It’s Tuesday and I’m doing laundry at the laundromat. Instead of watching my dirty clothes agitate and soap inside an industrial strength washing machine I decide to run some errands. I return library books, refill a prescription, buy stamps, and mail out bills. Then I grab a quick slice of pizza and a Diet Coke.
As I walk out of the pizzeria I glance at my watch and put a little extra hustle into my step. Two loud women, washing enough laundry to clothe an infantry division, have taken over most of the laundromat’s washing machines. If I don’t yank my clothes out of the washer the moment the spin cycle ends. I won’t have a shot at getting a clothes dryer for next forty minutes. I have to hurry.
As I near the laundromat a bearded man wearing a faded denim jacket and a baseball cap approaches me from the opposite direction. Just before we pass each other he stops in front of a sidewalk planter filled with flowers, bends down, and deeply sniffs a purple blossom. It was such an unexpected maneuver that I break into a smile. When the man straightens up he sees the look on my face, smiles back, and continues on his way.
I walk past the flowers and hook a left into the laundromat. The loud ladies have already emptied the contents of their washing machines into a caravan of laundry carts and are systemically filling all the clothes dryers. There’s only four left. My stuff’s finished washing but since there are no more laundry carts, I’m forced to scoop my wet clothes up in my arms and carry them over to the last available machines.
“No! No!” one of the loud ladies shouts, waving a finger at me. “We have all these.”
“Excuse me?” I reply, incredulously.
“We’re using all these dryers.”
“I just need one.”
“We were here first.”
The other lady races past her companion, throws open the doors to the last remaining dryers, and places a single piece of clothing into each one.
“They’re ours,” the second lady barks. “You wait.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I say, my anger rising.
“Sorry,” the first lady says, shrugging.
Furious, I throw my clothes to the floor, pull the baby t-shirt the second lady used to reserve the dryer, and toss it onto a counter.
“Hey!” the first lady shouts. “What you doing?”
I pick my clothes of the floor and stuff them into the machine.
“You can’t do that!” the second lady yells.
I place some quarters into the machine and flip the switch.
“I just did,” I reply.
“That machine is ours!” the second lady shouts, the veins in her neck bulging.
“You can’t have every machine in the place lady!”
“You wouldn’t pull that shit if our husbands were here!” the first lady shouts.
Even though I don’t know the weight class of the aforementioned husbands, I shout “Oh yeah? Call them up!”
“Jerk!” the second lady shouts.
I ignore the ladies, storm outside, and sit on the park bench next to the laundromat. From my vantage point I watch the bitchy laundresses to make sure they don’t pull my clothes out of the dryer in some sort of retaliatory strike. They don’t. They’re not on their cell phones calling their husbands either. After throwing a few poisonous looks my way they content themselves with folding clothes and continuing their high volume conversation.
As I sit on the park bench I listen to my body as it processes the angry encounter I just experienced. My heart’s thudding in my chest, I feel lightheaded, and my stomach is backflowing the sour taste of digesting tomato sauce across my tongue. I feel stupid. Why did I get that angry? What would I have done if those ladies’ husbands were outside? Why am I on a hair trigger today?
To calm myself I take some deep breaths and concentrate on the feeling of air as it flows in and out of my nose – out with the bad, in with the good. It doesn’t work. When I was waiting tables a quick cigarette always helped narcotize my anger. Maybe I need a smoke. One won’t kill me. Then I remind myself want and need are two different things. One is too many and a hundred is never enough. One day at a time.
I get up from the park bench and start walking down the street. Physical exertion has always exorcised my angry spirits better than meditation anyway. After several blocks the part of my brain conditioned by years of therapy takes over and tries to figure out what powered my reaction. Sure those ladies were wrong – and I probably would’ve acted the same way if their husbands were there or not – but I don’t normally get bent out of shape like that. As my brain tumbles through all the possible causes and connections the motor control part of my brain slips into autopilot. After a while I don’t feel my legs moving below my waist – I’m just a head floating above the sidewalk.
Eventually I reach a busy intersection. The pedestrian signal flashes “Don’t Walk” so I stop in my tracks. Last week two motorists picked a fight with physics at this intersection and lost. Struck by a larger vehicle, they were ejected from their car and dashed against the pavement – killed instantly. While the police went through the grim task of sorting out the mess, the victims’ bodies lay under sheets for several hours in the middle of the street. After the coroner carted the mangled remains away, the Fire Department washed away the remaining blood and bits with a high pressure hose. I passed by the scene. It was bedlam.
But now you’d never know it happened. The lights, sirens, and blood are all gone. Waiting for the light on the opposite corner a teenage couple is holding hands, a small girl is tugging on her mother’s skirt, and a businessman is talking into a cell phone. They probably don’t know that two human beings died violently on this very spot. For these people it’s just another street corner. For the families of the victims it’s hallowed ground. The light changes and I cross the street. I feel like I’m walking across an old battlefield.
After walking half an hour my anger melts away. The muscles in my jaw slacken and my respiration is deep and even. I’ve given up trying to figure out why I got so pissed and content myself with the knowledge I’m only human. As I approach the laundromat I see the loud ladies struggling to load their heavy bags of fresh laundry into a double parked minivan. Without saying anything I go inside, grab two of the cheap laminated paper bags, and load them into their van.
“Thank you,” one of the ladies says, giving me a knowing glance.
“Don’t mention it,” I reply.
I help the ladies load the rest of their laundry into their van. Not another word passes between us. After they drive away I go back inside to sort and fold my own clothes. A few minutes later I emerge with my laundry and walk towards my car. When I reach the sidewalk planter with the purple flowers I stop and take a quick sniff. They don’t smell all that great, but maybe that bearded man in the faded denim jacket knows something I don’t.
And it’s good not to be blood and bone being getting washed off the street with a hose.