Everyone got the freshman year Mom Laundry Lecture: “Don’t mix whites with colors. Remember that red sweater Aunt Carol gave you will bleed all over absolutely everything. Oh, my baby is so grown up and independent!”
Independent? Hardly. We are prisoners of our laundry.
Laundry is a formidable foe. Like the New York Yankees, it is smelly and brainless, but somehow manages to defeat people I admire and respect.
My freshman year roommate, a math whiz and talented actress, planned to take her dirty laundry home to wash after spring final exams. But she underestimated the amount of clean clothes left in her closet and ended up walking around our suite in her bathing suit for the last four days of school.
Some of the most noble Yalies I know are transformed once a week into pitiful souls who sit in the laundry room, amidst stifling heat and the “drum-drum-drum” of that one half-broken washing machine, trying to do homework during the wash-and-rinse cycle and rescue their clothes before some impatient, coldhearted classmate dumps them on the counter to make room for his own.
How can we let dirty clothes incarcerate us like this?
I have another friend — a disciplined musician who never misses rehearsal — who will go commando for days on end before admitting he has to do a load of laundry. I was once present when he resigned himself to washing the landfill of dirty clothes piled next to his bed. He lifted each wrinkled sock and sweater individually and held them to his nose to make sure they were truly disgusting enough to bother washing.
Occasionally there would be a pleased “Hmm!” when he discovered a T-shirt that could be worn at least once more without offending the people next to him, as long as they didn’t breathe in too deeply. Then he lay down on the floor — to look under his bed for wayward socks, he claimed — but got comfortable and ended up lying there and chatting with a roommate until it was time for his rehearsal.
Oops. Clean underwear will have to wait till tomorrow.
Dirty laundry leaves us defeated, degraded — and chafing.
Now that we’re at college, there is no laundry gnome to make dirty clothes in the hamper magically reappear on the bed, clean and folded. Left to tackle the chore by myself, I am incompetent and resentful.
I drop my clothes into a washing machine and forget about them until the next morning — by which time they have mildewed into a squashy wad and smell vaguely like a sewer drain. And I have more than once come home at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night to the discomfort and humiliation of sleeping in my bath towel — because I forgot to put my sheets in the dryer, again.
I will postpone laundry no matter the cost to my dignity. I have made more than one trip to the Yale Bookstore in my pajamas to purchase a single pair of $12 underwear — just so I could make it one more day.
The chore looms over every week, like a great thundercloud of sweaty socks and stained jeans. There is so much to loathe: the sheer physical labor of hauling your detergent and overstuffed laundry bag up and down flights of stairs, perhaps even across the courtyard, like an overloaded Bedouin merchant. There is the inexpressible tedium of sorting, loading, folding. And the constant stress — what if I left Chapstick or a ballpoint pen in a pocket somewhere? Can I use the “delicate” cycle, or do they really mean it when they say “dry clean only”?
Our generation is hardest hit by dirty laundry. In the first years of Yale College, all the students were somber Puritans who never perspired and wore all black, so laundry wasn’t a concern. Then in later years, with the rise of stain-inducing wine-and-cheese parties and sweaty games of bladderball, each residential college employed several smartly-dressed manservants to wash all the sullied riding breeches and Eton collars.
These days, only the secret societies get to have manservants. And even their manservants don’t do a great job with the laundry, since The Royal Order still insists all clothes be washed in a coffin filled with goat’s blood.
Yet perhaps we should be grateful — for all the trouble, laundry is also the great equalizer. At no time do I feel closer to my classmates — be they brawny basketball players or Dramat divas — than when I find a forgotten pair of their boxer shorts or panties in my dryer load.
The residential college laundry room is a socialist utopia. There students from every corner of campus — who would never interact in regular life — lend each other fabric softener, handle each other’s wet clothes, and swear together at the temperamental laundry card machine. Even those who use Yale’s laundry service are not excused from labor — they still have to lug their clothes to and from Hendrie Hall once a week.
As Winston Churchill once said, “The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”
Once this utopia is perfected, perhaps laundry will be about fellowship, not drudgery. Perhaps every pair of socks will stay together, living peacefully side by side for all time.
I wouldn’t count on it, comrade.
Molly Worthen is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.