I’m at the Laundromat with my daughter washing her clothes. As Natalie sits in her car seat playing with her doll, I think for the hundredth time how I have to buy a house. My own washer and dryer would be nice.
“Hey lady,” a loud voice booms out of sight. “I want a refund!”
“No,” I hear the old woman who manages the Laundromat, say.
“But my clothes are still wet!”
“You used the big dryer,” the manager says. “They cost a quarter for five minutes. You didn’t put in enough.”
“The other dryers are twenty-five cents for eight minutes.”
“That’s because they’re smaller,” the manager says.
“I WANT A REFUND!,” the voice yells again.
Moving to get a better view I see the voice belongs to a tall, young man. Wearing a North Face jacket, jeans and construction boots, he looks pissed.
Walking away the manager says, “Don’t yell at me,” over her shoulder.
“FUCK YOU LADY!” he screams. “I WANT A FUCKING REFUND.” Then he starts walking towards the manager.
Running on automatic, I stow Natalie under a folding table, block it with a laundry cart and step into the young man’s view. The kid stops in his tracks.
The tenor of the kid’s voice and his demeanor reminds me of the psychopathic bullies I deal with on the psych ward. These types usually only go after weak and easy prey and I‘m a complication. I get into physical confrontations with patients on a regular basis. I’ll take this kid down before he knows what hit him.
Then my brain screams, “What are you doing? You can’t be mixing it up with someone half your age. Your daughter is here!” I freeze as my brain struggles with two imperatives, not putting my daughter in danger and not letting an old lady get hurt.
“You talk to your mother with that mouth?” the manager says.
“As a matter of fact I do,” the kid says, sneering. Then he casts a quick look at me, sizing me up. I remember I’m a pudgy middle-aged husband and father. I’m not on the psych ward. There won’t be any security guards and needles loaded with Thorazine to bail me out if the balloon goes up. This is the street, not work. My little girl is here. I must withdraw.
“Get out before I call the police,” the manager says.
Then the kid surprises me. “I’ll call them myself,” he says, flipping open his cell phone.
“I can’t believe this guy!” the manager says, very angry.
“Don’t say another word to him.” I say.
The kid calls the cops, complaining about theft of services. “Yeah the lady flipped me off,” he says. “I ain’t gonna put up with that.” Within two minutes three police cars swoop into the parking lot.
“Who called us?” a sergeant asks walking in the door.
“I did,” the kid says.
“Come outside with me,” the sergeant says. As the kid talks I motion one of the other officers to come inside.
“What’s up?” the cop says.
“That guy is disturbing the peace,” I say. “He had a problem with the dryer and went ballistic, screaming, ‘fuck you’ and scaring everyone in here. I have a baby here and this guy’s making me nervous.”
“He also said the manager flipped him off,” I continue. “She did no such thing. So he’s histrionic and a liar. Guy who gets that worked up has something wrong with him. Probably high or coming off a high.”
A look crosses the cop’s face and I realize he believes me without question. He goes back outside and talks to the other cops.
After a few minutes the sergeant comes in and talks to the manager. “The kid wants his two bucks back.”
“No way,” the manager says. “The dryers work fine.”
“Then it’s a civil matter,” the sergeant says. “He can sign a complain and you work it out in court. I don’t care either way, but is it really worth all the trouble?”
“I’ll refund him fifty cents,” the manager says. “Then I want him to get out of here.”
A deal is made. The kid gets fifty cents and is allowed to finish drying his clothes. Then the cops line up three abreast and give him hard stares for five minutes. He isn’t saying anything now.
I put my daughter back on the folding table and say, “Wave to the policemen, Natalie.” She smiles and waves. One of the cops waves back. As I look at the towering young men bristiling with batons, bulletproof vests, Tasers and handguns I feel old and diminished.
The cops leave. The kid leaves soon afterwards. As he drives away the manager thanks me. “I’m glad you were here.”
I feel ashamed. I like this old lady but if the kid had gone after her there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I would have let him attack her and gotten Natalie out of Dodge. Or would my temper have gotten the better of me? I don’t know and I’m glad I didn’t find out.
Laundry finished I drive home. Looking at the baby mirror I see my daughter giggling and laughing as she watches the world flow past her, totally unaware of the dangers it holds. Then the words of Harry Callahan ring in my ears.
My greatest joy and limitation is gurgling in the car seat behind me. She comes first, always and forever – even if that makes me feel bad about myself.
My Dirty Harry days are over.