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 Coin Laundromat in inner Brisbane’s New Farm, on the corner of Brunswick and Harcourt streets, and people from blocks away have flocked 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 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 be found hanging around outside at night, trawling for clients. Across the road, a sprawling household of artists and filmmakers would watch over the women – sometimes taking notes about which girl went off with which client; keeping track of the women’s safety, at least in an ad hoc way.
Meanwhile, the prostitutes would shoo people off the footpath, telling them they were scaring off potential clients. Eventually, men would approach them and pairs would disappear into the dark, the sound of stilettos clacking on cement. At some point in the past few years, the girls disappeared. Burger joints, grocery shops, restaurants and family-friendly cafes sprouted, 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 toastiness reminds me of those rainy days when my mum knew clothes would be impossible to dry. My siblings and I would watch, hypnotised, as the dryer tumbled, slowly cooking shirts and bedsheets that came out smelling of baked cotton.
The laundromat is a shrine to nostalgia. Apart from the two plastic, purple internet booths 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 Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal – to make you think of all the places you could be other than in this laundromat, right now.
For a place synonymous with poor students and the homeless, washing your clothes at the laundromat is weirdly expensive. Five dollars gets you a single wash. These machines fit two basketloads at a time, but this still means you have to plan ahead, ensuring your dirty laundry has fermented and built into an epic, Tower of Babel-like pile before you even consider doing 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 clothes in sunless apartments and undergrads whose hand-me-down top-loaders have short-circuited or exploded.
Max is a 24-year-old, blond, well-groomed hipster, with Wayfarers tucked into 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”), so he’s reconciled to washing his clothes at the Coin Laundromat for another four weeks. But he’s got his routine down pat. After emptying a haul of clothes into a front-loader, he boots up his MacBook Air and works on his finance degree assignments. The 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 Max trained for three hours and will go for a run this afternoon. That’s a lot of sweat. Because he only makes it to the laundromat once a week, he is constantly re-using sweat- drenched training gear, hanging it all out in the sun to reduce the odour. If there’s no sun, he has to douse it with a special deodoriser. 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 thirties have also mastered their routine, folding clothes with military precision into an overnight bag. Jay is tall and lanky while his partner Angelica is short and voluptuous. The challenge is to find a spot in the weekend where they’re both free. I point to a cute pair of girl’s shorts and ask whether that’s their daughter’s. I’m mortified when Angelica laughs and says the shorts are 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 here because their washing machine broke during Christmas last year. “That’s a horrible Christmas present,” I say. “Tell me about it,” Jay says. “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 its cycle, the ancient machine could be spotted moving across the floor. Not far, but Jay describes the vibrations as similar to a small earthquake. “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.”
As with rehab or public transport, no-one actually wants to be at a laundromat. They’re just necessary, transitionary places. And 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 the day, but at laundromats you have to wait.
Which brings us to Laundromat Rule #3: always bring a book.