28 Quarters in a Ziploc Bag: A Laundromat Story

A sign next to the front door offered a welcome, of sorts: “Use machines at your own risk.” Lines of washers and dryers (front-load, high-efficiency and large-capacity) wrapped around the rectangular space. The voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain filtered through the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh and whirrr-whirrr of the appliances. The sole TV hung overhead, in a corner and turned to “The View.” I don’t watch daytime TV—this isn’t a judgment, just a fact—and I had to Google those names together, “Whoopi Goldberg Meghan McCain,” to confirm exactly which show was on (I’m slightly embarrassed, but only slightly, at my lack of morning-talk-show trivia). 

That day, a late-fall morning, I was at a laundromat, for the first time in a very long time. It’s been a random, persistent convenience in my life that all the spaces I’ve called home have come equipped with a washer and dryer. My parents’ house, where I grew up. The house I rented with a friend, after college. The five addresses my husband and I have shared during our 11 years of marriage, from rental apartments to family homes we’ve owned—every one of them had a washer and dryer. 

I set my pink plastic laundry basket on the white-tiled floor. Overflowing from the basket was a comforter, very much in need of a clean. Which is why I was there, to wash my big comforter in a large-capacity washer. 

I made a fist around the Ziploc bag of quarters in my bag, making sure it was there. The metal on metal clinked and clanked. I had no idea how much it would cost to wash my comforter, how many quarters I would need, and I did something earlier that morning I’m not proud of: I shook some extra coins out of my younger daughter‘s piggy bank, just in case. 

My older daughter noticed, of course, saw me mid-shake. “Mom, what are you doing? Stealing from Anna?” 

“No, no…” 

It had been that kind of morning, already, and it was not even 10 o’clock.

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Clutching the bag of quarters, I peered at the pair of large-capacity washers. Another woman, about my age with similar shoulder-length brown hair, was using both of them. I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette. I wasn’t sure, so I asked the woman, “Would it be OK if I used one of these when you’re done with it?” 

She nodded yes, then added, “This one has twenty minutes left on it.” The little girl who was with her smiled at me.  

I smiled back, then thanked the woman. “I’ll be waiting over there.” I gestured to a row of chairs under a window, across from the TV, on which Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain now seemed to be exchanging heated words.  

She nodded again, and I retreated to a chair, with my comforter and quarters. 

Besides myself, the woman and her daughter, a few other folks drifted in and out of the laundromat. Two youngish men, in their early twenties. One of them wore a scarf that looked to be more for style than function; they were both hipster types. And then several older women, grandmother types, and one old man. After loading their laundry, the young men passed the time by fiddling with their phones, while the septuagenarians chatted with one another. 

What type might I be, I wondered? “Clueless, But Has Quarters”? Maybe…probably. 

I had brought a book to read, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” a creative nonfiction writing guide. Because when both girls are in school, as they were then, that time is (supposed to be) my writing time. Like many maternally disposed writers before me, though—and all moms in general—“my” time sometimes becomes “theirs.” The grocery store, post office, laundromat. When I find myself running errands for our family, I try to tuck in some writing-related work too. 

Thus, my book about writing. 

I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette.

When the woman gestured to me that her load had finished in the washer I was waiting on, I headed over, lugging my comforter. I fished the bag of quarters out of my bag. I gazed at the machine. Lots of dials. Lots of options for settings. Aaahh…what do I do? 

“I’m super sorry,” I interrupted the woman again, “but how does this work? Could you help me?”  

She helped me.  

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot. Clink, clink, clink. In case you didn’t know, as I didn’t, it costs $7 for one load in a large-capacity washer—at least, it does at that laundromat. More money than I’d thought it would be. 

“Now press that button,” the woman said, pointing to one of many buttons on the machine.  

I pressed that button, and the machine turned on and began washing my comforter. “Thank you so much.”  

The little girl beamed, clearly proud of her mom. 

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot…More money than I’d thought it would be.

