Through the Wringer

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.

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5 Responses to “Through the Wringer”

  1. GodsKid said:

    Paper bag over the face — now there’s an idea I could really get into!! πŸ™‚

  2. James Sullivan said:

    Well I was about to not leave a comment as usual when a related thought hit me.

    When I don’t want to be interrupted or annoyed in public I just put some headphones or ear buds on even if I don’t bother turning on my MP3 player. Unless you come across a friend or acquaintance usually no one bothers you. Though for the few that do a quick “No thanks” to what they’re trying to pedal or flatly ignoring them usually works.

    With all these sorts of always connected and used devices today in some sense it is easier to blend in as an introvert by disguising yourself as a sort of ‘normal’ extrovert.

  3. spectatrix said:


    I was only partially joking… πŸ™‚


    Good point. Maybe I should invest in a new music player specifically for that purpose. However, not everyone takes no for an answer, even when you seem otherwise engaged. Some people can’t believe a person on their own isn’t in dire need of company πŸ™‚

  4. James said:

    I know that there are a few that won’t take no for an answer so when that happens I pointedly ignore them and completely tune out. It either pisses them off or you don’t notice them anyway. The things you learn to do in a decent sized family. πŸ˜‰

    Though I would agree that isn’t a perfect solution but to me that’s the final solution I fall back to before blowing up in someone’s face which I can’t ever remember doing thankfully.

  5. Jennifer K said:

    When I lived in Berkeley, my laundromat was next to a low-cost residential hotel. So I had lots of “Berkeley moments” there. One time a man hanging out in front of the hotel saw me in the back of the laundromat. He started yelling at me from the sidewalk, then actually came into the laundromat and got in my face, still yelling. Fortunately I was just getting ready to leave, so I left without saying one word. I’m so glad I haven’t had to go to a laundromat here in France!