Sunday, June 19, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Challenge: Laundromat!

Challenge to the reader: Show me up. Generate a story idea set in a laundromat. No limitations on form, genre, practicality, anything.

I tried. I did. I sat there for an hour and a half this morning. It was hot, unless you happened to stand right under the vent. A maximum of four people were there at one time. Two washers had wet loads in them from the time I arrived to the time I left. The book I'd brought was too by-the-numbers to engage me and I knew I needed a Garage Sale idea so I thought about it. But I could not put a story there.

Last week a guy bummed some change off me to use the facilities, refused my offer to share soap, then wandered around with his bundle of laundry for another hour at least, presumably bumming more change. I know, I'm a sucker, but I do a quick cost/benefit analysis in such cases. If the guy really is fresh out of the hospital, too poor to do laundry, and just wants to wash his clothes, the benefit to him of getting $4 in quarters in incalculable. If he's scraping together drug or alcohol money, the cost to me is $4 and an addict thinking I'm a sucker. I can live with that. But I couldn't go anywhere with the guy, imaginatively. He wasn't enough of a character - probably by design, as it is to a panhandler's benefit to be unmemorable.

Also last week, there was a cute little girl who could run but not talk yet, whose mother didn't talk to her and handled her, not abusively, but with what seemed to me excessive brusqueness and too little attention. She sat next to me for awhile, playing a game where she sneaked up on my insulated cup and I snagged it away at the last minute, whereupon she laughed. Normally in these situations the mother will make eye contact with the person interacting with her child, but not this woman. I don't think I want to know the rest of this story. I don't think I would like it.

When I was in college, my first lover lived in an apartment a few blocks from campus and I would take his laundry to the laundromat down the street. Yes, I did his laundry for him. I was also the only one who ever defrosted his freezer or cleaned his bathroom, and the one who dug the obstruction out of the drain under his perpetually running faucet (instead of working on the drain or calling the landlord he set a bucket for the overflow). He was ten years older than me. The best thing I can find to say about him these days is, that he allowed me to get most of my life's mistakes out of the way in a 9-month period. Once when my best friend from high school came up to visit me she joined me on the laundry expedition (where was he? I don't remember) and as we stood in front of the plate glass window a man on the other side got our attention by tapping on the window with a joint and offering, in gestures, to share it with us. We declined. There's a story there, but I dodged it!

A few years later, I found myself in the laundry room of the barracks at Kelly AFB, where Damon was living, folding clothes next to another girl whose boyfriend lived there. And I remembered all the girls I knew in college who did their boyfriends' laundry along with their own in the dorms. Doing a guy's laundry is one of the ways American girls say "I love you," or at least it was 30 years ago. And there's a story there, too, but - I don't think I can go there. I'm not sure why.

(When we have a washer and dryer, for the record, Damon does almost all the laundry these days. It's just developed that my being the one to sit in the laundromat is the best division of labor for us every weekend so far.)

Even before that, in high school, one of the first short stories I ever finished was titled "Laundromat." It was, I now know, "minimalist," but I'd never heard the term at that time and am not positive the minimalist literary fad was even a gleam in the literary market's eye. It would have been 1978, '79, in there. It was about a guy trying to pick up a girl in a laundromat, and I was proud of it because it was told almost wholly in dialog. If I ever turn up a copy of it, and it's half as bad as I remember (and there was an upper limit to how good it could be, given my limited experience at picking up and being picked up), I will either destroy it in shame or post it here as an example and encouragement to others that yes, they can get better over time. I won't pledge myself either way. If there is a story to be gotten out of a laundromat, this wasn't it.

Once upon a time it would have bugged me that I couldn't do this set task in an hour and a half. It doesn't any more. I haven't lost the facility, and I still believe there's a story to be found. But this particular Sunday, I stalled out. Yeah, it's technically two weeks in a row, but everybody has dry periods. And as a Texan I know how dry periods end - in floods. So I know it won't last, and knowing that is half the battle.

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