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Paul Wellman

When the Well Runs Dry

Tales from the Laundromat


I did a wash at the laundromat yesterday, a once-commonplace experience that now seemed quaint and interesting, which maybe says something about the generally upward course of my destiny. In the long-ago days of my first marriage, I went regularly to the laundromat, about a five-block walk from our basement apartment in Chicago. I crammed our dirty clothes into an old laundry bag that I slung over my shoulders, then strode down the street scowling like some misanthropic Santa Claus. When I got there, I would count out my coins, begin the process, and wait around feeling bored and miserable, though I readily admit that “bored and miserable” was my typical frame of mind in those days.

I would distractedly flip through old magazines filled with pictures of people looking beautiful and having fun in ways that I knew I never would. Sometimes I stood watching the clothes whirling through their cycles as if it were some strangely hypnotic television show. I was 20 years old and firmly believed my life was over.

But yesterday’s trek to the laundromat was a novel chore (necessitated by a temporary problem with our water line) and the laundromat I went to is in Buellton, and Buellton is in the Santa Ynez Valley, where even the mundane has an absurdly storybook quality. It was a flawless day: a sky as blue as painted porcelain and mountains clearly visible in the distance beyond a large clean parking lot peppered with pick-up trucks and shiny SUVs. A man in a cowboy hat sat outside on a bench smoking a cigarette, and within, the distinctive scents of detergent and fabric softener hovered in the air, along with some familiar vagueness of steam and soapy water. A sign on the wall admonished customers: NO HORSE BLANKETS IN THESE MACHINES. A coin-operated “Laundry Bar” mounted on the wall was ready to release little packets, for a price, of whatever product you might be missing, and rows of washers were already vibrating industriously.

I loaded a machine, fed it with the necessary coins (usage fee was a hefty 12 quarters) and walked a few doors down to Pattybakes to meet a couple of girlfriends for conversation, confidences, and camaraderie over coffee. I hurried back to the laundromat a little while later to transfer my clothes to the dryer, and then returned for the sharing of a lemon bar and closing thoughts.

And maybe it was seeing how pleasant and benign even a laundromat can be when one’s psyche is mended, or maybe it was just having time with my girlfriends, or quite possibly it was that Valley Effect, which is sort of like Prozac—but a disproportionate sense of accomplishment and well-being washed over me. I felt grateful, humble, and oddly relieved, for I was suddenly quite aware of having managed some narrow escapes over the years. I may have been wrung and spun and tumbled a bit, but I had emerged into this bright moment. I felt unfettered, clean, pleased with my life.

The clothes were warm from the dryer; my car smelled of detergent all the way home.

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