When you move to a new neighborhood in New York City, figuring out your new laundromat usually happens at night, when you are still living amongst boxes and new people and cats and suddenly you realize you forgot you promised to cover the morning shift for your lush boss, and all of your clothes are dirty.
“Where is the nearest laundromat?” I ask my new Japanese roommate Tomoku. She looks confused and shows me rows of pretty lingerie hanging above the bathtub. Though I envy her independence and work ethic, I can’t see myself getting mud out of my Sevens and the smell of smoke out of my work shirts in the bathtub with a washboard. I google my neighborhood and find the place.
In Williamsburg, where I used to live, the route to the laundromat was edged was hipster bars. I used to get stares from the faux Ritchies and Dougherties as I hauled trash bags full of clothes to the gleaming 24-hour Suds-R-Us. The Chosen Ones would give me the up-and-over through their Jackie O glasses. I could almost hear them thinking, “You do your own laundry? That’s hot.” They probably thought I was purposefully channeling Kurt Cobain with my cloud print pajama top and Doc Martens.
In Flatbush, where I live now, I get stares too. “Hey Snowflake,” they say. I do the downcast eye. I don’t want to be rude; don’t want to be inviting. I’m just trying to get my clothes clean.
I get to the mat, buy a new card. I have a collection of defunct cards and plastic keys that still have money on them. All laundry machines have fun instructions printed on the lids. These new ones have the best first step: check inside for children. I check. No children. I put my laundry in and start the machine.
I look at the black babies running around, their ears already pierced, and I want to steal them and make them my own. That’s one thing all laundromats have in common: children and the safe Saturday-morning smell of detergent. Nothing really bad can happen to you here. Unless you’re a small black child, then I might steal you and make you my own.
A polo shirt comes up to me and says, “Hey, this is gonna sound a little weird. My sister’s in the car outside, can you come to talk to her. She was thinking of moving here, but she’s not sure if it’s, uh, safe…since…we’re…for…us. And she’s a girl, you know?”
I go outside and tell Sister that it’s okay to be white and it’s okay to be a girl and it’s okay to live in Flatbush.
It’s a pleasant night. The siblings drive away, I light a cigarette, and walk around the block.
It’s the usual trashmash of store fronts. I pause in front of the hair cutting place. The pictures on the window advertisement are fading. i haven’t gotten my hair cut since the free Bumble and Bumble modeling fiasco that left me looking like an eighties metal band groupie. That was nine months ago.
Inside the barber shop, two brothers in tracksuits lounge with their feet on the sink watching BET. One is tall and young, with braids. The is older, meaner-looking. The comforting smell of marijuana leaks from under the door. When they see me peering in, the young one draws his finger across his throat in universal sign language for “We fucking CLOSED, bitch.”
I nod. “I’m just looking at the times,” I say.
“We CLOSED,” he says.
Now he’s coming to the door. “What?”
“I need a trim, I was just looking at the times.”
He opens the door. “How much you got?”
“How much money you got?”
“Um, not a lot. Ten bucks?”
He rolls his eyes, grunts, and motions for me to enter the barber shop. I waltz right through the door, which he locks behind me.
The older man ties a bib around my neck with dry, dubious fingers. The Velcro won’t stick because it knows I shouldn’t be there and the bib tries to slide off my chest. The young man splays out in his barber’s chair and turns his sullen eyes back to BET. He lights a roach and holds it with a rhinestone bobby pin.
The older man regards my hair as he plugs in an electric razor. “What you want me to do?” he mumbles. He takes a lock of my hair and rubs it. The expression on his face is the same one I’ve seen on men looking at rows of tampons in the grocery store–confused, vaguely disgusted, but there’s a job to be done. He starts slicing pieces of my hair off and asks if I’m single and where I live. I answer in monosyllables as I identify telephones and exits.
The younger one offers me some of the roach he’s smoking and I decline. A man outside the store and sees me and asks to come in, but the young guy says they’re closed and doesn’t ask the man how much money he has and doesn’t open the door for him. The man with dry fingers licks his lips and asks me if I like girls.
My phone rings. It’s Joey. I leap out of my chair. “Oh, wow, I have to go.” My hair looks like a leaf pile two coeds just made out in. “Hair looks great, thank you so much.” I give them some bills and sprint back to the laundromat.
I check inside the dryer for children before I switch my clothes over. I catch my reflection in the window. I finger comb the piles of leaves on my head. The layers are random and drastic. Some sections are missing completely. It’s a statement, that’s for sure.
The next day at work, on the precipice of another cocktail hour in Manhattan, Asia, the coconut-blonde waitress, leans toward me with a bewitching smile. I can smell her perfume, Allure by Chanel.
“Your hair is so pretty, Marian,” she says in her vanilla-bean voice. “Where do you get it done?"
"This new place in Brooklyn,” I say. “It’s called the Laundromat. It’s really progressive.”
She polishes silver as I rim a martini glass with sugar-in-the-raw.
“Ah,” she says vaguely, sizing up a table of bankers. “You’ll have to take me there sometime."