ASK A STRAY DAD: LAUNDRY DAY

If New York wants to seriously call itself the best city in the world, it needs to fix the washing machine. 

This machine swallows quarters.

Q: Where are you going with all that stuff? Are you moving out?

A: Hah! I wish! This is seven weeks’ worth of dirty clothes, towels and sheets, tied up in two precariously thin garbage bags and teetering down the sidewalk on a child’s skateboard I salvaged off a particularly possessive alley opossum.

Q: And what’s that rattling sound I hear?

A: Why, that’s the $20 in quarters tucked inside the back pocket of my jeans! Don’t worry: in a couple of hours, the rattle will have completely disappeared. 

The fact that I have to pay for the luxury of doing my own laundry feels like the biggest step backward I’ve ever taken in terms of personal development. The fact that I have to do it with actual currency, in the form of quarters, is downright travesty.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to find a quarter when you need one these days—chances are you haven’t, because who needs quarters anymore?—but it’s essentially impossible. Thanks to credit cards, Apple Pay and Venmo, the very idea of hard currency is disappearing. As are the change jar, the swear jar, the cookie jar, the piggy bank, and any other easily breakable vessel I might hammer in order to scrounge up enough money to provide me with clean T-shirts for the week. These days, if we had a couch, digging through the cushions might yield a lot of things—but a quarter would not be one of them. 

And it certainly wouldn’t cough up the 15 required to do a single load. Quarters have now become more precious to me than—well, let me give you an example: 

I came home this past weekend, and though I only brought a backpack I stuffed it so full with dirty clothes that the zipper made that low, gargling sound when I went to close it. First thing I did on Friday morning, even before putting on water for coffee, was split the clothes in two piles and start a load of darks.

On the other end of the weekend, on Sunday, at a pizza place that has a number of coin-operated ‘80s-era video games, I gave my 7-and-½-year-old daughter a $5 bill to make change so she could play Miss Pacman. When she returned with the quarters I handed her only 4 back. 

“Why are you keeping the rest?” she asked.

“Because I have laundry to do,” was my answer. 

This is what I mean by valuable: I’ll deny my daughter the joys of my own childhood in order to make sure I have plenty of coins come laundry day. And why? Because a place that considers itself America’s greatest city and the fashion capital of the New World has YET to bring its laundry situation out of the dark ages. 

The closest washers and dryers to me lie six floors directly below our apartment, in our building’s laundry dungeon. The elevator ride down—it feels like you’re trapped inside the world’s first commercial microwave oven—deposits you in the basement, directly opposite the trash room for the entire 66 units in the building. You then walk right, past the trash chute, before hanging a left through a doorway into a sloppily painted brick cellar with a red clay tile floor whose drain in the middle is clotted with lint and dog hair and random clotted-blood bandages. The door to the outside is perpetually open, meaning that not only is the laundry dungeon cold enough to store dairy products but smells at all times of dog shit and cigarettes as you pull your clothes out of the washers or dryers.  

Speaking of washers, our building’s 5-dozen-plus units are served by a total of three washers and four dryers. One of those washers is a front-loading unit that, though at least 20 years younger than the rest of its kin, is always unplugged, always out of order, and always resting in a puddle of its own making, like it’s pissed itself from the stress. That leaves two top-load washers for well over a hundred people. And though those washers do indeed turn on, add water, and shake one’s clothes back and forth a bit, I do not know if I would call what they’re doing technically washing. Agitating feels more like it. Often I pull my white load out and am convinced that they’ve become dirtier by virtue of having run through these two machines. 

As I might have alluded to earlier, the washers and dryers in the building only take quarters, via the old stand-on-end, punch-and-retract coin boxes we’ve seen in movies from the ¾-mark of the 20th century. Only we’re shin-deep in the 21st century now, nearly 50 years past that point. I can buy $400 in groceries instantly using a scan of my face by my phone—the same phone I used just minutes before to search, book and pay for a plane ticket home. But I have to lug around seven quarters for each and every load of laundry I want to wash, and another eight per if I want the luxury of having those clothes dried—via, I might add, a dryer that smells of sun-cooked squirrel. The world has converted to digital currency, but if I want to get the coffee stain off my jeans I have to take two giant leaps back in time and wrangle up a shitload of change like I’m the tax collector in some Bible story.

No doubt you’ll have assumed by now that even this has become a difficult task. The only people dealing in quarters anymore are the laundromats, only they don’t want you using their change machine if you’re not going to plug that change directly back into their services—which on the whole are 150-200% more expensive than my building. Of course my building doesn’t have a change machine—that would be too easy—so I have to resort to sketchy methods in order to feed my habit of wearing clean-ish clothes. 

First I have to procure a bill of rather significant denomination. 

Then I need to find a place that has change. 

Then I have to trick them into giving me the change.  

Sometimes I can cause a distraction by casually mentioning that the Knicks just scored, and slip a crisp Abe Lincoln into the auto-dispenser before the Adam-Sandler-in-Uncut-Gems lookalike guarding the change machine looks back from the tiny TV, disappointed, and catches on. I can’t risk the time it takes to make $10 or $20 in change—no Knick scoring streak is going to go on that long—so I always end up on the shy side, quarter-wise. My next scheme was to fake interest in opening a bank account at the local credit unions, just so they’ll take an Andrew Jackson and turn it into 80 metallic George Washingtons. By the end they always have figured me out, and that’s how I became persona non grata in every back within walking distance of the apartment. 

So now I seek out my actual bank, a bank that has things like brass door handles and clean windows and warm cookies and a dress code and actual standards of conduct, and ask them if I can take $40 out of my checking account and ohbythewaycanIpleasegettheentireproceedsinquarters. The man smiles, straightens the knot of his tie, and nods, and always asks, “Laundry, right?” And I can’t think of anything else to say than, “Yep,” because not even the smartass in me is capable of coming up with a sarcastic or absurd response that warrants why I’d be carrying around enough quarters to turn a knee sock into a deadly weapon.

There’s got to be a better way. 

And before anyone says, “There is: just send your laundry out to be cleaned,” let’s remember that I am horribly cheap and incredibly picky when it comes to who touches my stuff. Besides, this has officially become a crusade of sorts for me. 

In tiny, patchouli-oiled, fashion-is-a-social-construct Portland, we’ve had to use a laundromat three times while we waited for our washing machine to get repaired. We used a credit card to pay for the washers and dryers, and sat in the in-laundromat cafe and had two glasses of cabernet under the glowing halo of free high-speed wi-fi while our clothes got sparkly-clean.

New York, you are a shining cosmopolitan titan of progress and industry. You consider yourself top of the heap when it comes to just about everything—from bagels to rock ‘n’ roll. Your residents’ favorite saying is, “The thing I like about New York is you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it. It’s so convenient.”

Well, New York: I want my clothes to be cleaned. Actually cleaned. At a normal hour of the day. In a fairly comfortable, wine-optional setting. Without having to rob a toll booth in order to make it happen. 

You claim you’re the greatest city in the world. Here’s a great chance to prove it. 

Like what you’re reading here? Don’t forget to actually “like” it. Something about an algorithm—I don’t know, we’re figuring this stuff out as we go along. There’s a button here somewhere… Anywhoo, thanks for reading!

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