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.