Unlike me, my sister has lived in apartments in cities for years: Sunnyside, Queens, and now downtown Philadelphia. She’s used laundromats for years too. When I told her about this post I was working on, she said, “I hope the point of your story isn’t that people in laundromats are nice because of course they are.”           

“No, that’s not the point,” I replied.  

Although everyone had been nice. After my comforter was clean, I stuffed it back into my laundry basket. I didn’t have time to dry it because I had to pick up Anna from preschool. (Besides, I was all out of quarters.) The comforter was wet and heavy in the basket. As I was struggling toward the front door, one of the older women walked over and held it open for me. I so appreciated her kindness. 

But what was the point? I kept thinking about why that morning at that laundromat had resonated with me.  

The point is…sometimes I have no clue how convenient my life is. How easy things are, relatively. How much I take for granted—so many things, and the littlest things.  

Since that morning, I’ve been noticing laundromats more. Some have clever names, like Missing Sock and Dirty Harry’s. Others have signs that simply announce, “Laundromat,” as mine did. 

Weeks later, I was flipping through my book, the writing guide. A crumpled Ziploc bag floated out—the bag from the laundromat, the bag with my quarters. I had repurposed it as a bookmark and forgotten about it.  

I skimmed the bookmarked page. The author, Lee Gutkind, writes about the richness of experiences, which offer writers “more material, more reference points, more ideas” (page 237) for their work. I bookmarked that page because I agree.  

You can only learn so much from a book or sound bite. You have to have experiences.  

Even ordinary ones, because they offer insights too. 

Photo credit: Pixabay 

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: Heartland—A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

heartland coverThere were moments, as I was reading Sarah Smarsh’s debut nonfiction book “Heartland,” that tears suddenly filled my eyes, preventing me from reading the words on the pages I held in my hands. I felt I was there; I felt everything. Subtitled “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” this book beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

Published in 2018, the story itself is excellent, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and compelling read. It is part sociology, part poetry and wholly engrossing. Beyond the story (seven chapters), I also very much appreciated the Acknowledgments at the end.

Why the Acknowledgments? Because “Heartland” is memoir, a true story. Much of what makes it so compelling is the characters—real people from Smarsh’s life, many of them still living. Their experiences (often colorful, sometimes painful to read about) give life to this creative nonfiction narrative of living and working in the 20th- and 21st-century Midwest. Smarsh recognizes this and thanks her family in language as beautiful and important as that of the rest of the book: “With deepest reverence, thank you to my family for surviving, with humor and dignity, the difficulties that allowed this book to exist. When I asked for their blessing to tell our shared past, they bravely answered yes…Because it might help someone else, and because it is true” (page 290).

…[“Heartland”] beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

When I write creative nonfiction, similar questions weigh on me. Why do I want to share this (true) story? For me to put something of my personal world in a public space, for me to ask for loved ones’ blessing to share, some meaning to it all has to exist beyond, “This is a good story.”

There is meaning in the stories that Smarsh shares of her family. The underlying meaning is that entrenched economic inequality can keep the American dream out of grasp for a portion of Americans (in this case, her family’s generations of wheat farmers and teen mothers). Meanwhile, “the American dream” is so entrenched in our national mythology that those who fall short of achieving it may hold themselves as individuals completely responsible, rather than considering the systemic barriers to rags-to-riches realizations.

In the first chapter, Smarsh vividly yet pointedly describes, “That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure” (page 29). She goes on to write, “You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”

The whole truth that Smarsh goes on to explore includes issues such as access (and/or lack of access) to education, jobs and health care; teen pregnancy; and domestic violence.

