Squatting along the close-packed north bank of the river is a neighborhood known as the laundry district. The district runs westward hugging the wide, rippled-brown artery through the city, from the local community college campus to the rough end of the market where men in dirty baseball caps sit on corners astride motorbikes peddling cut-down narcotics and middle-aged prostitutes. In this ancient district, small family-run laundering shops line the narrow alleys that trickle down to muddy footpaths along the river banks where, since the city’s founding, generations of women have washed clothes by hand on wide flat rocks with the river lapping up around their ankles.

Despite the long tradition of the district, the foreigners living in the city--expat professors and engineers, architects and municipal government advisors, students studying the indigenous culture of the nearby delta communities or the ancient crumbling red-brick architecture left behind in the foothills upriver--claim it is impossible to get anything cleaned properly there. Late in the day with the sunlight shriveling down beneath the horizon, in riverside cafés west of the market, over iced beers and platters of traditional barbequed bits of plump rodents and charred okra, the expats exchange stories of clothes returned with mysterious rust-colored stains that were never there when the clothes were dropped off. Stories of wizened grandmothers regularly pounding holes in underwear. Of socks being absent-mindedly lost to the river current, allowed to drift away and out to sea.

But because of the expense of imported washing and drying machines and constant busy schedules of work and meetings and classes to be taught and field excursions outside the city, the expat customers continue to bring their laundry to the district. They regularly switch among the many launderers, looking for someone who will give satisfactory service. They go from cleaner to cleaner, house to house; from relatively large well-run shops to small cleaning services based out of the homes of old and respected local families who keep altars burning with incense in tiny living rooms. Enterprises charging unbelievably low prices, but often run by people who speak only the local language. A language the customers can’t understand and haven’t bothered to learn.

The expats slowly and patiently explain the value of a coat, implore for careful treatment of dress shirts with wide French cuffs in shops advertising their long history in the neighborhood on homemade plywood signs propped up in narrow alleys. They give useless advice to beat the shirts more lightly on the rocks or to use a less corrosive detergent in strange, wild-smelling rooms to people who stare at them and nod without any real comprehension. The customers sometimes leave thinking they’ve finally found the one place that will return their garments intact and scoured spotless clean. But their hopes are always hideously shattered; their pants ruined with giant streaks of what looks like used cooking oil or shirts with splotches of something like blood.

            Often, customers, even the most calm and understanding, react badly when picking up their laundry. Something seems to snap inside their souls. Something nasty and violent ripples up to the surface in response to a favorite sweater in rags or a jacket riddled with holes resembling tiny mouths howling in pain. They scream. They throw meticulously folded garments to the floor and spit on them. They shout and spray angrily, inches from inexplicably stoic faces that seem to be somewhere beyond any concern for the clothes they’ve washed. The customers throw down their money, take the clothes, and leave, baffled by the whole transaction.

Many expats have turned to the corporate dry-cleaning chains with franchises housed in low, modern concrete buildings along the eastern edges of the district. These businesses, which employ, at depressingly low wages, young people from the insulated immigrant communities woven throughout the district, have recently moved into the area to compete with the older, traditional laundries. The results are no different. The large cleaners regularly shred clothes in monstrous machines that none of the under-paid employees have been trained to operate properly.

 So the customers, full of optimism and faith in these new professional services often owned by companies in far away vaguely Eastern-European-sounding countries, pick up their bleach-splotched bed sheets and unraveling pillowcases from young women in the midst of a twelve-hour shift in a spotless new building with traffic roaring by outside the plate-glass door. The exhausted laundry workers have found that, because of the terrible working conditions, the only skill worth mastering is the plausible excuse—the laundering machine malfunctioned and the customer must contact the manufacturer for satisfaction, the manager is out and will not be back until later when the customer will inevitably be at work or meeting some other vital responsibility of everyday life. They have learned that the condition of the clothes is not their responsibility.

But some expats pick up their ruined clothing from workers new to the city. Young women who haven’t had time for lunch that day—a plastic container of cold, clumpy rice and small, sweet sausages sitting on a table in back near the pressing machines--young women who send most of their money home to families in far-off countries. Still essentially untouched by the intricate and interwoven miscommunications of the district and the baffling illusions of shifting responsibility within the large cleaning franchises, these women hold themselves responsible for the shoddy condition in which the clothes are returned and beg to be forgiven for the state of the items. They offer to reimburse for the damage out of their own pockets.

Often customers--perhaps urban growth management experts who work in the tall glass and steel government buildings on the south side of the river, tired lawyers in wrinkled suits, or custodians--take the meager sum as restitution for the damage, but others—nurses, archeologists on sabbatical, or perhaps even professors of long standing from the community college, mourning recently-received news of a colleague from many years ago with whom they’ve meant to stay in closer contact found dead of an overdose in a cheap hotel, dead and alone in some distant city--shake their heads, decline the offer of compensation with a worn look hanging like sad loops of flesh around the eye sockets, and secretly, deep inside themselves, hope that we don’t all have to pay for every mistake we make in this world.


Craig O'Hara is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona. His short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Confrontation, Dos Passos Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and december magazine. Craig was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In addition, his story “The Temple” won the 2009 Sonora Review Short Short Story Contest, judged by Aimee Bender. He also received one of the 2005 Greer Fellowships for Creative Writing. Craig currently teaches writing at Ball State University. 


I wrote this piece one night while living in the Northern Mariana Islands. As I recall, a big storm was lashing hell out of the island, it was about 3am, so I, of course, grew obsessed with laundries and dry cleaners. The story, as stories are wont to do, just kind of took off on its own from there. I suppose it’s ended up being about how worked up we can get about trivial things in life while the important stuff floats right by us unnoticed like an old sock washed down a dirty flooded river.



Copyright 2009