Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Laundering Money

In looking at my site stats, it appears that my constant readers like nothing so much as my complaining about something, be it the Oscars, or the young people these days, or even people complaining.

So, to sate this appetite, let me talk about the bank for a moment. Why is it that, when I go to the bank, I have only a few small transactions to take care of (depositing a check or transferring funds), but everyone in front of me is determined to settle the national debt right there and spend a great deal of conversation with the teller while doing it? And why can’t people line up properly? I’m all for giving people privacy, but there were four people in line: the guy in front, a guy who was determined to lean on the counter four feet in back of him, and the guy in back of him, who apparently though that four feet was the preferred distance between customers at this particular bank. I was three people from the front, and might as well have been in the parking lot.

I was there, not only to deposit a check (a whopping $4.95!), but also to buy a roll of quarters. I used to buy quarters for laundry, but since becoming a homeowner, I’ve discovered that the best thing about owning a home is that I can do laundry any time, whenever I want, and I don’t have to pay for the privilege. If I were so inclined, I could wash out a pair of socks at 3 in morning, and would laugh at those who need to lug their fine washables across town.

I’m suddenly reminded of my adventure in a Russian laundromat. If I may be permitted to quote myself from my journal from 1993:

“According to the guide books, most Russians do their laundry in the tub. In Petersburg, though, this is like soaking your clothes in toxic waste. Using very hot water can help, but then you can’t wash, just soak. Of course, if you don’t have any hot water, as is the case with us right now, the point is made moot.

“The last time I did laundry, I let things soak and stirred them up and agitated and rubbed them as much as possible without a washboard. I hung them all up carefully on the clotheslines, and since then, all my clothes, which were only semi-clean at best, have had a smell sort of like sour milk – very musty and unpleasant. Being able to hang them out in a breeze would help, but …

“With all this in mind, I decided I’d try one of the self-service laundromats listed in the Yellow Pages. Now, by this time, I knew enough to not expect either an American-style laundromat, nor to be able to find the place with any ease, but I couldn’t have anticipated what I did find.” (Editorial note from 2014: I had an English-language Yellow Pages for St. Petersburg, but they were utterly useless. Businesses were never as they advertised themselves to be, even when they were in the place they were alleged to be, and, even then, they were impossible to find, given the Russian manner of laying out and numbering streets – at least in Petersburg.)

To continue: “I packed a bag with all my dirty clothes (which ended up weighing, like, ten pounds), and took off for the laundry. After a subway transfer and (as usual) a lot of walking, I found what had to be the building, but it was one that looked like it was from Los Angeles after the riots. The outside was beaten up to hell, and, looking inside, there was stuff piled up or stacked in no apparent order. It was, in short, a mess.

“I walked around to another side and found an entrance. I went inside and found a series of industrial washing machines, all cannibalized, with parts strewn hither and yon. There were also a couple of steamer tables in similar states of disrepair. I looked around, opened doors, and searched, but there was no sign of anything resembling my idea of a “laundromat.” I went back to the entrance and tried upstairs. There was a central hall with counters at the end and the side, both of which looked like dry-cleaning counters. Behind the one at the end was a locked door (which, later, a man came and knocked on several times, with no success), and behind the one at the side, more industrial washing machines, this time with clothes inside.

“Another man came along and talked to a woman behind the side counter. She went back and retrieved a sportscoat that had apparently just been dry-cleaned. He tried it on and she made comments, despite the fact that it looked as though it had just been flattened by a truck. At this point, I left, knowing there was no self-service here for me.

“I got out my Yellow Pages and looked for another laundromat. There were two listed, one way out of the way, and one that looked Metro-close, so I decided to give it a try.

“It was listed at being at #27, and when I got off the Metro, I was, of course, at #1, which meant that #27 could be miles away. I saw a bus and figured, “well, I’ll just ride it until I see #27, then get off and walk back.” Sure enough, the bus turned at the next corner and I had to hike back to the main street. Fortunately, when I got there, I was at #19, so I knew I didn’t have far to go. #27 turned up right away, but it turned out to be a dry-cleaner – a pretty nice one, actually. I was about to give up when I took a look at the staircase and saw the phrase “стирка самоодсужибанием” (2014 note: Or, at least that’s what it looks like in my handwriting), which I knew from my phrase book had something to do with washing clothes. I went up and, saints be praised, it was a laundromat; a bit odd, perhaps, but there were washing machines and dryers and, oddest of all, those big pants-pressers that cleaners used to use. (In watching other customers, I soon saw that the pressers were intended to be used for big towels and tablecloths and things you want to be really flat and sharp-looking – well, “pressed,” in a word …)

“I went to a machine, tried to figure it out, and couldn’t. The woman next to me saw I was having trouble and went to get the woman in charge. Through much pointing and gesturing, they indicated that I had come too late; that it was now 2:15, and they stopped taking customers at 2:00, but that they’d be open the next day from 8:00 to 2:00. I thanked them and left, but I was still stuck with a mountain of dirty clothes.”

I went back the next day with the sneaking suspicion that they might be closed. It was Saturday, and grocery stores generally were generally closed that day, and anything else was chancy, but the laundry was indeed open.

“I was at the machine again, and the same woman (the one who worked there, not the woman washing her clothes) showed me how to do things. The machines were run by the use of a big plastic card that slips into a slot in the front. You put in your clothes, and, depending on whether you’re washing hot or cold, use a red or blue card. The rest is automatic. I paid her 2600 руб (2014: about 25 cents in those days) for two loads, and she added the soap. The cycle took about 35 minutes, then I went to a spin dryer to get out the last of the water.”

I put them into the dryer (which was more of a blower), and after about 45 minutes, I used the presser to complete the process, which was great for my towel, underwear, and shirts, but which left my pants with a series of interesting creases.

All things considered, though, I think I’d rather be there than at that bank this afternoon. It was chaotic, but it was novel.

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