Smarsh’s depictions of her female family members’ experiences with domestic violence were particularly disheartening to read, I found. Throughout “Heartland,” Smarsh notes that we may “live in different Americas and thus have different understandings” (page 39). Later in the book, she considers these differences as they relate to class and domestic violence. “In theory, women were being liberated during [the 1960s and ’70s], but the poorest of them had the least agency for independence in real life,” Smarsh writes, adding “Domestic violence occurs at all socioeconomic levels, of course, but the woman who can’t afford to leave will have more chances to be killed” (pages 217-218). Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

A subtle yet omnipresent theme that Smarsh threads throughout “Heartland” is motherhood—her motherhood, although she does not (currently) have children. Growing up, Smarsh is pained to know that any child she has, as a poor young woman, would almost certainly grow up poor too, the odds stacked against him or her. As an adult, she achieves professional success (a tenure-track university professor job) and personal success (“a big house…with vaulted cedar ceilings,” page 283). One night, she realizes with both joy and sorrow that from this moment on, any child she has, if she does, would not be that poor child from her lifelong visions. “A cycle had been broken,” Smarsh writes, “and the place it tore was between me and you” (page 285).

Smarsh remembers that she “cried so hard” (page 285). But why? Why cry when you have achieved what you set out to do, when others might even say you embody the American dream? The reason why is because it’s hard to say goodbye.

It’s hard to say goodbye, always. To anything…even for a good thing, or a better thing.

Another recurring theme is women, and their strength, especially during difficult times. Smarsh’s observation on page 209 struck me: “In some ways, where I grew up there was less of a line drawn between men and women than I’ve found in more privileged places. The women who raised me cooked in cafeterias, drove tractors…moved boxes in the stock rooms of discount stores…The men I grew up around didn’t scoff at a woman’s capability.” The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

“For the women I knew,” Smarsh adds on page 212, “work wasn’t a liberation from the home or a revelation of self. It was a way of life—familiar, essential, and unsung for generations.” Powerful, humbling, honest.

The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

Smarsh reveals that the story of the American dream is a complicated one, a not-so-cut-and-dried narrative. For example, she notes in Chapter 1, “Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience…Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work. Its relationship to the economy—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in” (page 43).

Despite the complications, Smarsh’s story strikes a chord of hope at the end, for an “honest economic system” (page 288) sometime in the future.

“It’s complicated” may well describe much of the story, and the history, of Smarsh’s “Heartland.” Smarsh herself shares, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kids of people. I knew it wasn’t right, because both sides existed in me—where I was from and what I hoped to do in life, the place that best sustained me and the places I needed to go for the things I meant to do” (page 125), poignantly concluding with, “Straddling that supposed line as I did, I knew it was about a difference of experience, not of humanity.”

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective. And what if the people in charge—and every one of us, really—could give that perspective a try sometimes?

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective.

Why did I read “Heartland,” and why might you? I love nonfiction, and memoir. “Heartland” is both those things. I appreciate voice, especially a writer’s voice that is fresh, honest and evocative without veering into sentimentality. Smarsh’s voice is all those things—Hemingway-esque, at times, as in “A Moveable Feast.” I minored in urban studies in college (not that minors really matter), and have always been interested in the related topics of sociology and economics. “Heartland” is a first-person study of sociology and economics, against the backdrop of a Kansas countryside.

If you love nonfiction or memoir…an authentic voice…and/or sociology and economics, then you almost certainly will love “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh.

Photo credit: Simon & Schuster

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Favorite Family Movies (or, Why We Just Watched Fletch for the 20th Time)

The week of Christmas, my parents’ house. Both girls had fallen asleep. Stanton and I sat with my two brothers and sister in the family room. The conversation topic at hand: what movie to watch.

We scrolled through the options on Netflix. I had read good things about “Bird Box,” and “Carol.” Jenna and I, halfheartedly, suggested “Love Actually” (predictably, Stanton, Josh and Jared groaned their dissent). None of these options, however, was ever a serious contender. We all knew—all five of us—that we would, in the end, settle on something we’d seen many times before.

That night, we watched “Fletch,” the ’80s cult classic starring Chevy Chase as investigative journalist Irwin M. Fletcher (and multiple aliases).

