Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Laund(e)rette Life

The demise of launderettes/laundrettes (the first 'e' seems optional and however it is spelt, it is most often pronounced simply as 'laun-drette'; apparently called laundromats in the USA) has long been promised, but they still seem to cling on.  I have spent a lot of my time in launderettes over the years both in the UK and in Germany and have a wide range of experiences in them.  They are a feature of many high streets in the UK and other countries and though their purpose is the same, i.e. to provide somewhere for people to wash their clothes and bedding, they vary considerably.  For someone, like me, who enjoys mid-20th century modernist architecture and typography, launderettes often have a wonderfully dated feel.  You certainly can have the sensation when sitting in one that little has changed from 1975 and, in some cases, 1955.  In contrast, some have become very funky.  The one I used to see in central London in the mid-1990s equipped with sofas and a pool table seems to have gone, but I passed one the other day offering coffee and a chance 'to chill out' and it is the second one in recent weeks that I have seen offering internet access while you launder.

The reason why launderettes persist is because many people live in small, jammed flats, bedsits and other facilities without a (working) washing machine.  With local authorities housing people in bed & breakfast hotels and other such locations there are many dependent on a laundrette to wash their clothing.  Though I know some universities have closed their campus launderettes, students living out in the town often still need them, because landlords/ladies are often slow to replace washing machines which are liable to break down quickly if five adult residents are using them week in/week out rather than a nuclear family.  In addition, even in family homes, having a washing machine can be a challenge.  I used to live in a well-equipped flat in Poplar, East London, but the kitchen had been designed to hold only a very narrow washing machine.  When this broke down there were no longer any washing machines on the market that could fit the slot in kitchen unit.  It subsequently turned out that the machine had been sabotaged by the plumber.  Upset at being chastised by the landlord when he found him lying in the bath smoking, he rearranged the pipes so they flowed upwards and wedged a sponge into the pipe for good measure.  The advantage of that was it only blocked after a while.  Anyway, before all this was uncovered I ended up using the launderette from which many of my stories come.  Even in the house I live in at present, the previous owners put the washing machine into the kitchen unit so precisely that it was impossible to remove when it broke down.  A lot of people seem to forget that the way to get a washing machine (and I have installed a handful) into a slot is to 'step' it, i.e. move it side-to-side as if it is walking.  With insufficient or no gap around the machine, you cannot step it out.  It is impossible to pull out a washing machine especially one that has been allowed to settle in its slot over months or years.  In this case we literally had to saw off the side of the unit before we could remove the washing machine and get a working one in.

So, as a student, tenant and home owner I have had recourse to use launderettes.  There seems to be an infinite variety, but if I outline some of the ones I have used over the past 20 years, I think it will give you a flavour of the kind of establishments you can find in the British high street.  I first regularly used a launderette when I went to university.  There was a spin dryer in my hall and an ironing room, but no washing machine.  Probably sensible given there were 20 people per kitchen.  The campus laundrette was a classic of its kind, built in the late 1960s it looked a decade older.  It was all linoleum on the floor and large, pale yellow, upright washing machines and vast hot dryers.  It was always very busy, but unlike launderettes in the high street its clientele were all of a particular age, usually 18-19 and 20-1 (1st and 3rd year undergraduates) with the occasional older postgraduate thrown in.  Many of these people were inexperienced at washing clothes.  Many got distracted while doing the job and it was not uncommon to find a full set of cold wet clothes left in a washing machine long after their cycle was over.

Living out in my second year, I started using a launderette at the end of my road.  It was small and the washing machines ran parallel to the street rather than at right angles as is common.  It was all dark wood panelling.  Nothing exceptional happened there.  It was near enough to my house that I could leave clothes there and go home so there was little time for interaction with other customers.  Back on campus in my third year, I realised I could save money by handwashing my clothes in my bath.  I was fortunate to be among some of the first students to have an en-suite bathroom.  These came in the late 1980s when universities realised that if they built accommodation like that they could charge conference attenders a daily rate that was the same as the weekly rate paid by students during term-time.  Business people do not want a student room, they want something looking like a hotel room, so some lucky students, me included (being slightly older than the average undergraduate I believe helped my luck) got our own bathrooms/laundry.

Moving to Norwich began my real encounters with the more eccentric side of launderettes.  I lived equidistant from three and went round and tried each out.  The first was quite small, but looked fine.  There were two attendants, it was bright and airy and had comfortable chairs to sit on.  It seemed that this would be a suitable launderette for me.  However, by the time of the second visit, I realised that a trip to that launderette would always be a lengthy one.  It was a place where the customer came last.  The two attendants spent all their time simply washing the clothes of their clearly very extended family, each huge bag was referred to by name and you soon learnt all about their various aunts, sisters-in-law, cousins, etc.  If you got a machine they would glower at you and hassle you to use a shorter cycle and trying to get a drying machine was impossible as they filled them with enough coins to keep them running for an hour.  I guess the owner simply made their money off these two women.  It may have been the time of day I went (early afternoon, which I had imagine would be a quiet time), but given that there were two other launderettes around I went off to try them.

