At the Laundromat

by Michael Abraham

My mom always told me if I didn’t separate my lights from my darks, I would ding my white laundry. I always thought this was nonsense. And, in fact, in the fancy washing machine in the apartment I shared with my husband, this was nonsense. Oh, I was absolutely reckless! I would toss bright red shirts in with white sheets and black jeans in with cream-colored t’s. And it was always alright in the end. The whites stayed white, and the colors did not fade. I was confident in my millennial assessment that separating the lights from the darks was simply Gen X anxiety, old wisdom, no longer applicable, démodé even. 

Divorce means many things, and, well, one of the things that mine means is that I no longer have a fancy, in-unit washing machine. So, I am at the laundromat as I write this. And I have just finished the wash cycle. I pull my clothes out one by one to put them into the wheeled hand cart that will transport them to the dryer. I pull out a few pink shirts and a few blue shirts, and these look fine, smell fresh. And then I pull out the first white one, and it is gray. And then the next white one: gray. And so on and so forth. They are all dinged, ruined, good only for sleeping in. (My mother tells me on a phone call that I can bleach out this mistake, and this time I trust her Gen X wisdom.) I hold in my frustration. I try to chuckle about it. I load the dryer, and I go for a drink at the bar down the street (it is Sunday after all), where—after a rousing conversation with the bartender, Pedro—I continue to write this. I pray that, if someone steals my laundry, they only steal the once-white, gray t-shirts. At this point, I don’t much care.

The laundromat is an apt metaphor for where I’m at in my life right now.

Or, rather, the transition from in-unit washer and dryer to laundromat is the right metaphor. Just last night, I was on the phone with my best friend. “All I miss,” I explained, “was my own naïveté. There was a time, see,” I continued, “when I was sure that I had it all. And, now, not only do I not have it all, but I see that I never did. You know what I mean?” As I stand in yesterday’s clothes and my bright red slides (a gift from my new roommate—because life is not all ennui) in the laundromat, as dingy and depressing in its interior as my now-gray t-shirts, I think on these words. Sure, a washing machine isn’t having it all, but when you’ve been at the laundromat for two hours and change, it feels like it just might be—and when you live in New York, it certainly just might be. But it’s more than that. For a moment, for a space in time, I felt that I was keeping house. I wrote about this some months ago. Keeping house was the feeling that I was a kindled thing in turn kindling, keeping alive an effervescent possibility, a suggestion that, within four mean walls, something miraculous might happen. But there are no miracles at the laundromat.

I return to the laundromat from the bar, and I’m happy to report no one stole any of my laundry—not even the dingy t-shirts. I will keep these and bleach them, and perhaps it will be no issue. I put in my headphones and play my divorce playlist as I begin to fold. The playlist is titled “The Fool, inverted,” which is a Tarot reference. The Fool, in the Tarot, signifies the naïveté that accompanies the beginning of a new journey, the sense of boundless possibility and adventure that one feels in the throes of a new endeavor. The Fool inverted—meaning the card has showed up upside-down in the reading—which I drew not so long after I left my husband, means quite the opposite: disillusionment, a journey begun without boundlessness, begun with jadedness and an awareness of the great limitedness of the human spirit. The playlist is full to the brim with the great, melancholy crooners of my generation, with Florence Welch and Adele and Amy Winehouse and Billie Eilish and Lorde and Jack White. And a few not from my generation: The Smiths, ABBA. But it also has bright spots: The Fifth Dimension, Norah Jones, Beyoncé, Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson, MARINA, Fleetwood Mac. (I am, it must be said, an avid fan of pop music.) 

As I fold and listen, my mind does a funny thing. It opens up and grows capacious. My affects get all funny. There is something liberating and meditative about the laundromat. Going to do laundry, when you actually have to go somewhere to do it, is a very intentional period of time in which one commits to doing nothing. One gets a little bit open and a little bit permeable when one commits to doing nothing. As I fold and listen, I feel myself to be very much sad and very much happy at the same time. I am not sad for any big reason, simply because so much has changed, and change always brings with it a species of mourning. But I feel myself to be happy for very significant reasons. I am free and accountable to only myself. I am done with all the fighting and the acrimony, with all the drama and the noxious self-contortion. The fact of the matter is that keeping house was not such a blessing. It was a great labor, a great labor that eventually I could no longer justify as worth the pain.

This is probably the last time I will write here about the vicissitudes of getting divorced. It is fitting, I think, to end this topic of consideration with a consideration of the laundromat. The thing about getting divorced is that it trains your eye toward the little things. In my case, it has meant losing my dishes and my dog, my address and my bed, my in-unit washing machine. This is not so much. It is the necessary expenditure of growing up and growing on. I was twenty-two when I entered that relationship, twenty-five when I got married, and twenty-seven when I decided to leave. Standing in the laundromat, I feel very twenty-seven indeed, by which I mean old enough to know the sting of life and young enough to believe in its possibilities. The Fool, inverted. 

There is also something funny about the transition to the laundromat, as there is something funny about divorce. In each experience, life becomes bare. It gets stripped down to its necessities. The clothes have to get clean, and convenience be damned. In the same conversation with my best friend last night, they asked me how one goes on when it seems that everything is falling apart. “Well,” I said, “you get up in the morning, and you put your shoes on, and you do the damn thing.” I chuckled as I said this, as I chuckle now in a different bar thinking about my Sunday afternoon in the laundromat. The bareness of life, its well-damn-we-must quality, is a bit funny when it isn’t too trying. Life isn’t so serious. I think that, for a long time, I believed life was a matter of great themes, of fate and victory and defeat and love. It was so intense for me. Now, I think I believe that life is just a matter of dinging the shirts and buying bleach to correct the dinging and putting on the shoes and having a drink or three. 


I am no great philosopher. I am quite weak in my outlook, weak in the sense of the queer theorists, Eve Sedgwick and Jack Halberstam, who argue for a “weak theory” to replace the “strong theory” that tries to explain everything under any one rubric. To be weak in one’s thinking is to be highly context-dependent, to be drawn in by one’s objects of attention. It is to eschew great concepts for more regular stuff. When Sedgwick and Halberstam first elucidated weak theory, it was about becoming lost in the things they were theorizing, in finding circuitous routes toward knowledge rather than straight pathways to clear conclusions. There is nothing theoretical or philosophical in what I’ve just written, but, then again, there is an aperture in it, a vantage point from which one can view a certain sense of what it is to be a person and a person with a life, a life soaked in affect and feeling, subject to change and attachment and disappointment. I wonder what it would be like if we theorized something as grandiose as the human condition by getting lost in our desire for somewhere as quotidian as the laundromat or the bar down the street from the laundromat. I imagine it would mean that we give up on the human condition altogether, that, instead, we become interested in human conditions, in telling the stories of ourselves as situated in their proper time and place. It would mean, I think, becoming less interested in the why of things and becoming more interested in their how

All this is to say that the story of doing laundry on a Sunday has something sparkling at the bottom of it, some kernel or nugget of meaning that might be taken away and held. But it isn’t just the doing of laundry that matters; it’s everything that leads up to the walk to the laundromat, everything that occurs while there. What I mean, in short, is that human stories matter more than theories and ideas of what the human is, that human stories are, themselves, whole theories and ideas of what the human is. I don’t end in this register because I wish to be pretentious or high-minded. I end here because I want it to be known that, as a newly minted denizen of the laundromat, I’ve found something important I wish to say. What that is I cannot sum up in a neat sentence; I am too weak in my thinking for neat conclusions. All I know is that we go on. We go on, and we change, and we tell stories of each little change. And these stories—well, they matter.