Friday, September 5, 2014

Other Homes, Other Laundry

When I think of my homes in the world, I define them by my laundry.

In my primary residence, a century-plus-vintage apartment building, laundry is a matter of impulse coupled with necessity. In the basement there are two washers and two dryers. In my bedroom near one of the windows is a long pole for clothes that shouldn't cook in the dryer. The only barrier I have to clean clothing is having enough quarters for the machines, and my bank is only five blocks away. In this home, doing laundry is as easy as brushing my teeth--and I never take it for granted. At one stage in my life, I did my laundry in two plastic tubs, by hand, in my Bangkok bathroom, and occasionally had to gather it from the ground below when storms swept in, blowing my clothes from my balcony. Having a security guard ask me "Is this your skirt?' in a language not my own is not one of the high points in my memory. For me, sharing a laundry with 49 other residents is no problem at all.

In my Hong Kong home, my first order of business is buying a dozen plastic coat hangers, because my miniscule Chungking Mansions domicile never has more than three hanging from pegs in the wall. Every four days, I carry a bag of laundry to a woman on the ground floor; if she receives it in the morning, I can pick it up in the afternoon. And I do my best to get it soon after 2 pm, because if I hurry and put the laundered clothes on hangers, layering them on the four wall pegs, the humidity will work for me and I won't have to pay for expensive ironing. The most difficult part of this enterprise is being sure that I don't lose my laundry ticket, and having my day bifurcated by the afternoon pick-up. I could of course take the local way out and wash my clothes by hand and hang them out the window, but the thought of marinating them in the stagnant Kowloon air that smells like wet mops makes my laundry bill worthwhile. It's around $32 US per month and that's a price I'm willing and able to pay.

In my Bangkok apartment, laundry is a matter of charm and bemusement. Often the building's laundress has as shaky a command of Thai as I do myself, although the Lao lady and I always understand each other and the Myanmar refugee became much more fluent than I as the years passed. What is sometimes an insurmountable gap is our differing concepts of time and urgency. I always spend more money on clothing than I have planned because most of my clothes are being held somewhere in laundry limbo. But when they do come back to me, each garment is on its own hanger, beautifully ironed and presentable, delivered to my door. I usually pay around $38 US at the end of the month, plus the cost of the beer I use for self-medication when I realize that once again I will have to buy more clothes, since god knows when my laundry will reappear.

All of this is still infinitely preferable to having laundry done while on the road. Punctual it always is, but what will return to me is always a matter of conjecture and sometimes consternation. Ironed? Unironed? Wadded into a clean ball? Will it come back before check-out? These are the questions that haunt me in a strange bed at 4 am. Suddenly the varying laundry methods of my three homes across the globe seem comforting and luxurious, making me realize that familiarity breeds content.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Our Seattle Socialist Saint

Seattle has traditionally boasted a small hotbed of radicalism flaming among its solid citizen bourgeoisie. This has  led to an interesting counterbalance of politically correct liberals providing a public face to the rest of the U.S. while Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks carry on the time-honored role of the robber barons. Our mayor is in a solid, same-sex, inter-racial marriage, Columbus Day is soon to be renamed Indigenous Peoples Day (which brings up images of white people thronging the malls to shop the Indigenous Peoples Day Sales), and on the city council is a real honest-to-god, card-carrying Socialist, a woman of color to boot.

Don't gasp just yet--there's more. Kshama Sawant is a PhD from Mumbai who emigrated to the U.S. as an academic in economics and a trailing spouse of a Microsoft engineer. She was propelled to her city council seat by her campaign to raise Seattle's minimum wage to a national high of $15 an hour, a dazzling idea that will be phased in over a period of years, by which time $15 will be a poverty-level wage in this Cascadia boomtown.

Nevertheless, despite revealing herself as a woman more than able to cut backroom deals and water down campaign promises, Sawant has achieved international fame in the pages of the Guardian, Forbes, and New York. And this month in the upscale city magazine, Seattle, the grey eminence of local liberals, Knute Berger, has all but canonized her.

"To insist on a $40,000 salary in Seattle is to take a vow of poverty," Berger gushes, going on to marvel that Kshama Sawant will give "some $70,000 per year" from her "tax-payer-funded income" of $117,000 "to her pet causes." Speculating that perhaps Sawant has a trust fund, Berger touchingly confides that the cost of living in the sixth most-expensive city in America (and #41 world-wide) makes living on "$40K per year--even with benefits--a challenge these days."

I buy Seattle perhaps four times a year as a dose of reality therapy, to prove that the working-class city that I fell in love with in the 80's is gone-baby-gone. In the past year alone, rents in the city of Seattle have easily tripled and my $800 a month one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown is on its way to becoming mythical.

I'm lucky. I live in one of the few downtown neighborhoods that still is affordable to people who live on much less than $40K per year. My own income is about half of that and many of my neighbors live on less. Seattle is not where any of us live. None of us can dream of buying the $3,300 liquor cabinet, the $1,400 pendant light, or the amusing maple, leather and glass table mirror that would set us back a mere $245. Hand-drawn wallpaper will never adorn our small apartments nor will we leave our domiciles wearing Italian stretch wool crop trousers in granite ($380, by a local designer from Bellevue).

When I look at the bungalows that were for sale thirty years ago for $20K, all of them built for blue-collar laborers back in the early 1900s, now inhabited by young urban professionals who paid at least several hundred thousand dollars for them, my stomach tightens. Seattle's current workforce lives in studios that are considered reasonable at $1000 a month. Unless they live in Chinatown--but even that bailiwick of economic sanity is under siege, with tracks laid down for "the latest in Seattle mass transit," the First Hill Streetcar. Seattle is famous for installing cute transit options through down-at-the-heel neighborhoods, with spit and celotex condos following close behind.

Our current mayor believes "public employees should be decently paid" and with the city council drawing $117,000 a year per head, I'd say he is meeting his goal. But he isn't fiscally irresponsible--the superintendent of City Light will receive a mere $60,000 raise to his salary of $245,000. It makes one wonder what the mayor's salary is, while knowing damn well that it's stratospherically above the $31,000 dollars that would be made at one of those yet-to-materialize (full-time) minimum wage jobs at $15 an hour.

Sawant's answer to this? Cap city wages at $150,000 a year. My answer to this? I'm counting the years on one hand before I move--where? Everett, Tacoma, and Bremerton are all undergoing massive rent increases. I'm thinking Tucson...