The second one was in a strange little shopping centre with a flat roof and dark wood panelling that made it look like a ski resort from 1966.  The launderette here was run by a man.  It was immaculate.  The linoleum shone as did the stainless steel machines.  The walls were decorated with huge jigsaw puzzles made up and sealed behind plastic.  The man trouble was the owner who seemed to want to instruct you in minute detail about every aspect of his launderette.  If you spilt even a few crumbs of washing powder he would rush out and wipe it up all a terribly over-solicitous manner which made you feel guilty for dirtying his pristine establishment.  Everything worked well, but I found the experience so stressful that I never returned.

The final launderette was fine and was the one I used throughout the rest of my time in Norwich.  Some of the washing machines leaked, but it was clean enough and the attendants neither cared too much nor too little.  It had the bright blue style and big windows of the family-obsessed one, with more space and an 'L' of machines with the join of the shape facing outwards to the door.  You went in, did the business and came out.  It was in this launderette and inspired by it that I wrote: 'Sure Plays A Mean Pinball' -  though I relocated it back to the West Midlands which I had just left.

After Norwich came Oxford.  A wonderfully richly wood panelled launderette, the shade of walnut veneer.  A standard lay out with a line of washing machines facing a line of dryers, perpendicular to the pavement.  It never seemed to have many customers and many evenings I would be in there alone.  I never saw any workers associated with that place.  It was just open and closed.  I once encountered two American women, students I guess from their age.  They asked me for change for the dryers, which in this time, all took 20 pence pieces, no matter where you were.  I kept a stack of these and was happy to give them the change.  They were surprised when I gave them five for one pound.  It turned out they had thought the 20 pence pieces to be 'quarters', i.e. 25p, just like the 25 cent coins in the USA, so had been taking only four of them in exchange for a pound.  I explained they should think of them as 'fifths'.  This launderette, once when I was walking past it going home, was the first place I ever saw anyone using a laptop computer.  A woman was sitting on the seat which was the sill of the main window, parallel to the window with her legs stretched out and had this computer on her lap.  It was to be another 13 years before I would get to use one.  It was quite incongruous seeing a young woman with such an expensive piece of computer hardware (this was 1992) and yet using a launderette.

The next launderette I used was the one I was with for longest (1994-2001) and is probably the most famous one I have been in.  It used to feature in the title sequence of the British police series, 'The Bill', in the late 1990s.  If a bus had not pulled up at the stop at the precise moment you would have seen me standing watching the camera crew from the pavement.  It is also passed in a scene in the movie 'Secrets and Lies' (1996) when a car drives down Mile End Road - Bow Road.  Knowing the area you know that when the shot switches from the driver to the passenger and back again, what is in the background is not on corresponding sides of the road. 

The laundrette was located in Bromley-by-Bow (which as the name suggests is next to the district of Bow and not the Bromley in Kent).  I used it first when living in Poplar to the South and continued going there once I had moved to Mile End to the West.  Sometimes, especially in London, it is difficult to find laundrettes tucked away down small streets so a prime reason for using this one rather than one nearer to where I lived was because I found it when cycling around looking for one.  I could have easily ended up using the one opposite.  There was a launderette nearer my room in Mile End and the Afghan man who ran it, did wonderful tailoring on the side.  He sewed a pocket in a suit jacket for me which looked so good you would have believed it had originally come with the jacket.  His boss always tried to get me to come to his laundrette, but I explained my loyalty to the one I had been using for five years by then and he seemed to understand.  The launderette was narrow but long with a single row of washing then drying machines down one wall and the seats facing them.

Over the years I got to know the two attendants, Liz and Lorraine very well, to the extent that they would make me a cup of tea and give me biscuits whenever I appeared.  They would also tell me their problems and I would try to counsel them.  When I first went there they earned £1.80 per hour [equivalent to £3.14 now]; they were earning £2 per hour in 1999 [equivalent to £2.85 now] when the minimum wage was introduced and their pay rose to £3.60 per hour [equivalent to £5.12 now; current minimum wage is £5.80 if you are over 22].  Their employer never paid national insurance for any of his staff but used to whine to me who he saw as an educated man who (he thought) would support his views, that the tax rate was so high that it prevented entrepreneurialism (he owned a chain of laundrettes and drove a very expensive car).  Until the minimum wage the woman kept the additional money paid for service washes, usually around £1.20-£1.40 per time.  When compelled to pay the minimum wage he started keeping this money himself.  The spending power of the women with the minimum wage immediately rose and you really saw the impact on the shops around the area.  The women could afford daytrips to the Blue Water mall in Essex from then on. They could not afford to buy anything and took sandwiches with them to eat, but the trip out to look around the shops brightened up the day of people who usually did not travel farther than 3-4Km of their home and to whom me going to Covent Garden, less than 30 minutes ride on the underground, was like me going to Paris. 

