At a plaza on White and McKee, at the vortex of my sad adolescence, there sits the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat. In the mid-1990s, I learned that an antidote to disquietude is to roam. Before wandering the genre-divided aisles at Ultimate Video, or twisting and untwisting lipstick tubes I’d never feel femme enough to pocket at Thrifty Drugstore, I would pause and peek into the wood-paneled and burnt umber interior. Above every squat washer: a name. Their labels were grandmotherly: Barbara, Phyllis, Doris, Rocio, Hilda, Lucia and so forth.
In not-so-far stretches of the valley, “innovators” and “pioneers” were founding web services providers and inventing hand-held personal assistants. Despite our proximity, we remained unbeknownst to one another: the pioneers, the innovators, and me. In mere years I would depend on their innovations, lurking through chat rooms rather than strip malls.
The washers were not the only ones in the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat with monikers. There were humans with tear ducts, sweat glands, and leaky orifices. They came to the washers—Barbara, Phyllis, Doris, Rocio, Hilda, Lucia and so forth—and filled their gaped openings with soiled garments and linens for laundering. These patrons whose names I don’t know sunk coins in the squat washers’ slots and then waited. The square units jostled and sprang into life.
[ . . . ]
When the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat first opened in 1984, its proprietor was a guy named Dick Prock. Dick then manned a veritable washer-dryer empire, owning 150 establishments across Northern California. When the current owner purchased the store in 1992, he met with Dick to learn how the sausage was made. Walt Disney was the most customer-oriented person of his time, the current owner tells me in an e-mail. At most amusement parks, the cars on the rides receive numbers. But at Disneyland, the cars all had monikers. Walt felt it made for a friendlier atmosphere and happier customers. So, the current owner continues, Dick had all the machines named. Washers are Girls and Dryers are Boys. Some machines, he explains, he dubbed for family friends, whereas others he named via customer or employee suggestions. When I respond to inquire as to why the appliances are so gendered, the current owner never writes back.
[ . . . ]
Open 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. on all seven days of the week, the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat remains relatively unchanged since my tween years. When I revisit the spot three times in August 2019, I find myself stunned by the cacophony: overloaded. Spin cycles overlap. Dings spill from the mounted TV as the scoreboard lights up on The Price is Right, followed by cheers from the live studio audience. A toddler in gold sandals serenades an infant with endless rounds of the popular tune Baby Shark. The infant’s parent has propped their carseat in a wire cart, the sort used to shuttle wet garments between washer and dryer. This enables the older child to careen around the store just by pushing. The wheels rattle on the speckled linoleum.
[ . . . ]
When I attempt to uncover the history of laundry in San Jose, I find the record is dripping with racism. In an 1885 article, a journalist describes how just under a quarter of San Jose’s voting population comprised the city’s Anti-Chinese League. Upon learning that 19 of 22 Chinese laundries operated out of wooden buildings, these men helped pass and enforce an ordinance that required all laundries be fashioned of brick. The city had over 12,000 residents, and only about twelve white women stepped forward intending to scrub. When journalists listed their contact information in the papers, they called all but two—the unmarried Maggie and Eliza—simply Mrs. The women demanded higher wages than the Chinese laundry workers did, and locals were left to sweat into their britches. Not one of the Chinese laundrymen has left town, reports one journalist. The laundries are at full blast and the ordinance is a dead letter.
The next year, members of the Anti-Chinese League began plans for a laundry under the co-op model. To succeed, at least 300 subscribers would need to pledge $5 and give their word to send their linens to the co-op. Thereafter, the workers at the co-op would do family washing at cost for $1 a week. A committee of 20 active men then hit the streets to drum up the pledges, and the co-operative laundry opened in East San Jose in 1886.
By 1900, the owners of five white laundries were joining forces to form The Steam Laundryman’s Association. In 1901, the Laundry Workers Union of San Jose first convened. They planned walk outs and strikes in response to poor working conditions, which included toiling for low wages in intense steam, heat, and fumes for nine hours a day. What’s more, the laundries were loud. When the-state-of-the-art Temple Laundry opened its doors in 1918, a journalist remarked probably the most interesting feature, from the viewpoint of people residing in the immediate vicinity of the plant, is the manner in which all noises and steam will be done away with.
Chinese, Japanese, and French laundries continued to operate, referenced only in passing in the papers.
I am unsure when the first modern-day laundromat opened in San Jose. A fact I can tell you is this: a New York inventor created the first coin-operated laundry machine in 1957.
[ . . . ]
Quarters are part of my childhood laundromat’s brand, as well as the state of being EZ. Simple coin operated machines, reads text on their website. Don’t fumble with those cards. No card to pre-load means no leftover balances! I imagine a re-enactment on a late night TV ad: the kind for a product with a 1-800 number and 3 easy payments of $29.99. In it, a frazzled person with butterfingers struggles to extract a laundry card from a money clip. For those anxious humans who find newfangled conveniences to depart from the comforts of routine, we have coin-operated laundromats.
