Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Hasid Walks Into a Laundromat

I learned something new about my people tonight.

During the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B'Av, Satmar Hasidim do not launder their clothes, sheets, towels or anything.

This piece of information was imparted to me by the elderly, stoop-shouldered, limp-haired, snaggle-toothed laundromat lady in the stretch lavendar pants whom I overhead talking to the Spanish guy who was mopping the floor.

It was 9:50 p.m. and the joint was closing in ten minutes.

I was the only non-employee of the Monroe Laundromat at that hour, hastily tossing hot clothes from the dryer back into the hamper in order to make a quick getaway to the bungalow where I had left Little Babe, two hours ago, to watch anime on his i-Pod Touch. What I overhead, in fact, was the laundromat lady explaining that "the Jewish guy" had come in earlier to request that the laundromat stay open on Thursday night until 1 am to allow the women of Kiryas Joel, the nearby Satmar village, to catch up on their dirty laundry of the past nine days. Though the laundromat had accomodated this request in years past, it was now under new ownership and the lavender-trousered lady had to check with her boss.

"They've got this thing called the Nine Days where they don't do normal stuff," she explained, with a measure of authority. "It leads up to a fast day."

The Spanish guy nodded respectfully, mopping his way around my sneakered feet. The sweat from my recent workout was drying on my skin and I suddenly felt class-conscious, wondering if I appeared as a spoiled, highly-educated or wealthy summer resident of this Catskills town, given to the luxury of going to the gym while the laundromat workers toiled late into the night; a cavalier housekeeper given to doing her laundry hastily and without care for wrinkles.

The mopping man wore a brace around his middle such as those worn by movers or weight-lifters. He was muscular and compact, likely my age. I was startled to find him gazing intently at me while I watched him work. His eyes communicated something I did not expect; it seemed to be a recognition of kinship. It was a friendly, familiar glance.

Busted in the act of staring, I blurted out to no one in particular, "I observe the Nine Days as well but not in same way as the Satmar. Obviously...because I'm washing my clothes. But I'm also Jewish."

The laundromat lady nodded sagely. The man bowed slightly. I smiled in a goofy, self-conscious manner, lifting my laundry bin to carry it out. The man held the door for me, held me in his gaze. I felt like the princess of the laundromat.

As I was walking to the car, I caught my reflection in the laundromat window and noted that I looked like anything but a princess. Sinewy arms set off by my black tank top, black tights beneath my black shorts lengthening my legs, hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, skin darkened by the summer sun, I looked as foreign and exotic in Monroe as a Satmar Hasid, neither overtly American or Jewish, vaguely Mediterranean, extremely Manhattan; streamlined and restless, a woman of indeterminate age driven to do her laundry late at night.