Dirty Laundry in Germantown

Is the corner laundromat a good place to meet people?

I want to test out a theory, which is that laundromats are great places to meet people, though I am also pretty sure this is an invention of writers like Steve Martin who make stuff up for a living or my old friend Bruce in California, who used to brag about picking up girls in laundromats, girls who applied lipstick and wore sweatpants when they washed their underwear. It happened time and time again, Bruce said. It was uncanny. But that was California, and I’m not looking for girls anyway.

I try The Nicest Place in Town, which seems to be its name. The Nicest Place in Town is a stone’s throw from the corner of Broad and Germantown—which is not a nice place—and its opaque glass door suggests that opening it, you’re leaving one battle zone and entering another.

On a Wednesday afternoon, it’s just me and a small Hispanic woman behind glass in an office. And a small black man folding clothes. The Nicest Place is filthy. The cement slabs dryers sit on are cracked and stained. The tile floor is gritty.

The man has a lot of clothes. A month of laundry, he tells me. He let it build up. His name is Kevin. That theory about meeting people, it turns out, buffed so cleverly by Steve Martin and my friend Bruce, is right. Kevin talks.

[SIGNUP]He lives with his wife a block away, and two of her three children, ages 21 and 20. He’s a construction guy who used to rehab houses with his uncle, but he’s out of work because of a bad back. His wife, Yvette, is a nurse. Kevin hurt his back in two accidents: He was hit by a car riding his bike a few years ago, and then, in ’08, a cop car slammed into his car when he was making a turn off Broad Street. He’s got a tear in his back that surgery can’t fix. He’ll have pain the rest of his life, and he’s suing the police. Kevin spends his days doing, well, first he chuckles—he has a hoarse chuckle, and a full beard going gray. He looks very tired, and when he tells me he’s 40 I’m surprised—he looks 50. He says he spends his days doing nothing, but then tells me he spends his time reading, reading anything he can get his hands on. And studying. He’s studying for his GED.

Kevin tells me more. He was abused as a kid, by a stepfather, verbally and physically. He moved out, and was raised at Baptist Children’s Home and various other places. He was done school in ninth grade.

He had a lot of emotional problems, and depression. He got into drugs and alcohol. Kevin’s been sober since October of ’09. “I’m dealing with the problems now.” Then he peels the onion back a little further:

“I was an evil drunk. Me and my wife—she wasn’t my wife then—plenty of nights I ended up in jail, and went to a mental institution. For her kids to see that—I took their mother through some changes. I did a lot of dumb stuff on the streets.” Kevin is folding a sheet, and chuckles hoarsely: “I never could get these right”—he means squaring up a fitted sheet.

I share something with him: July ’08. That’s when I stopped drinking. He looks up at me from his large table of folded jeans and blankets and pajamas and underwear and socks. “There you go,” Kevin says. I suggest that it’s a great thing he’s done, turning his life around.

“I wouldn’t say all that,” Kevin cautions. “It is better. I never wanted to feel things. I stayed fucked up. I set out to be numb.”

Kevin peels the onion back a little further yet. He has two biological children. “They were never in my life. I was running wild, and I’d see them every now and then. I haven’t seen them the past three years. I’m not sure they’re mine—I think one is.” He says he would get with his kids now, “if I can find them, I’d love to. I’m from South Philly, and I’ve been out here”—Broad and Germantown—“since I met my wife.”

I wonder aloud how he’s going to get his piles of laundry home, given that his car is broken down. “In bags,” Kevin says. He’ll make several trips.

When I leave The Nicest Place in Town, a guy across the street stares at me. Two guys pass me on the sidewalk and look at me like, What do I want here?

On the radio, driving down Broad, there’s somebody talking about what a man had to do, somewhere in the world, in desperate straits. It’s NPR. He was so desperate, so hungry, he killed the family dog and ate it.