We don’t have a washing machine or dryer in our apartment building so every week I drop off our dirty laundry at the corner Laundromat for washing. In our Jersey City neighborhood paying someone else to wash and dry your clothes actually costs less than doing it all yourself in Manhattan. 

It is also convenient. I walk a few blocks with my laundry and drop it off and pick it up a few hours later and — unlike in Manhattan if you use a drop-off service — in Jersey City they weigh your clothes dry, not wet, to determine how much you pay per pound.

Two weeks ago I skipped going to the Laundromat. Janna was out of town and I didn’t have a lot of dirty clothes. Last week I went back to my weekly drop-off routine and I was met with a bawling out I didn’t expect. My Spanish laundress — a beautiful young grandmother with three children and several grandchildren — saw me with my giant bag of clothes and instead of helping me carry it over the scale for weighing as she usually does, she instead stood there and dramatically put her hands on her hips and started yelling at me in Spanish.

When she is intense — and that happens weekly and about everything — her face changes just a little and her eyes become like her youngest daughter’s. It’s strange and beautiful to watch the child’s face come out of the mother’s eyes. As I deposited — dropped in exhaustion, really — 40 pounds of “getting ready to pack away” Winter laundry onto the scale, I tried to figure out what was happening.

My Spanish study stopped in high school. Her English skills were pretty good when she was calm, but when she was wound up about her family or her tax bill or her friends, she moved into a Spanish Only Zone. We were in that zone. When we normally chat each week we do a lot of gesturing and miming and creating numbers in the air with fingers to determine pounds and set prices.

I try to use my elementary Spanish vocabulary to fill in the gaps of misunderstanding if she can’t think of the right English word. I am fond of her. We always get along great. Finally, after catching her breath, she used a favorite phrase of mine she often uses to punctuate her life — “Wha happan?!”
— I’m spelling that phrase exactly as she spoke it because that is part of her innate charm and it points to the measure of her verbal frustration with me. Then the Spanish started flaying me again.

I understood I was getting a chewing out for not dropping off my laundry last week. Perhaps she relied on my weekly payment to support her family more than I knew. There was no way to explain why I didn’t go in last week — “Janna was out of town and I didn’t really have enough laundry to bring over so I skipped last week” — with our limited ability to clearly communicate. I was on the defensive but I didn’t understand why such a little thing was getting her so wound up. She wasn’t letting me off the hook. She wanted an answer. The child in her eyes was demanding satisfaction.

No laundry would be done that day until I explained myself. Finally, she offered — “Vacacion?” Ah! That was a word I understood. That seemed like a good reason. I could say I was on vacation last week — from dropping off the laundry
— and not feel like I was lying to her. I nodded my head, hoping her anger would go away and we could move on to getting a bill figured out for the mound of laundry teetering on the scale. She was not satisfied enough. “Tell.” She shook her finger at me. “Walk to tell.” She put her hands back on her hips. I stood there and stared at her as I tried to piece together a verbal puzzle.

She wasn’t going to move until I gave her better satisfaction. She threw her arms in the air to punctuate a rising anger: “Me worry!” It was then I realized this wasn’t about laundry or money or breaking a routine. This was about communication and respect. This was about fitting in and being accepted in the neighborhood. She always told me the week before she left for vacation she would be gone so I would know where she was. She expected the same courtesy from me. For the first time in four years of living in Jersey City I felt like a member of the neighborhood instead of just being the “pasty White Guy from Nebraska who looks like a cop.” She had been worried about me. Jersey City is a rough town and she thought something bad happened to me and that was why I didn’t see her that week. My defenses melted. I apologized to her in broken Spanish.

I told her I understood using a sorry facial expression. I nodded I should have found a way to let her know I was okay. “Good.” She finally smiled at me. I smiled back. We were on track again as she figured out how much I owed and I knew I had a friend in the neighborhood beyond the soap and the suds or the tip I gave her each week. We were bonded by the mean streets of Jersey City and together — by caring about each other — we understood, without needing to say it out loud, that we made the fabric of our community a little tighter and a little harder to tear apart.

24 Comments

  1. I feel like I’m right there in Jersey with you, Dave. I’m trying to figure if it’s good or bad it took four years to feel a part of the neighborhood.

  2. Welcome to the blog, Benny!
    Thanks for the compliments!
    Fitting in is always hard when you’re in a tough town and there are pockets of belonging to which you do not belong.
    In my neighborhood you can walk around the block and touch all the continents. One street is safe while the next puts you in peril. It’s fascinating to study but it is research that should be done by younger men.
    😀

  3. Well keep up the good work and just keep writing about what you see. The younger men don’t know anything to risk anything. Only us old guys see the gold in the streets where others see just junk.

  4. Fitting in is always a problem. Small towns you don’t fit in if you’re a stranger. Urban cities you don’t fit in in you aren’t part of the existing culture. It’s a good thing she accepted you and let you know it. She has your back.

