Although we tend to think of trips to the laundromat as dull-but-necessary interruptions in our perusal of neighborhood art, music, and culture—or even of a weekend afternoon on the couch—three clothes-washing establishments on the Northside, contain engrossing, curious phenomena, as well as welcoming communities of customers, proprietors, and staff.
It was the unusual décor that made my first extended visit to the F&M Laundromat at 84 Norman Avenue in Greenpoint an unexpected and mildly transformative delight. Within a rectangular interior, panels of fluorescent lights shine over three rows of silver, orange, and bright yellow washers. Five large dryers are also orange, and a row of light custard dryers matches both the tiled floor and a stretch of decorative plastic shingling just below the ceiling. Laminated faux-wood paneling covers much of the walls, and a long, sleek, red table for folding clothes is composed of two rectangular units and a smaller, asymmetrical abutment. It looks like a piece of neo-plastic sculpture that has been adapted for practical use. The overall effect is warm, artificial, and incubating.
Standing in the back of this comforting and odd space, something about the sharp, blue numerals on the dryer LCDs tripped an inner switch, and I felt as if I was doing laundry in New York for the first time. The feeling made me recall an environmental installation by the Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson at MoMA two summers ago. The elements that comprise Eliasson’s 360º room for all colours include stainless steel, fluorescent lights, and wood (real, not fake), and a curatorial description of the artist’s work goes right to the heart of the Laundromat’s appeal: “By transforming the gallery into a hybrid space of nature and culture, Eliasson prompts an intensive engagement with the world and offers a fresh consideration of everyday life.”
There are plenty of less abstract qualities to appreciate about F&M, too. When I turned to staff member Catalina Bermudez for help after pouring liquid detergent into a washer after the second wash cycle had already begun, thus missing the rush of water that propels the detergent into the machine, she handed me a jug of water reserved just for this miscue. The practical genius of the jug complemented the aesthetic otherworldliness of the Laundromat. Signage at F&M is folksy and funny: a plastic knickknack composed of a row of men’s trousers bears the message, “Drop your pants here,” and a modest computer printout states that staff no longer fold thongs and G-Strings, which owner Celia Montez said emerge from the dryer “in little spaghetti balls.” F&M also includes a watchmaker’s nook, and although Ziggy, the resident artisan, complained of slow business and showed me two abandoned timepieces, he still keeps evening hours six days a week.
Farther up Manhattan Avenue at the northeast corner of Huron Street, M&W Laundromat serves as a neighborhood gathering spot, food and laundry emporium, and, from a design standpoint, electroclash extravaganza. Picture the community center in the 80’s break-dance flick “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”— but with washing machines. The interior color scheme features a blue and white square-paneled ceiling, electric kelly green, cherry red, and rubber ball peach-painted walls, and an assortment of multicolored customer laundry bags, ready for pickup, that sits atop the washers like an array of stuffed animal prizes at Coney Island.
Whereas the inside of F&M is expansive, the inside of M&W is compact. F&M makes you think, M&W makes you move.
The Benavides family runs M&W, and according to Miriam Benavides, who sells inexpensive food from a window to the left of the entrance, as many as four family members might be working in the Laundromat on any given night. On a weekday evening this past summer, longtime staff member Bienvenida Martinez and Jessica Benavides, Miriam’s sister, helped me operate a barrel-shaped machine in the back called an extractor, which spins a measure of water out of freshly-washed clothes. The machine is a kind of odd uncle in a family of laundry machines. After opening a lid like a submarine hatch, Martinez helped me stuff my garments into a vat that bobbed like a buoy, carefully tucking everything underneath a towel to keep items from tumbling out during operation. Two quarters and two minutes later, my clothes weren’t as wet, which meant that I needed to spend less money on a dryer.
The spare change came in handy, because Miriam’s chicken and beef pastelillos, which are like smaller, crispier empanadas and may be eaten with a spoonful of sugar, are only 99 cents, and shrimp is available on the weekends for a dollar more. Miriam also sells hot dogs and 25 flavors of ice cream (matching the 25 or so colors inside the Laundromat), and she’ll dip cones in chocolate or cherry sauce for free.
Explaining her family’s efforts to create an appealing establishment, she described the typical Laundromat as “a place where you don’t want to go.” Judging by the groups of teenagers and older men sitting outside, M&W is a place that some people don’t want to leave.
In contrast to the vivid environments of F&M and M&W, the elements within a more traditional Laundromat have something to convey. Angela’s Laundromat sits just across Huron Street from M&W, and its interior is almost as unadorned and monochromatic as its neighbor’s is busy and varicolored. But Angela’s customers seemed perfectly content in their more normative world. In the middle of one white wall, a few feet above the washers, three shelves held various bottles of commercial detergent. The bottles, whose labels all faced out into the Laundromat, looked a little like a motley troop at salute, signifying a simple, proud declaration of existence. We’re here, and what we have is plenty, the shelves seemed to say.
Compared with these relatively small Greenpoint establishments, the Giant Launder Center just off Bedford Avenue on North 3rd Street looks like an Olympic pool turned Laundromat. The space stretches at least halfway to North 4th. The white floor and blue-tinted wall tiles are clean, and a neon fixture of a wavy blue sea with oversized drops of white spray runs along the wall on the Bedford side. Just beyond the tall, glass entrance doors, yellow plastic bucket seats border a wooden platform where a billiards table once stood. Blue folding tables line the rows of dryers against the walls. On the day I visited, the GLC had the hum and hush of an empty poolroom. There was no music, two flat screen televisions were broken, and staff member Rosie Bello explained the owner’s decision to remove the billiards table with two words: “Lotta kids.”
If the strange fluorescence inside F&M inspires contemplation, the vastness and ample sunlight within the GLC lend themselves to meditation—the Laundromat as Zen retreat. Its tranquility and limited color scheme certainly contrast with the diverse, fractured stimuli in the immediate area, such as the mural that depicts robots rolling up heaps of purple, red, and green scrap metal on North 3rd. And tucked behind a row of washers near the back of this enormous business, whose assemblage of 58 washers and 60 dryers seems to represent the triumph of automated laundering, a large hand-washing sink makes for a graceful synthesis between pre-industrial technique and the machine age. Several blue sponges and a scouring brush are available for use, and I saw one customer giving a white shirt collar a most exacting scrub. Like the useful jug of water at F&M, the simple touch of this service contains a radiance that shines into the space around it.
The truth is that no matter how beautiful, peculiar, or bizarre the space, lugging your clothing across the neighborhood to a new Laundromat will probably be strenuous and time-consuming. (If you can manage, however, you might be rewarded with a shout of “That’s gangsta!” from Rebecca Camacho outside M&W.) Still, even if you walk in empty-handed, there’s plenty to appreciate inside these creative spaces, which dot our streets like miniature ecosystems that cost only quarters to explore.