By Conor Clarke
It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything. Both these lives were legitimate, but separated by strict temporal boundaries.
Down in the laundry room tonight there was a nice middle-aged lady with a headband round her head. I casually walked in behind her, my footsteps muffled by the din of the dryers. When I appeared within her field of vision, she jumped slightly, then told me in a calm and calculated way that I had scared her. With all the neighborliness I could muster, I said hello and began taking my clothes out of the dryer. As I emptied my permanently pressed clothes into the communal laundry basket, the woman startled me by saying, with furrowed brow and franticly concerned eyes, “Are you going to be using that dryer anymore?”
“No,” I said. “It’s all yours.”
As she loaded her clothes, I wondered why she was so eager to get them into the dryer, given the fact that no one else was down there. I figured she was just a little neurotic about her laundry.
I cracked the building’s communal copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and read the words of Dr. Johnson from at least a century before: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I pondered my superficial understanding of Hunter S. Thompson’s conception of irresponsibility, a notion of which I had gleaned from the book jacket and the movie. The drug-induced chaos of Thompson’s world seemed as good an example as any other of this idea of man as beast. But does beastliness necessarily imply chaos? Maybe the beast that we are afraid to unleash upon the world is a controlling beast, one that would seek to subjugate all the chaos and irresponsibility of the world. A fascist beast perhaps. And of course what better place to carry out this fascist agenda than the laundry room?
Purification is no easy process – comfort must be sacrificed for the sake of order and cleanliness. Laundry doers must adhere to the strict discipline of the soap clock: two dispersals of detergent seven minutes apart, one dispersal of fabric softener in between. The Laundromat society is ordered according to scientifically defined criteria of clothing categories: whites, coloreds, bright coloreds, woolens and delicates. Disrupting this order could potentially upset the purity of each category. Do we all somehow crave this order on a beastly level? Does order in the laundry room somehow allow us to escape the pain of an everyday existence in which we constantly submit to the social tolerance of civilization?
But it also seems that the laundry represents the opposite of this image of racial purity; it is somehow liberating. Maybe laundry serves a constructive political purpose in our culture. Is the laundry room a channel for all our racist impulses after traversing the city streets throughout the day? Can we, in the laundry, fulfill our desires to purify races of their blemishes, to dominate and pigeonhole people whom we cannot normally dominate? In this sense, maybe these beastly laundry practices are a useful diversion. Clothes, of course, do not fight back; we can have our way with them.
Although it seems, at a glance, that this practice of laundry is liberation for us humans and domination for the clothing, we might also say that clothing sees its own moments of liberation, too. Clothes enter weekly orgies in washing machines. Nowhere else does a sock get to caress all the other socks, not to mention the shirts and pants. And during this weekly affair, being wet and wild is, for once, legitimate. Indeed, the usual prohibitor of wetness (the clothing’s master) willingly supplies the clothes with lubrication and sensual scents, allowing for ritualistic transgression of their dry, orderly and wrinkle-free existence.
As I pondered these notions of cleanliness, I noticed that the lady I’d seen before was now moving her clothes incessantly. It was a little annoying but, like a good neighbor, I decided to ignore it. As I tried to get back to the drug-induced pictures of Thompson’s work, the frenetic activity did not stop, and I realized that this lady was taking up all six available dryers. I had thought a crowd of people was doing laundry, when all the washing machines had been taken. But it was actually just this one lady. Each dryer had about seven items in it. As I watched her feel for the temperature of each dryer, presumably measuring which were hot and which were not, I tuned in. There was a pattern there, somewhere. It may have been hidden to the entire world, but to the one person who perceived it, this nice middle-aged neighbor of mine, it was most important. She continuously emptied clothing out of one dryer, shook it out, placed it in the basket, felt the other dryers, and put more clothing in. Clothes rotated in and out of dryers and from dryer to dryer, until the woman finally stood back and watched. Synchronicity had been achieved.
Was it that each dryer was drying the clothes at exactly the same rate? Was it that the clothing in each dryer was achieving exactly the same dryness? Or was it simply that the flow of the dryers was in unison, like six different time periods that had been brought into a momentary present? I didn’t understand it, but I witnessed it. And then it was over. After achieving her synchronicity, she gathered some of her clothes, leaving five of the six dryers running, seven items in each. With a pleasant smile she wished me goodnight and I responded with some neighborly words.
There’s a peculiarly blissful feeling about the laundry room, the hum of the machines, the smell of purity, and the warmth of the dryers. It is a place where, late at night, we can all seek comfort in transgression, and transgression in comfort.
Conor Clarke is a second-year masters student in Anthropology. He was born and raised in the hills of northern Manhattan where he currently resides. His academic interests lie at the intersection of storytelling and ethnography in the contemporary United States city. In his studies, he would like to pursue an ethnography that explores the poetics, mimetics and affects of people and their places. He hopes to collect the stories of those affected by the process of urban revitalization that express their losses, reminiscences, hopes and intimacies. After this year he plans to begin work on a Ph.D in Anthropology at the New School or elsewhere.