Night lives: Laundry hour in Mount Pleasant

July 11, 2011

The Earth spins one way.

The dryer spins the other.

Small revolutions within big ones.

Exact coordinates of a pair of black jeans at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday: A hot, bone-dry orbit in No. 26, in a nameless laundromat on Mount Pleasant Street NW, Washington, D.C., the United States of America, Earth, the solar system, the Milky Way, the universe.

These are the jeans Will Lowry will wear on his date tomorrow with a pretty woman. He met her at the club he works at, Heaven and Hell on 18th Street NW. He’ll wear the jeans and a red belt and a collared mesh shirt and red-and-black Corvette sneakers.


David Holloway, who has lived in nearby Adams Morgan all his life, sorts his clothes at 1:39 a.m. at the 24-hour laundromat at Mt. Pleasant and Hobart streets NW. (Dan Zak/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“We’re going to the zoo,” says Lowry, 34, an impish grin spreading his brambly beard.

First the outfit needs to be clean, and that is why he is here, at one of the country’s 4,200 24-hour laundromats, 13 hours and 45 minutes before the hot date, passing the spin cycle with his uncle, David Holloway, by talking about women and the Red Sox and how things are and how things used to be.

Both men were raised in Adams Morgan and still live there. They remember growing up around more drugstores, more black people, back when you could still find fragments of bone and shards of wood caskets in Walter Pierce Park, a former cemetery.

Things evolve.

Things revolve.

“For me, life right here, right now, is kind of a cross between heaven and hell,” says Holloway, 55, a mail clerk and machinist on disability.

The hell?

“Me getting harassed by police when I come home to the house I’ve lived in for 50 years on Ontario Place.”

The heaven? Always more abstract.

“I love this area,” Holloway says. “I wouldn’t want to live nowhere else.”

Tiny droplets of sweat on his brow reflect the fluorescent light, which flutters strobe-like through ceiling fans. The languid hypnosis of tumbling linen is underscored by two televisions blaring a Cindy Crawford action clunker dubbed into Spanish. Some of the 46 dryers whistle as they spin, giving the aural effect of high winds outside, when really the July night is as limp as a wet sock.

Nearby apartment dwellers come because their buildings’ dryers are wimpy. Bar employees come to exorcise the odors of the job.

“Remember before smoking was illegal? Oh, my God,” says Oswaldo Cruz, 44, a barback at Millie and Al’s on 18th Street who’s folding warm bedsheets with his girlfriend, Anjelica Gonzalez, around 2 a.m. “I prefer the smell of food on my clothes. French fries. Sometimes she says, ‘Oswaldo, you smell like a French fry. Now I’m hungry.’ ”

Clumps of lint scurry across the tiled floor.

“In my country [El Salvador], I lived on my father’s farm, and there you’re working hard, and it’s another kind of life,” says Cruz, who wants to be a chef someday but now is content to earn enough to pay the bills. “In the city here, it’s not working hard physically. It’s here.” He puts his index finger to his temple.

All mental. Heavy soil. Extra rinse.

Hell. Heaven. Space. Earth.

Purgatory, really. From the medieval Latin “purgatorium,” meaning “place of cleansing.”

Seventy-five cents for packets of suds with affirmational names.

Tide. Bounce. Gain.

A telecom network engineer folding his rainbow-colored briefs has a copy of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s “ Death on the Installment Plan ” within reach. He leaves by 2:30 a.m. As do Cruz and his girlfriend and Holloway and his nephew, whose outfit is ready to go for the date, which is now about half a revolution away.

The laundromat attendant, 28-year-old Rony Alay, locks the door at 2:45 because it makes him feel safer. The 3 a.m. hour is his least favorite. It’s a sad hour, he says.

While growing up in Guatemala, he wanted to come to America. He hopes one day to return home to open a small supermarket. Right now he is somewhere in between those two desires.

The dryers and washers have stopped spinning. The Earth has not.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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