My first experience with public laundromats occurred in my early twenties, when I first moved to San Francisco. I had a strangely romantic idea about them at the time, that there was something grittily poetic about airing one’s dirty laundry in the company of strangers. It didn’t take long before I grew tired of the routine: dragging my unmentionables down the block, then sitting vigil over this precious cargo while fending off boredom. I could never bring myself to do the load-and-leave, never trusted that my thrift-store wardrobe was safe from potential thieves looking for the perfect vintage t-shirt (hopelessly faded) or ratty pair of jeans. And so I subjected myself to one of my least favorite activities in the world: waiting around in public alone.
As an introvert, such occasions fill me with dread, as I feel vulnerable to any stranger’s approach, whether friendly or not. Without the buffer of a companion, it is much more likely that someone will try to engage me in conversation, even if I keep my nose firmly planted in a book. And during times of purposeful waiting, when it’s not easy to just get up and go, I feel like a captive audience for whoever wants to demand my attention. I realize that this may sound terribly anti-social, but in my defense, there are times when I am happy to engage in pleasantries with random strangers (granted, these are somewhat rare occurrences). It’s just that there are other times when I would rather have a root canal than a forced conversation.
It’s true that I could make this preference known in a variety of ways, could “tell off” the person trying to chat with me, but such an extreme reaction is not appropriate in most situations. I realized this again recently, when for various reasons I found it necessary to spend time in a laundromat, after avoiding them successfully for many years. As I waited for my clothes to dry, a bewildered-looking elderly woman approached me and began asking me a series of questions in rapid-fire French (which I find hard to parse at the best of times), only a few of which I knew the answer to. I tried to help her as best as I could, stumbling over my verbs and pronouns, but she seemed irked when I couldn’t give her all the info she needed (can you put bleach in this washing machine? I have no idea).
There came a point when she gave up on me–after I failed to understand why she needed me to dial a certain number on her cell phone–and she left me in peace. It was obvious to me that I couldn’t have just “told her off” or ignored her, because, a) she was a nice old lady in need of help, b) she was extremely persistent, and c) I don’t know how to say “I’m sorry but I’d rather just sit here trying to be invisible and not involve myself in your affairs” in French. And also, d) because such annoying/amusing cultural exchanges make for good stories when trying to write blog posts…
But overall, I wish there were some way to signal one’s unwillingness to interact on a given day (a certain piece of headwear, or perhaps a paper bag over one’s face), and an accompanying societal blessing for such a preference. I guess I could always stay at home on those days, and not care that my clothes remain unwashed; no one would have to suffer their filth but me.