Adventures in Laundry: How to Do Your Washing in Urban America

A wall of dryers in a local laundromat: a common sight in U.S. cities. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

Whenever I arrive home, there’s this stink. But only now, seven months after moving to Brooklyn, have I worked out what it is. Or rather, what it isn’t: laundry.

Back in London, I was constantly washing clothes or hanging them out to dry, which meant cloying, floral detergent dominated every inhalation. Laundry smell, it seems, is crucial for masking other signature domestic scents: gym trainers, fridge rot, and that frying pan you meant to wash up last week.

But in urban America, laundry (here “washing” is something you do to your body or vehicle) generally gets done outside the home. And without an in-house Hotpoint to pump out perfume, the food ‘n’ feet funk is unrelenting. It’s like when they banned smoking in pubs. Suddenly, our much-loved boozers stank not of nutty, delicious tobacco but of stale yeast and urine. Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to my apartment.

Some lucky U.S. city-dwellers get to live in smart buildings with giant washer-dryers in the basement. But if your place doesn’t have facilities, you’ll need to find somewhere that does. Locating your nearest Laundromat won’t be hard; they’re everywhere. If possible, visit early in the day so that you can snaffle a machine that’s not gummed up with everyone else’s soap sludge and escaped socks.

Once you’ve chosen a venue, your biggest challenge will be transporting your unmentionables from your apartment to a washing machine. Likely, you’ll only want to do this once a week, but a human can generate a disturbingly large mound of filthy fabric in that time. Buy yourself a shiny nylon sack from the 99 Cents Store, and stuff it until the stitching looks like it’ll pop (it won’t). Hoist it onto your shoulder where, if you can learn to walk with a compensating tilt, it will stay. For added amusement, don a Santa hat and glare at small children.

Everything that comes after is easy. You’ll need a handful of quarters (or a pre-paid laundry card) and some washing liquid, which you’ll be able to buy onsite. Insert the coins and detergent into your machine making sure to select the appropriate holes.

As long as no one steals your stuff (the tumble dryers don’t lock, so beware), you won’t need to interact with the other customers. Sitcoms will tell you otherwise, but Laundromats are not friendly places, so pull up a plastic chair, read a book, or get neck ache watching one of several TVs suspended from the ceiling. Deploy eye contact only to let others know this is your laundry cart (used for transporting wet clothes from washing machine to dryer) and you will kill to keep it.

If you don’t fancy the schlep, paying a professional to cleanse your threads is an expensive but popular option. They’ll pick up and drop off, and your sheets will arrive home stiff, bright and wrapped in plastic. Mmm. But actually, I’ve begun to quite like my DIY laundry adventures. I think it’s the smell.

Expats, are you lucky enough to have an in-house washer/dryer? If not, do you do your own washing or just drop it off?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • Sue Cox

    The photo caption has confused “site” with “sight.” Spell Check shouldn’t take the place of an intelligent editor.

    • Dan Roberts

      No. “Sight”, as in something you SEE. Not “site”, as in a place to BE. And an intelligent editor knows the difference. Unintelligent readers do not.

  • Brianna Morgan

    I agree. Please correct the caption — “sight,” not “site.” People can’t learn proper English if they don’t see it. Thanks!

    • Taurus

      Why is it “site” not “sight”. I believe the caption is trying to convey that it is something commonly seen. It could also be a common locale, but I don’t think that was the meaning of the caption. Sheesh…relax.

  • mary

    you can purchase little baby sized washing machines from sears that hook up to your sink
    handy for apartment dwellers!
    my mom had one when my sister and I were too little to be left alone during laundry runs and too much of a pain to take with

  • Jess

    Here in Orlando it’s a bit more common to have installed washer/dryers in your apartment, but most will only provide the connections and you have to come up with the machines themselves. We were lucky enough to find one that actually provided the machines and still was at a reasonable price (contrary to popular belief, the cost of living in Florida is no cheaper than anywhere else, but the pay is obscenely low in a lot of cases, so money was key!). I’ve done the municipal laundry thing though. The first time I did one of my favourite dresses from New Look went walkies. Not impressed.

    Might be moving to the bright lights of New York City soon, though, so laundromats will probably become my new friends!

  • Just Sayin’

    I went to do laundry last Friday in the sweltering heat [Hoboken, NJ] … but it had to be done unless I was going to wear my knickers inside out! … I’ve only done it twice — out of the house — and think of it as a little adventure. But, I’m sure the novelty will wear off? I actually find everyone super friendly, the people who work there, and the others suffering through the heat. I tend to leave … it’s just too hawt!

  • Concierge Robert

    Every Sunday morning I have been using a place run by a little old lady who shouts “Gud Moning” at me where I arrive.. I enjoy the two hours with my newspaper and it’s early enough that there are seldom children banging about.
    Very relaxing

  • Vickie

    Bahahaha……this is so funny. It makes others think that the most common way for laundry to be done is at a laundromat. When in actuality, the MAJORITY of Americans have home units, even apartment dwellers. Going out to the laundromat is an odd experience even for Americans.

    • Hannah

      I have lived here 16 years and I’ve only ever seen 2 laundromats- both almost completely empty.