  5. Taking in a white dude who looks like a cop but isn’t a cop but who has been around for four years gives her community power by accepting you. She vouches for you. She gets your goodness. You get your back watched. She legits you. That gives her power in her acceptance. She moved where others feared to tread.

  6. Worrying for someone is connection, acceptance which sometimes goes unnoticed, even at times unwelcomed.
    “Worrying”, I have seen viewed as pointless overprotection, even invasion in one’s space. At least in my generation – and I am no young 20 years old.
    I wonder, what if one fine morning we discover that there isn’t really anyone waiting and worrying about us? Will we stay happy and contented in our own “space?”

  7. Hi Katha!
    You ask some great questions.
    I don’t mind her worrying about me — I thought it was a sweet and tender moment. She doesn’t know anything about me other than when she waves to me on the street or when I drop off the clothes for laundering. We spend probably less than two minutes with each other a week but I am glad we can still be commonly connected beyond those brief interactions. If I saw her in trouble on the street I would absolutely stop and help her.
    I do understand how worrying can be used as a weapon of control — but in this case her worry was genuine and not trying to force an unreasonable behavior.

  8. I do understand that the laundromat lady in your neighborhood was genuinely worried about you and I admire your sensitivity to realize and accept that.
    But I have seen people to misinterpret this genuine concern and I feel sorry for them.
    There is a basic difference in controlling and sincere care, most of the time people misinterpret it.
    Having someone as a well-wisher outside your family is rare and fortunate, we need to learn to appreciate it.

  9. Back home, my next door neighbor who also happened to be a friend of mine used to work in an airlines as a ground engineer. We used to spend time together and eat out in weekends, sometimes in weeknights too – depending on her schedule.
    At one point, I didn’t hear from her or see her for almost 4/5 days. I gave her a call. It went straight to her voicemail. I left a message, asking her to call me back. 24 hours gone, no reply. I called her office and learnt she took that weekend off. Did she go home? Someone answered in the negative saying she went for a vacation with her roommate – I knew she used to stay alone.
    She was from a different city, new in Calcutta and I haven’t seen much of her friends except a few office colleagues.
    I didn’t know what to do. I panicked, but waited.
    I saw her getting off from a cab in front of our apartment building after a day. I asked her where she was. She challenged me back asking why did I call her office and if anything happened to her she could have handled it as she was a big girl.
    I was dumbstruck.
    I knew I had nothing to do in case she had an accident or something worse than that. But I didn’t even feel like explaining I was concerned about her well being, not curious about her whereabouts.
    All I needed was one phone call, an information that she was alright.

  10. My dearest, beloved, Katha —
    Thank you for the example.
    What you did was the right thing.
    Your “friend” was no friend at all.
    What you did is the expected.
    Your “friend” then, and now, does not deserve your friendship.
    There are several people who comment on this blog — you are absolutely one of them! — I would hunt down to the ends of the earth if I didn’t in some way hear from them in five days without knowing where they were and what they were doing.
    We live in isolated times. Sometimes you fall and you need help up. Sometimes you are desperate and you need someone to ask you if you’re alright and if you’re still there but just being quiet.
    I am the sort who doesn’t say much unless asked — because I don’t want to bore people or speak out of turn — so a direct question always gets a direct answer with me.
    I am always appreciative when someone – anyone – asks how I’m doing and if I am alright.
    You can’t let idiots and fools rip the goodness and the concern from you, Katha!
    Fight them off by brushing them away with the knowledge you did the right thing at the right time.

  11. I knew I did the right thing, I still believe it. But I was hurt.
    I still get hurt when someone tells me I have crossed the line by expressing my concern and I don’t need to worry about them as there are people being paid to take care of them.
    Finally I have come to a decision – it’s always a person’s individual choice how they behave!
    A relationship, regardless of status (friendship, acquaintance, romantic interest, and family whatever…) needs to be cherished, nurtured. And it can’t be done alone – it’s about a team – it takes two.
    I have seen people trying to maintain their independence in a relationship like to parallel rail tracks – their path never crossed. There was no connection.
    I don’t believe that kind of independence. I might be wrong though.

  12. Hi Katha —
    I understand and appreciate your struggle with relationships and boundaries and how lives intersect.
    Just don’t lose your humanity in your choices, Katha. Keep you good options open and close all negative stabs into your life. You have a pristine heart that need not be tarnished by bad deeds from others.

  13. David,
    Thanks for your support!
    It’s good to know the definition of genuine concern is universal – not limited by language, culture or anything.

  14. Where in Manhattan have you been charged for wet laundry?
    The two places I went to weighed my laundry before I even left the facility – dry. 🙂 Must be a pretty horrid place that would do that – weigh it wet. It sounds a bit like putting ones thumb on the scale.