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.