The human body is filthy, really. Its every function – digestion, the pumping of the heart, the pulmonary impulse – is designed for elimination of toxins or heavy metals, of poison or allergen, of bacteria or disease. And yet it all finds its way in. Every body is in a constant state of decay – food decomposing in the intestine, bacteria blooming into pustules and then scabbing over, skin dying and attempting to shed itself, even as you wear it. It is like this with every living thing: the snake that sheds its skin, the leaves that turn blood crimson before they fall. We call it renewal instead of what it truly is: death.
Life is a messy and inarticulate run towards the inevitable. Art was invented to defy this reality and give it other names.
So were laundrymats.
There are tuxedos with blood stains, wedding dresses wearing rings of dirt. There are suits with singe marks, coats wearing second skins of animal fur, recital leotards stained by vomit or shit. And all of it, virtually all of it, can be returned to almost-new, to a state of cleanliness even more clean than its origin. This is redemption. To be cleaned of every substance that sinned against you, to be completely without stain. It is unachievable for humanity. But for cotton blends or crushed velvets or even pure polyester, there is a way home again.
Twenty years I have worked here. I live on the north side of a west-facing bungalow in an apartment with no washer or dryer. I have never used a residential washing machine, nor have I ever washed my clothing anywhere but the White Star Laundrymat.
I own four button-down shirts, two pin-striped and two plain blue; two pairs of denim pants; a tan pair of slacks; one navy blue pair of shorts; seven pairs of socks; seven pairs of boxers; a winter coat; a spring coat; and one wool sweater with patch on the elbow. Also, I have between four and six white undershirts at any given time and a t-shirt that says Jump for Jesus with a picture of a whole troupe of angels jumping rope. I am not religious, but I found this shirt at the White Star, unclaimed, and it was so strange that angels would be jumping rope. Wouldn’t their wings get in the way? And who jumps rope when gravity does not apply? These are the conundrums of faith.
In a simpler sense, it is a pleasure to make dirty things clean again. At the end of my shift, six days a week, I leave the Laundrymat through the back doors and walk down the alley towards the my bungalow, two blocks west. The moonlit gravel beneath my feet is crisscrossed by the stark shadows of bamboo stalks, the center of the path splattered with the shadows of bamboo fronds. The moon will sink and the sun will rise, casting more shadows over the gravel, ones I will see when I walk to work in the morning. Only at high noon when the sun is staring straight down from the white sky will the shadows disappear, obliterating the stains, leaving my gravel alleyway a clean and unmarked path back home.