By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
SAN MARCOS, Tex. -- There are three things Heloise wants you to know before you go off to college: 1. Vacuuming sheets and spraying them with Febreze is not as effective as washing them with soap and water.
2. Black nail polish hides scratches on your iPhone case. 3. If you drop your cellphone in the toilet, take out the battery, then blot the phone with a towel and blow-dry.
In the next few weeks, 18.4 million college students will begin their fall semester, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some will be living away from home for the first time. A number will arrive with shoe organizers, 400-thread-count extra-long twin sheets and a spotless mini-fridge. Others will crash in sleeping bags and use their grody room piled with sweaty spandex mainly as a charging station. You know who you are.
Enter Heloise, the syndicated columnist and dispenser of practical household advice who goes by only one name, even on her American Express card. She's been paying particular attention to campus living and has been speaking at colleges. As she brainstorms with students across the country, she finds a hunger for wisdom on sharing spaces and wrinkle-free living. Last month, she drove an hour north from her ranch house in San Antonio to her alma mater, Texas State University at San Marcos, to listen and advise.
And yes, she's heard the stories about the guy who cleans his CDs by placing them in the toilet bowl and flushing, and the girl who burned her delicates to a crisp on high in the clothes dryer.
"I learn from students and I challenge them," says Heloise, 58, who took over the family hints business when her mother, also named Heloise, died in 1977. Her column "Hints From Heloise" appears in more than 350 newspapers, including this one, and she has written 11 books on lifestyle tips.
Students these days "have more technology and they're constantly communicating on Facebook and Twitter, but human nature doesn't change over the decades," she says. "They are still kids going off to college who may never have shared a bathroom." But they already have established cleaning habits, such as licking their DVDs clean. (Hint: Use a microfiber cloth.)
Here's a typical question she gets via e-mail from a college student: "Dear Heloise: I get in the shower with my T-shirt on and lather up and then rinse it off and hang it on a hanger. The next day it's dry and clean. Do you think this is a good way to do laundry?" This one's not posted on her Web site.
Students do wacky things. But so does Heloise, who has advocated quick-drying underwear in a salad spinner. She has spent her career educating readers about the nuts and bolts of daily living, and she can deduce from the e-mail questions she receives that many members of this generation of college students grew up with working parents who didn't have time to teach their kids basic skills.
"In many ways, these kids are the privileged generation," she says. "They get the best, they've had their own private bedrooms, they don't leave a sporting event without a trophy. But they still need life skills."
Heloise starts her one-hour presentation at Texas State -- to high school and college students participating in the Texas Mathworks summer camp -- with a fitted-sheet folding contest and a discussion about getting along with roommates. Most of the students had never heard of her. But Eunice Alade, a 16-year-old from Cincinnati, says she was already signed up for Heloise's daily e-mail tips. "I just learned that you should put the water in the washing machine before you put in the bleach," says Alade.
"College is the place you learn to get along," says Heloise. "You will work your whole life with people you didn't choose. In college, you learn to work things out."
Later at a round-table discussion, students ask Heloise for help with one of her specialties: stains.
Wesley Chen, 19, of Pasadena, Calif., found bleached-out spots on his clothes. "I'm afraid they might be coming from the acne cream with hydrogen peroxide," he says. Heloise confirms that this was a bleaching agent. "Because the color has been removed, that is bad news," she says. On jeans, she advises, a small spot can be covered up using a felt-tip marker.
Toothpaste smeared on black pants is the fashion emergency of Karen Vazquez, 21, of McAllen, Tex. "I'm not very happy about it. And I don't want to wash them with my jeans in case it rubs off on them," says Vazquez. The Heloise hint: Rub some cheap shampoo on the back of the stain, turn the jeans inside out and launder them. Then air-dry; don't put them in the dryer.
Andrew Hsiau, 24, of St. Louis wonders about "business casual." "I never know what this means," he says.
"It depends on what part of the country you are in," says Heloise. "It could be nice jeans and a starched shirt. In the banking world it could be khakis. I'd say it means no flip-flops or cleavage. Call someone who has been before or simply call up the people giving the event."
The 103-degree day ends with a visit to the College Inn, the dorm where Heloise lived as a freshman in 1969. By some karmic twist, summer school student Matthew Rydell, 20, of San Antonio was placed in her former residence, Room 360. He seems to have channeled a bit of Heloise.
The room is furnished mainly with technology: a TV, laptop, PlayStation 3, cellphone and iPod. But in the walk-in closet next to his golf clubs and case of Diet Mountain Dew, his neat row of hanging, spanking-clean polo shirts shows he has mastered laundry. "I take them out wet from the washer and dry them on hangers," explains Rydell.
"The weight stretches the wrinkles out of them," says Heloise. "Not bad."