3-24-26 Shiobaru Minamiku
Fukuoka 815-0032

092-554-2020

Laundromat

Originally posted as コインランドリーin Japanese on南区医師会報Minamiku Ishikaihou (The Bulletin of Minami Ward Medical Society) #310 Vol.30 No.6 p4-6 Nov/Dec 2005

I saw a laundromat along the street from the car on the way to work. The rows of the coin-operated washing machines seemed to be very modern and I could see the clothes spinning inside the drums. In the morning traffic jam, I wondered what type of people would be doing laundry at 8 am on a weekday.

The last time I used a laundromat must have been back in my student days. I used to take a binbag full of dirty clothes down to a nearby laundromat. At the very first hospital in Okinawa I worked at after I finished school, cleaning ladies would come and pick up and replace the clothes we left on the beds. We stole scrubs for pajamas from ER and I have no recollection of washing myself. Thinking about it now, it seems the last time I used a laundromat was when I was doing rat experiments in America.

At the beginning of 1987, I went to St. Louis, Missouri, frozen stiff with nerves. I lost that job within months and ended up at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the suburbs of Washington DC in April. Through NIH I could rent a room in a Haitian professor’s house. The landlord was a very tall man with a heavy Haitian Creole accent who was divorced three times in spite of being a Catholic. I caught him hugging a German girl (a fellow tenant) in the kitchen and I decided to move out to somewhere closer to the lab. The first house I saw after looking at the classifieds in the newspaper was full of young people –the long hair type, with silly tattoos. As I could not catch their English, I passed. The landlord of the second house was a government employee in a suit and the other tenant was a thirty-something guy. They used to have a Japanese tenant before and I decided to give it a try immediately.

Bob, the landlord spoke like the English language tapes I had learned English from. Jon, the other tenant was supposedly a lawyer. The rent for a room was something like 200 dollars, and the bathroom and the kitchen were shared. I had known the word “roommate” before but that was the first time I had heard the word “housemate” from Bob. There was a kitchen right in front of the front door and a 30 square meter living area on the left which was empty most of the time except for the time when they had a party. Next to the living room was a den with sofas and a stereo. The small room across the hall that was probably for a kid was my bedroom. The master bedroom upstairs was for Jon and the smaller one for Bob.

I was getting used to the lab routines and was free to do anything. The fellowship stipend was yet to come, and the situation was not straightforward in terms of my visa status as I was recently discharged from the previous fellowship. I could be called an “illegal alien”. I had to save money-  and being short of money at the age of thirty was rather hard on me. But those days were remarkably merrier than the ones just after I lost the previous job. Bob’s house on the LeMay Road was in the area which was developed after the WWII for the young veterans to have a family. Compared to Japanese standards, houses were more sparsely distributed in dense woods. The neighborhood seemed like an area that would not likely house many wealthy residents. I could walk to the lab and the subway station was also within walking distance. I could go to the small strip mall on foot, too. It took more than thirty minutes to go to work, which is too long for me now.

About midday on the Saturday a week after I moved in, Bob asked if I would go washing together. Jon joined us with a basket of clothes. Bob drove the car to the laundry. Jon didn’t own a car. He specialized in campaign financing. He used to work at a law firm in Washington DC but was doing some “research” at a foundation. Even without knowing his last name “Epstein”, you could guess he was Jewish because of his thick eyeglasses and his bristling moustache. He looked way too academic to suck eggs abusing the law. The job at the foundation was not too demanding and he seemed to be enjoying the slow pace after an apparent period of mental depression. Bob was driving a huge Buick about the size of a small boat but even so didn’t own a washing machine.

The laundry was run by a Korean, and half of the store was occupied by the coin-operated washing machines. Bob seemed to give him a cheerful hello but I couldn’t catch the words they spoke. Playing on the radio was something cheerful but the words also went over my head. The bright blue sky outside was too bright without sunglasses, but it was dim inside. Hot air from the dryer irritated the skin. Bob bought a hotdog at a nearby Seven Eleven where a South-Asian shop owner with a brown turban kept calling the hot dog some brand name and never called it a hot dog. Bob avoided an argument, murmuring, “ A hotdog is a hotdog”. While eating his hot dog, he waited for his nylon shirts to be dried. Using three powerful dryers, a couple of weeks worth of laundry was done quickly. Listening to the big noise from the spinning drums and the music from the radio that was probably some country music, I realized I was really in America.

Bob, who did not seem to be particularly good academically, had a master’s degree in journalism and used to work at an advertizing agency in New York. He had worked as a speechwriter at the Department of Education for the previous 15 years. He left home at 4 or 5 am but came home as early as 3 pm. He did not seem to be too serious about his work. Actually, he was dreaming to become a millionaire by buying houses and paying for the loans by renting them out. He owned 5 to 6 houses at his peak and was extremely busy in the evenings and weekends managing them. If the surge in the real estate market had exceeded the rise of interest rates he could have made a fortune. In reality, he could not keep himself afloat until the day when the real estate bubble would allow him to make some profit selling his properties. He had to sell all the houses including his own house on the LeMay Road, and went bust.

In a word he was a loser. But he was a lovable guy who kept talking about his big dreams. His height was more than 190 cm and he must have weighed more than 100 kg. With his light gray eyes he looked to me like a typical American. His father came to New York as an adopted son from Austria. His flawless English may have had something to do with his family history. Once in a while I wondered why this guy was so clueless. But when he called to ask me to go out for a sandwich lunch together long after I moved out I always went. Watching someone floundering was therapeutic for me when I was deeply depressed. He was a good friend of mine.

Laundromats for me are connected to the days when we all had big dreams but no money. I don’t have to go to the laundromat these days but I don’t have big dreams either. Bob quit the government job and started to work at a real estate agency. He sends us Christmas cards every 2-3 years. He is finally enjoying the fruits of real estate bubble and is doing all right now. I send him New Year cards once in a while. He must be still chasing dreams. I try to think about our bright future, while looking back to the days of laundromat.

2020/04/28

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