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.

Check Out My 9th E-book, You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes

I’m happy to share, friends, that my newest e-book (my 9th one!) is now published and available on Amazon.com. Please check out “You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes: Creative Nonfiction Stories.” Enjoy + let me know what you think + spread the word.

From the Amazon book description: “In the fall of 2018, writer Melissa Leddy gathered together 19 of her most-read posts from the previous year. All these creative nonfiction stories originally appeared on her website, Melissa Leddy: Writing at Its Most Heartfelt. She reworked them and organized them in a way that provides flow. Most of all, she hopes they provide encouragement…a hearty laugh or quiet chuckle here and there…the chance to breathe, and keep breathing…

“The stories feature Melissa’s signature writing style: a from-the-heart tone underscored with self-effacing humor. Readers will appreciate the wisdom she shares from everyday moments, in pieces ranging from the playful ‘Ready (or Not) for Some Quality Time?’ to the uplifting ‘You Are Where You’re Supposed to Be.’

“Dig in. When you finish ‘You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes,’ you’ll feel refreshed, renewed…full.”

Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too

I shut the top lid and press “on.” The old coffeemaker grumbles awake and begins brewing several cups of my favorite blend.

From the adjoining breakfast nook, my daughters are bickering—something about whose turn it is, or isn’t, to use a certain stamp. I poke my head around the corner. “Share, girls,” I say.

My older daughter crosses her arms. “I have been sharing,” Grace says. “She hasn’t.”

Rather than pleading her case, my younger daughter says, “Mommy! Hold me!”

I give Anna a hug and then settle her back beside her sister. “Girls,” I say, “there are a million things you can do in here. Color. Play with your Shopkins. Finish your cereal, maybe. Do something while I pack up your book bags.”

My 3-year-old frowns. “I don’t want to go to school today,” she says.

“You’ll have fun once you get there,” I reply.

She shakes her head. “No, I won’t. I want to stay with you, Mom.”

“I don’t,” Grace announces, for the record. “I want to go to school.”

My coffee better be ready soon. “Look,” I say. “Everyone has to go to school today, because Mom needs to write and Dad is working too. So…” I gesture to the crayons, construction paper and myriad amusements covering the table. “Please do something while I get your things ready for school.”

Anna sighs, but picks up a crayon. I return to the kitchen.

Story Image

For all I have to do to secure my writing time—the two different school drop-offs, snack and lunch preparation beforehand, the pleading (and, occasionally, yelling) for the girls to get along and remember to brush their teeth and, of course, find their shoes—I wonder if it’s even worth it. Especially considering that the majority of the writing I do now—essays submitted to literary magazines (and not always accepted), short fiction that I self-publish on Amazon, every post on my website here—is creative, a.k.a. not that lucrative.

The coffeemaker sputters to a stop. I pour myself a cup. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, the sun rises. The thought flickers across my mind, again: Is this even worth it? Or should I do something different?

“Mom. Look, Mom.”

Anna’s voice draws me back in. I turn; I look.

She’s smiling, proud. And she’s holding up a piece of blue construction paper, marked here and there with lines of crayon. “I wrote a story too,” she tells me.

I take in a breath. Then I smile; I kneel down. I look at the paper. “Wow,” I say. “You did.”

“Just like Mom,” Anna says. She drops her story at my feet, then runs off.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling. Just like when we visited the local firehouse for a field trip, and the girls spent the rest of the day pretending to be firefighters.

I hang her story up on the refrigerator, with Grace’s soccer-picture magnet from last season.

I could never not write creative nonfiction, or short fiction. I simply love telling stories, both those that are true and those I make up. It makes me happy when someone reads something I wrote, and lets me know it moved them in some way—made them laugh, or encouraged them during a difficult time.

And during difficult times in my life, writing has been healing to me. Either in helping me to make sense of my journey and to find meaning within the pain, or in escaping, for a moment, to a world of my own making. Often it’s easier to give fictional characters’ “Aha!” moments, rather than to stumble across our own.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling.

Originally, I submitted a version of this essay to a literary magazine I really like and read. Yesterday, the editor let me know it wasn’t a good fit for them right now. During dinner that evening, I shared with the girls what she said.

“What was your story called?” Grace asked.

I told her: “Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too.” (Based on a true story, as all good stories are. 😉 )

Grace smiled sympathetically. “Awww, that sounds cool, Mom.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, honey.”

Eventually, every creative type has a come-to-Jesus conversation with him- or herself. Is what I’m doing worthwhile?

I’ve been thinking about this, and the answer is—like many of the answers I arrive at—yes and no. Pros and cons for everything, shades of gray everywhere. But for sure, more “no” than “yes,” friends.

I want to contribute more financially meaningfully to our family’s life. E-book royalties and token payments for magazine pieces, while holding out hope for a big break à la Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, don’t go very far toward summer camps and retirement savings.

Worth and value can be subjective, and are, but bottom lines don’t lie.

I’m excited, then, to dedicate more time to seeking out the kind of contract work I’ve done before, proposal editing and copywriting. I’m good at that stuff; I can do it. Fingers crossed, I can do it from home.

I’ll still do the creative writing I love, just more on the back burner.

Yet…Anna’s story still hangs on the fridge.

Kids…love…stories. We grow up, and we still…love…stories. We tell stories every day—from our quickest conversations with our neighbors, to our end-of-day heart-to-hearts with the ones who know and love us best.

I believe there is unity, and understanding, and love in storytelling. Deep down, we all might believe that.

That’s why I’ll never give up on it.

In the meantime…if you know anyone who could use some editing or writing help, send ‘em my way. 😉 ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Check Out My New E-book, It Takes a Little Time!

It Takes a Little Time Book CoverI’m happy to share, friends, that my newest e-book is now published and available on Amazon.com! Please check out “It Takes a Little Time: Mini Essays on the Things That Matter.” It’s a little book that offers up big encouragement.

From the Amazon book description: “The mini essays that make up ‘It Takes a Little Time’ help readers make the most of their journeys. It features Leddy’s signature from-the-heart tone, underscored here and there with self-effacing humor. Find encouragement in her reflections on, for example, ‘Measures of Success and MUCH’ and ‘The Art of Letting Go.’ Meanwhile ’10 Things I’ve Learned From Children’s Books’ will resonate with anyone who’s ever had a kid, or been one. There’s inspiration here for everyone.”

“It Takes a Little Time” is part creative nonfiction, part motivational. I hope it makes a positive difference in your life. Thanks so much, friends.

Check Out My New E-book, Grace Notes!

grace-notes-cover-1-1-17Confession: I’m not a morning person. Maybe you aren’t either. Or maybe you are, but you could use another boost of energy as you sip your favorite blend from the “World’s Best Mom” mug your preschooler hand-painted last week.

This is the purpose of “Grace Notes: Start Your Day on a Positive Note.” “Grace Notes” is my new e-book, and I hope you’ll check it out!

Part creative nonfiction, part personal growth, “Grace Notes” brings together some of my most-viewed recent blog posts, each with a message of positive energy. I hope that these pieces give you the momentum you need to start your day with a hearty, hope-filled, “Yes!” Here’s to a truly “Happy” New Year, friends.