(by Donna Verry Dee) It’s Saturday evening, and the joint is hopping. Singles, couples, entire families pile in, scoping out the crowd as they enter, their pockets filled with quarters, their arms filled with dirty clothes, dryer sheets and detergent.
It’s laundry time.
When Brian Jahn, an Inman Square resident, wheels his loaded cart into Laundry Time on Cambridge Street, there’s not a vacant machine to be found. Then, noticing one of the full washers completes its cycle, he quickly steers his cart over and begins to empty the idle machine, placing the clean, damp clothes into one of the rolling baskets provided by the laundromat.
“The next thing I knew, a lady jumped up from the corner and started yelling, ‘Don’t you dare touch my laundry,'” Jahn said. “She screamed something about following the proper etiquette, that I was just coming in and trying to take over the place. I couldn’t believe it.”
Self-serve laundromats are unquestionably a necessity in a city where two-thirds of the population rent their homes, many of which offer inadequate or no laundry facilities. Cambridge offers well over a dozen establishments for washing, tumbling, fluffing and folding.
While many of these businesses are presided over by friendly attendants, ready to referee the occasional skirmish, others offer little in the way of rules of conduct, leaving a diverse population of launderers to sort things out for themselves.
In the end, Jahn grudgingly apologized to the irate woman. “But I felt like she was the rude one for clogging up a machine when it was so busy,” he said.
Richard Marques, manager of Squeaky Cleaners on Kirkland Street, has seen many similar scenarios and speaks with some authority on the topic. “By right, you’re supposed to stay with your clothes,” he says. “If you leave your clothes, then it’s fair game for someone else to take them out. Otherwise the business is losing money and customers are wasting time.”
Squeaky Cleaners is a sprawling space with friendly attendants and a plethora of amenities including dry cleaning, alterations and shoe repair. But a quick count of machines reveals a discrepancy common to most Cambridge laundromats — a lopsided washer-to-dryer ratio. With 38 washers, some of them capable to holding double, even triple loads, Squeaky Cleaners offers a scant 25 standard dryers.
Now, imagine what happens on a busy night or Saturday afternoon when launderers make a mad dash to deposit 38 loads of clothes into 25 dryers. Like in a grown-up version of musical chairs, someone is going to be left standing, holding a basket of their damp unmentionables.
Marques offers several explanations for the washer-dryer discrepancy. “Some people take their wet wash home and hang it on the line to dry,” he said. “Also, washers tend to break down more often so we need more of them. And most washers only hold between 13 and 15 pounds while dryers hold around 30. So you can put two washloads into one dryer.”
It sounds simple enough. But it’s not always that easy, explains Brian Wallace, deputy executive director of the Coin Laundry Association, the world’s only not-for-profit trade association for the coin laundry and drycleaning industry. “Customers tend to underload dryers. [They] often divide their wet clothes into as many dryers as possible to speed up the drying process. This behavior often creates a bottleneck,” said Wallace, whose Illinois-based organization represents 30,000 coin laundry owners.
For Oak Street resident Maurice Balk, laundry night is not stress free. “I could feel the tension mount with each machine I used,” says Balk. He had just spread his two loads of laundry among a whopping five dryers, leaving only two for the other launderers at a small place called “Coin-Op Laundry” on Cambridge Street in Inman Square. “My theory is, the early bird gets the dryers,” says the Berklee student, matter-of-factly.
Although he says no one has ever confronted him about his dryer-hogging ways, Balk tries to limit the competition by visiting laundromats at odd hours. “I’ll go on a Friday or Saturday night after eight. No one wants to do laundry then because you look like a major-league loser going off to the laundromat while everyone else is going out to Ryles or something,” he said.
While the power play for dryers is perhaps the most pervasive annoyance to the coin-op crowd, the lack of bathrooms can create an even more pressing situation, especially for parents. “When they’re little, kids can’t always wait till they get home,” says Webster Avenue resident and mother of two, Eva Griggs. “What are parents supposed to do?” Griggs recalls one time when she walked her two daughters, ages 3 and 5, home to the bathroom during the drying cycle. Afterward, as she was folding her clothes, she realized one of her shirts was missing.
“I told a neighbor what had happened and she said she had left her laundry [unattended] once and everything was stolen — towels, sheets, clothes, everything. And she has seven children,” said Griggs.
Others just stay at home. “Sometimes I do laundry in my sink just to avoid coming to the laundromat,” says Rossana Vaccarino, a landscape architect and instructor at Harvard. What she finds particularly unpleasant are those patrons who can’t get through a wash cycle without lighting up a cigarette, subjecting everyone else — including little children and pregnant women — to second-hand smoke.
Some laundromats fail to post “No Smoking” signs. And in those that do, there is often no one there to enforce the ban. “And there’s too much commotion to really get anything done,” says Vaccarino, indicating the reading material she has brought with her. “But it’s not really a social place either like on the West Coast where they have coffee shops connected to laundries.”
When asked why she thinks the laundry/latte scene hasn’t caught on in Cambridge and the area, Vaccarino reasons, “Maybe people are less social here. They just want to keep to themselves.”
Huron Villager, Owen Watkins, probably would agree. Watching a week’s worth of clothes tumbling dry at Angie’s Laundry, around 9 o’clock on a recent Monday morning, he laughs as he admits to feeling a little territorial at the laundromat. “Laundromats bring out a competitive streak in people,” Watkins said. “When I’m doing laundry, I find myself feeling sort of resentful of anyone who comes in the door.”
Watkins brings his family’s clothes to Angie’s because it is close to home and, more importantly, it is clean. “I used to go to a different place but my clothes would come out of the dryer smelling like old fish,” he remembers. “So I don’t go there anymore. Because if your clothes don’t get cleaned, there’s really no point in doing laundry, is there?”