Our parents told us to never air our dirty laundry in public, but what choice do we have at the laundromat? It’s Sunday afternoon at the Fortitude Valley’s Coin Laundry, and people from blocks away have descended here to get their clothes in order for the week ahead. On a black slab of a table that dominates the room, I am forced to join my fellow launderers in quietly but fervently sorting through our various stains and shames: the End-of-Fortnight Underwear; the Bedsheets of Doom; the Yellow-Patched Gym Gear from Hell.
If you’ve lived in Brisbane long enough, you’ll know this laundromat is legendary for all the wrong reasons. When I first moved here a decade ago, working girls could always be found hanging outside at all hours of night, waiting for clients. Across the road, a sprawling household of artists and filmmakers would watch over the women at night, sometimes taking notes about which girl went off with which client, to keep track of the women’s safety, at least in an ad-hoc way.
Meanwhile, the prostitutes would shoo people off the sidewalks, saying they were scaring off potential clients. Eventually, men would approach them and the pair would disappear into the dark, the sound of stilettos clacking on cement trailing behind. At some point over the last few years, the girls disappeared altogether. Burger joints, grocery shops, tapas restaurants and family-friendly cafés sprouted up, but the laundromat has somehow survived.
Today it’s overcast and the jungle-like humidity promises rain. That means the laundromat’s dryers inside are on full pelt. Each one is the size of a kennel and works non-stop, making the atmosphere even thicker like a steam room. For me, it’s the smell of childhood. This warm toastiness reminds me of those rainy days when my mum knew clothes would be impossible to dry. In the laundry, my siblings and I would watch hypnotised as the dryer tumbled and tumbled, slowly cooking shirts and bedsheets that came out smelling of baked cotton.
The entire laundromat is a shrine to nostalgia really. Apart from the two plastic, purple internet booths plonked against the wall, everything about the place feels stolen from another era. Vending machines offer handwritten ‘Summer Specials’ (can of Pasito: $1.60); another machine offers ‘Rager’ brand washing powder. Its packaging is blue, white and anachronistic, like it belongs to another decade or a communist nation. Above the front-loading washers is a mural of stock travel photos from the 1980s—the Pyramids of Gaza, the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, the Taj Mahal—whose only possible purpose is to make you think of all the places you could be instead of this laundromat, right now.
For a place synonymous with poor students and the homeless, washing your clothes at the laundromat is surprisingly, weirdly expensive. Five dollars gets you a single wash. These machines are designed to fit two basket-loads at a time, but this still means you have to plan ahead, ensuring your dirty laundry has fermented and built into an epic, Babel-like pile before you even consider a load.
(Laundromat Rule #1: Do not go to the laundromat until your wardrobe is bare and you find yourself wearing swimwear as underwear.)
Talking to my fellow laundromat-users, I realise there’s a common thread. Laundromats are refuges for people with tales of woe: broken hearts and broken washing machines. There are divorcee dads who can’t dry their clothes in sunless apartments and undergrads whose hand-me-down top loaders have either short-circuited or exploded.
Max is a 24-year-old, blonde, well-groomed hipster with wayfarers hung over his shirt. His pink short-shorts show off muscular, hairless legs that suggest he’s the type of athlete who probably doesn’t have body hair from the neck down. Following a split with his long-term girlfriend, Max moved out and found himself sharing a flat with another guy. Most Sunday afternoons, he’ll do two massive loads of washing in a single hit.
“My washing machine broke,” he says. “Well actually, it’s my flatmate’s washing machine. When will we get a new one? When my flatmate decides to be not-so-tight and just buy one.”
Max won’t buy a machine himself any time soon (“I move out in a month,” he explains) so he’s reconciled himself to washing his clothes at the Coin Laundry for another four weeks. In any case, he’s got his routine down pat. After emptying a massive haul of clothes into a front-loader, he boots up his MacBook Air and works on his finance degree assignments. The only hassle about relying on the laundromat is that Max goes through clothes super quickly. When he’s not studying, Max does triathlons.
“So I go through a lot of sports clothes,” he says. This morning alone, for instance, Max trained for three hours and will go for another run this afternoon. That’s a lot of sweat. Because he only makes it to the laundromat once a week, he is constantly reusing his sweat-drenched training gear, hanging them out in the sun between sessions to reduce the odour. If there’s no sun, he has to douse it all with a special deodoriser. It’s not exactly a glamorous system, but this way he saves money and helps the environment.
“That’s it,” he says. “You save power. ‘Coal’s bad, eh.”
A couple in their early 30s have also mastered their routine, fastidiously folding their clothes with military precision into an overnight bag. Jay is tall and lanky while his partner Angelica is short and voluptuous. They live close by, but the challenge is to find a spot in the weekend where they’re both free. Jay works six days a week and Angelica works nearly as much. I point to a cute pair of girls’ shorts and ask whether that’s their daughter’s. I’m mortified when Angelica laughs and says the shorts are actually hers.
“Well, I’m a little bit short,” she says, giggling.
(Laundromat Rule #2: Never discuss other people’s clothes, ever.)
Jay and Angelica are only here because their washing machine broke during Christmas last year.
“That’s a horrible Christmas present,” I say.
“Tell me about it,” Jay says. “It would have been a good 10-years-old because I inherited it from my grandma. We were persistent and kept trying it, but it was just like wobble-wobble-wobble. It just got to a point where we were like, ‘No more. No more wobbles. It’s done. It’s had its time.’”
Sometimes during the cycle, the ancient washing machine could be spotted moving across the floor. Not far, but Jay describes the vibrations as similar to a small earthquake in the making. “It could be worse though,” he says. “This place could be further away, or you might have to commute by bus. We’re only two streets down. And the machines are the same—if not better—than grandma’s old machine, so it’s all been good.”
Like rehab or public transport, no one necessarily wants to be at a laundromat. They’re just necessary, transitionary places. As for my clothes, this load feels like it might take forever. After it’s finished washing, I throw it all into the dryer, which gives me seven minutes of spin for a dollar coin. It’s not fun watching it spin any more. It’s just boring. At home, you can get on with their day when your clothes are washing or drying, but at laundromats you have to wait. Which brings us to Laundromat Rule #3: always bring a book.