Sunshine state of mind: Life lessons and laundry detergent


Stephanie Hempel, Columnist

I grew up in a laundry mat. If you can’t identify with this statement it means your parents were wealthy enough to afford a fully functioning washer and dryer that accommodated your entire family.


My mother and I were on the opposite side of the spectrum spending all of our time in the arms of Spin City Laundry.

We would stretch our clothing as absolutely far as it would go, scowl as we loaded piles of unruly fabric into garbage bags and drag them into the back of the car off to face our final defeat of two dollars per load.

My mother would bring a stack of Nora Roberts novels thick and daunting to my youthful attention span and harbor herself into the best looking corner.

I would bring my camera.

You see, the thing about the laundry mat is that it builds a strange community of regulars that flee from all over the city. People of all colors, sizes, shapes and financial situations would scatter like mad ants among the crowded washer and dryer combinations milking their bones for quarters to impress the begging money slots.

It also depended on the time of day.

In the light hours sweet little old ladies would line up with piles of “Better Homes and Gardens” magazines leafing through and discussing the language of grandchildren.

Children pushed each other around in the laundry carts following the endless racetrack of rectangles to the hum of the dryer.

At night the creatures were much more interesting.

Groups of college students would huddle around empty tables with text books and fries complaining about a world I did not yet understand.

Men with scarred knuckles and stained work boots would haul in loads by the hour and women with too much lipstick would watch them pace back and forth through the door.

That open sign was like a beacon of hope calling to save the restless. I remember the first time I saw a homeless man sleeping in the orange chairs in the back. He was hiding in plain sight, cradling his body into the bucket seats, a backpack by his side.

I looked at my mother with a weary expression. She nodded back to me with a sense of ease. Her calm composure read “overlook and carry on” as she stuck her nose into a novel.

I wanted so badly to take his picture out of nothing but pure curiosity. I felt that people needed to know his story and maybe from the right angle of a Canon they could.

On the way home I asked if he was allowed to sleep there like that. She glanced to her side and simply shook her head without saying another word. I never saw him again. I was thirteen.

The reality of life isn’t supposed to settle in until your early twenties, but I was thirteen.

I still cross my fingers for him and the millions of other night-walkers creeping through the community halls to wash their clothes at three a.m.

Sometimes life isn’t convenient but it will never fail to amaze you. Counting quarters is still something I do on a regular basis.

Now that I’m on my own I try to stretch my laundry until I’m barebacked, swimming in mountains of fabric, but the hymns at the laundry mats around here aren’t quite the same.

Most of the people know each other by story. The mystery has vanished with age. Now the creatures of the dark hours are everyday people with everyday lives.

Still I will forever be blessed for that broken washer in the kitchen for teaching me about the diversity of spin cycles, and human beings.