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Observations: America in the laundromat

Published on: May 25, 2016


A recent study found that the majority of Americans would struggle to come up with $1,000 to meet an emergency expense. That may surprise few people in a laundromat. But there is reason for optimism that things will be okay. Mitch Traphagen photo.

A recent study found that the majority of Americans would struggle to come up with $1,000 to meet an emergency expense. That may surprise few people in a laundromat. But there is reason for optimism that things will be okay. Mitch Traphagen photo.

You give up any expectation of privacy in the laundromat. You are left to fold your underwear in plain view of everyone else washing their clothes. It is a somewhat humbling experience. Almost entirely, however, you can usually count on discretion. Despite their own boredom waiting for their clothes to wash or dry, other laundromat patrons tend not to stare.

The laundromat patrons come together as an extraordinary human soup. There are young people just starting out in life. There are seniors, approaching the end of theirs, often alone and likely still disbelieving it. There are families, and people for whom each and every quarter dropped into a machine is precious — because there are so few quarters in their pockets.

Fewer quarters seems to be a big problem in our country right now. Last week, a report by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs found that two-thirds of Americans would struggle to come up with $1,000 to cover an emergency. That doesn’t just include the lower economic tiers. According to the report, 67 percent of households earning $50,000 to $100,000, solidly in the middle class, stated they would have difficulty covering an unexpected expense of that size. And even 38 percent of the wealthiest 20 percent in the nation said the same. To pay an unexpected bill of $1,000 — something that could range from as common as a transmission repair on a car to a co-payment for an emergency room visit, they would have to borrow money from family or friends. More people in the top tiers than the lower tiers of income said they would have to put it on a credit card.

Looking around in the laundromat, it seemed that for more than a few of my fellow patrons, an expense of that size could wipe them out. That is a fear that they simply have to live with. Possibly forever. The American dream has changed and, far too often, it only goes so far. Today people just hope to get by. The fear remains, of course, but they go on with life, not dwelling on it, hoping for the best. Despite polls to the contrary, I believe that Americans of every status remain optimistic. It is that optimism, that this won’t be the day for an emergency (or that this will be the day that things change for the better), that helps us to continue on. It is what makes us exceptional.

It is striking that, except for the seniors who have probably lost their spouses, many of the people inside are couples or families. There are children of all ages helping their mothers; there are husbands and wives, again of all ages, helping each other; working together.

There is something heartwarming about that. Something that inspires hope. While imagining the loneliness of the seniors is heartbreaking, they invariably seem to be smiling (or are at least putting in an effort) and are frequently helpful, opening doors for those carrying in bags of clothes to be washed or chatting with the younger people, perhaps both an effort to help the children stave off boredom as the machines spin, and to stave off their own loneliness, if even for a moment.

Inside the laundromat is a slice of the real America; and the people are those who far too many in the Senate and House office buildings, boardrooms and skyscrapers tend to forget and ignore, except for meaningless platitudes to get a vote or to buy stuff. They aren’t asking for anything; they are just trying to get by in life as best they can. And they are doing it with the dignity of a husband folding towels while his wife folds the sheets. I am proud to be from a nation that includes the people in this warm, humid room. They appear happy despite challenges; by and large they likely do real work for a living (or, at least, try so very hard to). In so many ways, they are setting an example that politicians and those in the corporate boardrooms would be wise to emulate: decent people, American families, working hard to get through life, not hurting or stepping on anyone in the process. Quite the contrary, actually. I have little doubt that had I needed a quarter, I could ask and would receive, whether or not the loss of that quarter would be later felt.

Somehow I never expected to even be in a laundromat at 53 years of age. But the surprise is not that I thought I’d be better or too good for it, it’s the realization, in seeing my fellow laundry patrons, that I’m not as good.

I had finished folding my towels, shirts and shorts. All that remained in basket, still warm from the dryer, were my underwear. I looked around in the crowded room and made eye contact with a young man waiting for his dryer to finish. We briefly smiled at each other and as I reached down to fold the last of my laundry, he looked away.