The big difference was that they could pay their television licences month in/month out.  Non-payment of television licences at that time (and it might still be the case now) was the most common reason why a woman would end up in prison in the UK.  There was a real fear when the monthly payment could not be paid (and at that time there was an additional charge for paying monthly rather than annually).  I remember one of the attendants who could not pay that month ringing the licencing company and being told to unplug and move her television into the centre of her room and to cover it over until she could pay, in case an inspector came round.  She did precisely what she was told, worried she would get caught out.  The harshness of publicity about the penalties of not paying the licence, it is unsurprising, terrified the woman.

Service washes are not a feature of all launderettes, but are present in many.  Basically you pay extra money and the attendants wash (and sometimes iron) your clothes for you in their machines.  Even for people who have their own washing machine, this feature is appealing.  As a consequence, this laundrette attracted customers from the Bow Quarter, luxury gated community that was close by.  I would chat with people who worked for a Swiss bank and regularly with a retired doctor who used to travel out to Vietnam for a month each year to help with children who had been mutilated by mines left from the war or were mutated as a result of the use of Agent Orange.  A whole host of characters came through that laundrette.  People used to say that the laundrette shown on the soap opera 'Eastenders' bore no relation to reality.  I rarely watched the series, but certainly can confirm there are launderettes in East London precisely like that often with all the drama that you would see in a soap opera.  Theft, violence, drug and drink problems could all be see in or around the launderette.  The other well-known cultural reference to launderettes was 'My Beautiful Launderette' (1985) in which a polished up launderette (or laundrette given the title) is the location of a gay love affair between a young Pakistani man and a member of the racist National Front, with Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his roles in which you find it difficult to believe he is the same actor you have seen in his other roles.  Nothing that exotic went on in any launderette I knew, but I guess it is possible.

Certainly there were more comic moments that I experienced in launderettes too.  I remember a man pulling up on a long motorbike in what appeared to be his shorts. It was only when he went over to the drying machine and pulled out the jeans that were in there and put them straight on that we realised he had been motorbiking in his underpants. This was reminiscent of the very well known Levi's jeans advertisement of the 1985 in which in a 1950s US launderette a man comes in and simply strips down to his boxer shorts [sparking the 1980s trend for that style of underpants] and puts his jeans and some rocks into the washing machine to achieve the 'stone washed' look to the tune of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine'.

I remember two teenage boys coming in with huge bags of washing.  They put them through the process and not for a moment in all the 45 minutes did they stop talking, often across each other.  By the time they left me and Lorraine were exhausted.  I have no idea how they managed to sustain their speaking for so long.  Another time, a French-speaking black female nurse (for some reason Poplar and Bow have a lot of Francophone people from the Caribbean and from India [though I knew the French had owned Pondichéry I had never realised India had so many people with French as their language; from a quick search I find there were over 200,000 people in India under French control at the start of the 20th century] and it was common to hear French being spoken).  Unfortunately, the only word of French that Lorraine spoke was 'oui' ['yes'] and she got great delight saying 'oui, oui' repeatedly.  I used my poor French to ascertain what the woman wanted and it turned out she had lost her nurse's uniform and wondered if it was in the launderette.  To every question, Lorraine said 'oui, oui' utterly confusing the situation.  Ultimately I had to keep repeating 'pas d'uniform' and tried to usher Lorraine off to make some tea.  The other memorable incident were the preparations for a service for travellers at a nearby church.  There was a travellers' site in Bow and you would see whole families dressed up in their finest outfits in the hours leading up to the evening service.  Many would pass by the laundrette.

I did a lot of reading (more than once having to have my book rescued from the washing machine by Liz or Lorraine when I had left it in with the washing) and met a whole host of characters in that launderette.  By the time I reached Milton Keynes, where there was no washing machine in my flat, until I bought one after over a year, I had service washes.  This was partly due to the distance to my nearest launderette.  The 'new town' Milton Keynes is very zoned and being in a middle class district there was no provision for a laundrette as it was assumed that everyone would have their own washing machine; my landlord did not provide one.  I had to cycle for 15 minutes to the Netherfield district which had been zoned for the poorest of Milton Keynes and the disabled (the district sits right next to the hospital).  In many ways it was like a slice of Bromley-by-Bow dropped into a wood.  The laundrette had the usual two rows of washing machines facing dryers and was staffed by women who looked sixteen.  They did a reasonable job, but one night left a dryer running overnight and the launderette caught light and was closed for months.  I tried going to one in Bletchley, an old town asorbed into Milton Keynes, but it was only open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. so it was useless trying to go there before or after work as I had done with the Netherfield one and it was an even longer cycle ride to reach, ruling out going there during the lunch break.  I was compelled to buy a washing machine and that ended my contact with launderettes and a slice of British culture.  Given I see having this house repossessed sometime in the next few months I imagine a future return to using launderettes lies on the horizon.  Perhaps I will pick the one that lets me 'chill out' and surf the internet rather than simply watching my shirts spin round.

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