Chevy Chase once said Fletch was his favorite role. Personally, I prefer him as Clark Griswold. “Christmas Vacation” is another favorite in my family’s (admittedly short) list of beloved motion pictures. Sometimes, my dad and I even have text conversations consisting entirely of “Christmas Vacation” quotes. (“If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”)

I loved watching “Fletch” once again too, though. I enjoyed seeing Tim Matheson as Alan Stanwyck, before he was John Hoynes. His back-and-forth with Fletch still made me laugh. (“Do you own rubber gloves?” “I rent. I have a lease, with an option to buy.”) And still, I’m not entirely clear on the LAPD/drug trafficking story line, but that doesn’t impede my enjoyment of the film. It doesn’t matter, to me.

Why? Because “Fletch” is familiar—comfort food, in a way. And I would never think to watch it on my own, without my family. It wouldn’t be as fun: no one to quote punch lines with, no one to laugh with. No shared history, or memories, or paper plates of Doritos (a guilty pleasure, a few times a year).

Favorite family movies. We all have them. (What are yours?)

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While we were all together (in addition to rewatching “Fletch”), Stanton, my siblings and I took part in a local pizza place’s Trivia Night. Our team name? I Don’t Know, Margo, in reference to a “Christmas Vacation” quote (and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character, pre-“Seinfeld”). Of course our team name referenced a favorite family movie quote.

Trivia Night together was a lot of fun. Mostly because we had my brother Josh on our team, I Don’t Know, Margo, won. As we walked to our car afterward, Jenna led us in singing, “We Are the Champions.”

Yes, we were that family. 😉

That family, friends, similar to so many others. All with their share of joys, disappointments and inside jokes. And still coming together again, holiday after holiday, year after year, despite any distances or differences.

After our own Christmas vacation, Stanton, the girls and I got ready to head home. We all hugged one another goodbye. My sister told Anna, “I’ll miss you so much!”

Anna, 3 years old, smiled, shouted, “I’ll be back!” and ran out the front door. Anna makes me smile all the time, and I smiled then too.

“I’ll be back!”—this sentiment sums up why we watch the same old movies again and again. They take us back. Back in time, to a younger, more innocent, less complicated time. When everyone with whom we started out shared the same family room, the same TV.

Favorite family movies bring us forward and keep us together too. We look forward to the special-occasion and everyday reunions that encourage gathering, reminiscing…and cherished-movie rewatching (critics’ reviews, Rotten Tomatoes ratings and actors’ real lives notwithstanding).

“I’ll be back!”—this sentiment sums up why we watch the same old movies again and again. They take us back.

For all our movie watching (and rewatching), Stanton, the girls and I never actually watched a movie together, as a family of four. Kind of crazy, right? When the girls are watching TV, though, we try to get other things done.

We decided to have a super lazy, super cozy New Year’s Eve at home, doing something we’d never done: finally watch a movie together. I made French bread pizza beforehand, and Stanton built a fire in the fireplace. The four of us got comfy on the couch and watched “Beauty and the Beast” (the animated version). The girls had never seen it before and loved it, and Stanton and I enjoyed seeing it again. It was a really simple, really sweet time together, and maybe the start of our own tradition.

Later, after we tucked the girls into bed, Stanton and I tuned in to some of the Times Square Ball Drop news. The New Year’s Eve countdown was on, and winding down. In that moment, I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for my family.

For Stanton, there with me, and our daughters, upstairs. Both our sets of parents and grandmas, our siblings and their families, and our friends who are like family. We’re so lucky for all this love in our life.

When I think about life, and what it is and what it means, the first thing I think is beautiful. And the second thing is fragile.

I try to take care, then, with life and the people in it. I’ve made lots of mistakes, could always be a better person. I do try, though, to seek good, to give love.

Love is the little things. Watching (or rewatching) a movie with family. Speaking kindly to grocery-store cashiers, rather than checking our phones. Basically, being there for people…those we know and those we don’t. Being present.

Why not be present this New Year? Even if we already know all the punch lines.

“Those are three names I enjoy: Marvin, Velma and Provo.”

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.