Laundromat Workers Air New York’s Dirty Laundry

Laundromat Workers Air New York’s Dirty Laundry in Performance Piece

A new film/performance spotlights the often-invisible workers who fold the clothes, maintain the machines and know your secrets.

BY Michelle Chen

Paradoxically, though the coin-operated laundromat is designed to replace the labor of hand-washing, as with many other modern conveniences, the workers remain necessary, though erased.

Nestled in the crevices between corner bodegas and twisted alleys, the corner laundromat is the town square of the postmodern city. It’s where neighbors gather to gossip and strangers gather to check help-wanted ads as their dirty underthings mingle. And nowhere is the laundromat a more central institution than in New York City, where the premium on urban space makes it difficult to fit washing machines inside apartments that are barely big enough for the tenant to turn around in, much less a spin cycle.

It’s in this churning admixture of the personal and public that filmmaker Lynne Sachs and playwright Lizzie Olesker stage their documentary-fiction-performance piece, Every Fold Matters.

The project foregrounds the often-ignored workers who wash drop-off loads and manage the self-service machines. Paradoxically, though the coin-operated laundromat is designed to replace the labor of hand-washing, as with many other modern conveniences, the workers remain necessary, though erased (just as vacuum cleaners are still operated by housekeepers, and mechanized agriculture still relies on “stoop labor”).

Sachs, who has also chronicled the lives of migrant workers and Vietnam War protesters, tends to explore the overlooked corners of civilization, and the people who fold your sheets are among the least visible in the city. Still, the stories of laundry workers can’t be done justice just by depicting them as exploited laborers; they speak before the camera about both what they love and what they hate about their jobs. And often the workers emerge as spectators of the quotidian drama of the city, as they seek to scrub out people’s hidden stains.

Sachs and Olesker constructed the script out of real interviews with laundry workers in New York over a period of months. In one scene, performers act out the methodical steps of shirt-folding in a percussive drum-dance ensemble. In another, an actor playing a laundry worker reflects on how she falls into an imaginative trance as she fingers strangers’ sordid secrets:

All you get is their name and their bag of dirty stuff—you write it on a tag—a tag for all that sweat, coffee, period stains, and… whatever. … you can tell someone’s story just by what they’ve worn, how it’s dirty—you know?

The actors “playing” customers among the machines and countertops may elicit confused double-takes and chuckles from passersby (The production was originally commissioned as part of “Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose,” a series of laundromat readings and performances organized by Emily Rubin, now in its tenth year.)

Sachs has arranged with local laundry businesses to stage and screen the show during business hours. “Ideally,” Sachs says, “the laundromat doesn’t even close, so we catch people as they’re doing their personal domestic work, cleaning their clothes. But then we have other people come in intentionally to see it. I kind of like the ambiguity around what’s a spectator.”

But finding a willing venue is a challenge; Sachs notes that some owners are uncomfortable about possibly disrupting business by hosting a seated audience among the regular launderers.

As documentary-fiction, Every Fold’s actors voice narratives composed from interviews with workers, in actual laundry settings, blending real and fictional scenes to evoke the common experiences of urban laundering: Between the clicks of quarters, quiet courtships are sparked in shy tussles over misplaced lingerie. Ethical dilemmas spiral out of a dryer that drops a carelessly crumpled $20 bill into an anonymous fist. The workers’ stories mediate between the public aspect of the business—serving impatient, sometimes mentally unstable customers—and the private realm as they poke through snatches of strangers’ lives, from loose change to bloodstained tank tops.

I attended a performance in May as part of the Workers Unite! Film Festival. Held at the old lithographic workers’ union hall in New York, it had a different feel, since it was set in a real auditorium with no washing machines. But the setting allowed the labor ethos of the project to shine through. In one scene, performer Jasmine Holloway recites the manifesto of the 1881 Atlanta washer woman’s strike in the voice of a black 19th-century laundress: “We will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices, as the city has control of our husbands’ work at their prices. Don’t forget this!”

Cut to another scene, generations removed from the barrels sloshing with lye and starch: Holloway plays a contemporary laundry workers, recalling tenderly how her mother taught her how to fold, pressing each crease with care, even knowing it will be soiled again in minutes: “Take your time. Make every fold matter. Put yourself into it. Like you mean it.”

Holloway, whose grandmother worked in a laundry center, exudes proud rage when channeling the protesting washer woman, but puts just as much passion into the hypnotically rote folding of a simple swatch: the same pair of hands, reaching across generations and between the screen and real life.

For the last scene, the actors speak in their own voices about their own memories of doing laundry—or not being able to, as when one man discovered one day that his old neighborhood laundromat had closed:

But when I got to the corner, the laundromat was gone… It was one of the only places where you still can talk to strangers. 

Laundromats are shuttering across the city, following the trend of gentrification and the growing prevalence of laundry facilities in building basements or apartments. But Every Fold Matters drives home why such community spaces remain irreplaceable: As they mill through the liminal space between machines and aisles, customers become both spectators and performers—just as on any given day at a laundromat, the collapse of public and personal space creates the perfect stage.

Sachs’s last film shone light on a different crack in the cityscape: the shift-bed apartments in Chinatown where men share a mattress with strangers. Every Fold continues to rub its nose in the seams of the urban landscape, exploring how scarce space in a Malthusian social crucible draws us together in a statically charged bond.

Every Fold Matters is a work in progress, and the filmmakers are planning to schedule more on-site performances and complete a film version.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.