, “Oh Joe-B, you shoulda told me you wanted a warsher—I’d have loaned you some money so you wouldn’t have to buy such an old one!” She then showed me, and a number of older women would also eventually show me, as well, upon hearing that I’d intentionally purchased a wringer washer, the scar where she’d been pulled into the wringer and marred with a fierce rubber burn before she could kick the plug out of the wall.
I washed with that old Apex for a decade before a broken gear in the transmission proved to be made of unobtanium, but I knew full well that my experience of laundry, as a single guy living alone, was redolent of a kind of privilege, having had that explained to me by a number of bemused and patient women of a certain age. I was lucky, in a roundabout way, to spend almost my entire adult life living alone, so I could make some qualitative decisions about reducing the level of complexity in the task, so I removed white from the spectrum of clothes I’d wear, eliminated fabrics that required complicated handling, dressed in colors that can all be washed together in cold water most of the time and hot if they had tough stains, and avoided anything that needed ironing beyond the natural flattening effect of a clothesline.
This year, of course, turned everything upside-down.
I went from a comfortable monastic agnostic existence to sheltering at the too large and definitely too-suburban home of my recent gentleman caller, having not shared a bathroom or kitchen with another person for thirty years and suddenly finding myself living away from my cozy apartment in a walkable small town with another man and an 8-year-old in a 50/50 custody circulation. There’s no clothesline, I hate drying clothes in dryers, and I tend to want to do all the laundry, but a family of suburban-raised conventional people that upsets my rituals has been hard, so I often insist on doing my own laundry my own way, using a rack in the house like a European person, and doing their laundry their own soulless, smelly, horrible way.
“What are you making, Joe-B?” asks Little Miss, my quasi-stepchild, as I’m stirring a giant cauldron of strange-smelling goo.
“Why don’t you just buy it at the store like daddy?”
I want to tell her that I have occasionally been very, very poor and that I started making my own laundry detergent out of old motel soaps, borax, and washing soda because it was about ten times cheaper than store-bought and didn’t make so much plastic trash, but as she relays many of these things to her mother, a woman I’ve barely met, but who can’t stand my existence, I defer to wry puffery.
“Oh, hon,” I say, “I’m making artisanal laundry detergent. It’s better than store-bought.” It sounds exactly like the kind of thing a so-called hipster would say, and I’m okay with that.
“Can I help?”
“It’s a lot of stirring, baby.”
“I can stir!”
I give her the big spoon, but her interest peters out after a while, and she wanders off. With no one around, I use the immersion blender I found at a thrift store, which really takes my motel soap detergent to the next level.
I’ll probably stay here, and in the same way I have a pang over the thought that I’ll be leaving behind the big 1940s gas range on which I mastered Escoffier’s five mother sauces, I dread having to dispose of the ramshackle washing machine I got from my client, which I’ve repaired frequently, but will likely no longer need. Next year, I’ll put up a lovely aluminum clothesline tree, which I’ve laid out in my list of my-way-or-the-highway requirements for pulling up stakes and moving to the…ugh…suburbs, and will start browbeating the household into learning the basics of proper laundry even as I further come to understand why women of a certain age would find my laundry romance inexplicable (the mere thought of having to keep up with even one more child makes the prevalence of Valium and infanticide relatable).
My grandmother had a clothesline on pulleys that reached from the concrete back stoop to the alley, and I hang with her as she’d reel the dry clothes back in in the afternoons. She’d pull the lines, and the metal rings that kept the lines together when heavy things were hanging would ring like little Buddhist meditation bells as blouses and trousers and her husband’s coveralls would roll our way.
“Joe-B, could you fold those for me before they wrinkle?”
“Okay,” I’d said, with a little pre-teen huff in my voice, as I folded them on the cast-iron garden table. She’d pause, the little rings going quiet, and straighten my sloppy folds.
“Why are you smiling? Aren’t you bored?” I asked.
“No. It’s a beautiful day and the bluebird of happiness is on the wing.”
“It’s just something people say, Joe-B. If there’s something you have to do, you can either hate it or find out how to love it. I’d rather find out, myself. Everything takes longer when you’re not enjoying it.”
Enjoying laundry? That’ll be the day.
Little Miss watched me carefully measuring a spot on the wall, eyeballing the balance between where my electric bass hung on a hook and the corner, and I marked the position, installed a nice screw-in drywall anchor, and carefully hung up a curious metal object of cast aluminum with a textured double spiral and a circular, slightly domed base.
“What’s that?” she asked, as I straightened it up on the wall and admired it there.
“That, young lady, is the agitator from a 1951 Apex wringer washing machine.”
“Why’s it on the wall?”
“Because it is a fine and beautiful object that makes me feel happy.”
“It’s the joy of laundry made incarnate,” I said, and yeah, she’s eight and I am a pompous old man who’s possibly too hidebound to be suddenly coparenting an eight-year-old at 52, but like my own parents, I never dumb things down. It looks lovely there, and yet I am momentarily filled with a wrenching panic that this is not my beautiful house, but it passes.
“It looks cool,” she says, “Kinda like a seashell or that fossil of an ammonia like you have on your desk.”
“An ammonite. Yes, hon—it does.”
I carried three laundry bags downstairs and loaded the washing machine.
The passage of my life is measured out in shirts.