27 October, 2016

Maytaggin’

In days of yore, stout scrubwomen squatting by the water gossiped and kvetched to quell the tedium of pounding their husbands' smallclothes against a rock for hours. Later, nuclear-age housewives, in Benzedrine daydreams of lives less laborious, mooned over the newest DeLuxeCo Auto-Matic Clothes-Washing Machine in their Sears Roebuck catalogs. And today, if the TV commercials are any indication, people still aren't content with the ease of washing their laundry, because Samsung has upgraded its machines with a small port in front, so you can add clothing items to loads without the agonizing burden of opening a regular-sized washer door!

The future is here, people. I, for one, am uneasy.

My upbringing left me leery of certain levels of convenience. Blame the semi-crunchy environment my parents raised me in, which instilled an appreciation for the handmade, the homegrown, the slow-cooked. To wit: until age eight, I had no idea what Ho Hos were (and when I found out, their oily sweetness made me spit). One takeaway from my youth can therefore be summed up as “good stuff is worth waiting for.” The converse was implicit: what's readily had is better left alone.

Every morning, cell doors in Crossroads’ honor dorm open when the 5 AM custody count clears. Like a horse charging from the gate, I race the other early risers to the laundry closet downstairs, where I scrub and rinse yesterday’s wearables in my green Rubbermaid wash basin before breakfast. Others take less time. My bar is just higher. Can I drink the rinse water yet? If not, I rinse again, repeating until the answer’s yes. It's a chore that takes me twenty minutes, on average.

A chore — the word connotes drudgery, unpleasant obligation, routine. I used to like doing laundry. There's nothing quite as reliably comforting as the smell, texture, and temperature of a fresh load pulled from the dryer.

Modern laundry-washing is nothing. You drop clothes into a machine, you wait, you transfer the clothes into another machine, you wait again, you retrieve the clothes, you fold or hang them as necessary. It’s easy as pie — easier, in fact, since pie involves an iota of finesse. Any imbecile can do a load of whites. “Oh,” you cry, “but the wait is so annoying!”

Even when you do actually need to stay in the vicinity while your clothes tumble, as in laundromats where sketchy characters might filch unattended garments, a wait is only a wait when you’re not creative enough to otherwise occupy yourself. The way things are now, I’d be moved near to tears by the freedom to surf the web, sit people-watching, or play a Donkey Kong arcade game while a machine saved me hours of effort. Who in their right minds complain about such First World privilege?

Most here can’t bear the thought of doing laundry by hand when the institutional laundry service will take their bags of dirties and, a couple of days later, bring them back somewhat less dirty. They don’t care that everything comes back as crumpled as blow-in insulation. The service is free of charge and hassle… except when laundry workers rip bags open to thieve any less-than-yellow T-shirts.

There's a third option for getting your clothes clean in prison: using a Maytag. Some convicts hawk their artwork, some sell sex, some run gambling operations, some deal drugs. There are as many ways of making money in the joint as there are types of people. Maytaggin’ — hiring out your services as a human washing machine — hasn’t always been known by the same name, but it's as old as penitentiaries themselves.

In my wing lives the Laundry Gnome, a fuzzy little guy with glasses and graying red hair that nearly matches his raw skin. He looks like, before his incarceration, he might’ve smoked an itty-bitty corncob pipe. Now he smokes what he earns from scrubbing stains and body soil out of other prisoners’ workout gear and underthings. His knobby knuckles may always be cracked and angry, but he never wants for tobacco. I admire his dedication, if not the addiction driving it.

The Laundry Gnome scrubs his fingers to shreds because his customers want what you, dear reader, have: the luxury of dropping off a dirty load and picking it up wearable, no agitation necessary. He doesn't charge much. I could probably afford to hire him. The way I do it now, laundry’s become a grind, leeching time that'd be enriching if only I spent it with my nose in a good book. (I have nowhere near the number of leisure-reading hours I’d prefer.) But I couldn't stand myself if I paid to save a trifling fraction of an hour per day, solely in order to be lazy. Scrubbing in suds may dry my hands something fierce, sometimes, but it keeps my conscience and my socks clean.

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