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    row of white washing machines

    Sacred Cycles

    Wonder and wistfulness in the laundromat

    By Zito Madu

    March 9, 2020
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    • Felix Madu

      Very impressive and captivating experience. There is life and lessons around humans surrounding some how we do not take notice of the beautiful environment we live in.

    “Laundromats are sacred places,” I thought as I walked past one in London a few days ago. I had been in a rush to complete errands for a friend, errands that started simply enough but quickly had me taking buses and asking embarrassing questions of store owners. I was irritated, and had begun cursing the inconvenience of the whole day. Then I walked past the laundromat. As always when I see one, it gave me a sense of calm and happiness (at least for a minute or so, until quotidian frustrations intruded again).

    When I see a laundromat, I think of my childhood.

    When my family and I arrived in the United States in 1998, we were poor and afraid. We had no real idea how anything in the new world worked, technology most of all. In those early days, my mother washed our clothes by hand, as she did in Nigeria. When my father found a steady job, our landlord introduced us to the wonder of the laundromat. The idea that you could throw your clothes into a washer and dryer for a few quarters, and have them clean and warm within two hours, seemed absolutely incredible to me. That sense of wonder is still with me, even if the joy of it is more subdued.

    The closest one was at the end of our street, three or four blocks from home. My most vivid memory is a collage of the countless times I walked those blocks next to my father or mother, carrying a bag of clothes on my head. In my mind’s eye, I’m practically bounding down the street, propelled by the joy of washing clothes. When you’re a child, the most odd and banal things can be so thrilling.

    row of white washing machines

    Photograph by Jeremy Sallee (public domain)

    That laundromat also introduced me to video games. Beyond the magic of watching a washing machine spin, my siblings and I would also hassle my parents for spare change to play on the arcade machines. Our favorite was the Mortal Kombat game, full of violence, blood, supernatural powers, and fantastical characters. At first we didn’t know what we were doing, and with poverty as the main villain in the real world, there were only enough coins to play once or twice per visit. This meant we had to learn quickly and remember all the lessons from previous times, great practice for both working- and muscle-memory.

    As I grew older, I began to appreciate the laundromat for its social benefits. It is a place that is in service of the many. A community space that doesn’t ask too much from the people who use it. A simple exchange. Some quarters and patience for clean clothes. A laundromat doesn’t discriminate about who is welcome; it is geared most to those near the bottom of the economic ladder. You go into a laundromat and you see the workers and service people who make life in a city possible, not just those who have the most disposable income. One of the heartbreaking signals of neighborhood gentrification is when the laundromats are replaced by coffee shops. It’s both an aesthetic signal and a more sinister social one, announcing who is wanted and who no longer is.

    Another reason why I love the laundromat, which I felt but could not have articulated as a child, is that it is a space where time slows down. I like sitting by the water for hours, being on a train for a long trip, the laziness of Sundays – things that seem to exist outside frenzy. In a laundromat, you have to wait for the clothes to be washed and dried, and there’s often nothing to count but time passing by with the rotation of a washing machine. Some people use that time to read books, some engage in conversation, and these days there are those who get on their phones. Mostly everyone just has to wait.

    I often watch the clothes whirl around while thinking about life, the past and present and the possible future.

    There’s a Japanese term, mono no aware, that refers to an awareness of the transience of things, an appreciation of and wistfulness about this journey of existence. This concept is central to the movie 5 Centimeters per Second, which begins with the explanation that cherry-blossom petals fall at that speed. It’s a movie about love, but also about how life just slips by, and the beauty and sadness of that passing. Watching cherry blossoms fall is a shared experience that the two lovers of the movie had at the beginning, before their lives inevitably went in separate directions. In that watching of petals they appreciate the journey they’re on, knowing that things will change soon.

    It’s this gentle love and sadness that I usually feel sitting and waiting in a laundromat. I often watch the clothes whirl around while thinking about life, the past and present and the possible future. As a child, I used to think of how magical everything seemed in the new country my family was in. And now as an adult, I think about those magical times, how absurd it is that my life has become what it is – that possible future, which is just as undetermined as the past was – and how so much is different now. I think about the person I can be, and the person I will never be again. And how everything is constantly changing.

    Contributed By ZitoMadu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a writer living in Detroit, a contributor for GQ, and an avid lover of poetry.

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