This means, in addition to the aforementioned noises, the interior sounds just like a casino. When a customer slides a ten dollar bill into the Change Machine, forty coins crash into the drawer down below like a jackpot. Other customers count quarters out one by one, then stack them in fours on the formica countertops. Fingers slip coins into slots and they slide through the bowels of machinery. With each slipped coin there’s a beep.
Describing the washers and dryers as having innards is especially creepy when the appliances also have names.
[ . . . ]
When I enter the term San Jose into a directory of Amazon lockers, my search returns 20 results. Of these, the majority (65%) are in 7-Eleven convenience stores. Two Amazon lockers—called Mouse and Marion, respectively—are on the same thoroughfare as the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat. Even so, the bulk (75%) of San Jose 7-Elevens remain Amazon-locker-free. For example, the nearest 7-Eleven to the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat, where tween me once swapped pocket change for Funyuns, is utterly devoid of a locker.
A team of bloggers writing for Amazon describe the lockers as some of the many faces in our cities and towns who are happy to lend a helping hand. Though the bloggers assign human body parts to the objects, I assure you they have no extremities. Instead, they are rectangles made up of smaller rectangles. By using the pronoun who—a word generally reserved for humans—the bloggers ascribe each object a false personhood. Once you know about them, the bloggers conclude, you can make friends with them one by one.
But can I?
While I suspect make friends with is just marketing lingo for transact with, I can scarcely imagine what kinship with a coffer might look like.
[ . . . ]
If Mouse and Marion were indeed sentient beings, their caretakers would be mistreating them. No amount of sunshine-yellow paint can undo the trauma of their convenience store circumstances. I’m talking 24/7 bright lighting. 24/7 Top 40. 24/7 strange fingers. These digits jab codes in their touchscreen displays at all hours, never pausing to ask for consent. They then thrust themselves into the compartments in Mouse’s and Marion’s bodies like the Apostle Thomas once fingered Christ’s wounds.
En route to the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat one bright Wednesday morning, I decide to come calling at Marion’s. The evening before, I’d looked in on Arugula in Santa Clara, the nearest locker to my apartment complex. Despite their name tag that reads hello my name is arugula, I do not respond how do you do.
I find that the caretakers have sandwiched Arugula. To their right, they have piled towers of Natty Light twelvers: thirty packs total, stacked nine by ten. To their left, a display case of power bars, instant noodles, and jerky. Is this placement strategic? Do Arugula’s suitors get grabby over Slim Jims and reduced-calorie pilsner? If Arugula did have the friendly face that the aforementioned bloggers ascribed to them, they’d pass their days surveilling the coffee bar: so many stir sticks a-stirring, so many small creamers emptying. Perhaps Arugula would be an observer-type, dreaming up tales about the regulars crossing past with their Big Gulps.
Though neither Marion nor Arugula is a gendered name, I find myself wanting to ascribe she/her pronouns to them. Perhaps it is because the bloggers have framed them as helpers and helpers perform feminized labor. Perhaps it is because some women only munch salads, dunking their fork tines in dressing. I once saw this recipe in Sunset Magazine: Marionberry, Blue Cheese, and Arugula Salad.
I am curious if I’ll feel a rapport with Marion, seeing as I’ve known at least two others in my day. One, a next door neighbor, passed evenings crocheting elaborate granny squares while lit in the glow of America’s Most Wanted. She and her husband raised spaniels, and were the first in our East Side San Jose neighborhood to have a big screen TV. They had a dried porcupine pufferfish displayed on their mantelpiece. As a child, I asked to graze its sharp spines with my fingertips.
Anti-Chinese Laundries a List of Persons Prepared for the Work. (1886, January 13). Evening News, 5 (145), p. . Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
Day One Team. (April 2018). The kind face behind the Amazon Locker. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.aboutamazon.eu/working-at-amazon/the-kind-face-behind-the-amazon-locker
Model Laundry to Open Tomorrow in San Jose. (1918, November 10). San Jose Mercury News, XCV (133), p. 9. Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
How Will it End Rambling Thoughts on the Great Question of the Hour. (1886, April 29). Evening News, 6 (84), p. . Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
Start a Laundry. (1885, November 19). Evening News, 5 (102), p. . Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.
Temple Laundry to Employ Local Men. (1918, May 14). Evening News, 168 (405), p. Three. Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
The Conflict Knocking out the Chinese Laundrymen. (1886, January 8). Evening News, 5 (141), p. . Available from Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers
Li Patron lives and writes in her hometown of San Jose, CA. Find more of her writing at www.romancingthevoid.com.