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.