Monday, January 12, 2009

Homeless at the Laundromat

Recently I began doing my laundry at the local laundromat because of a problem with the pipes in my house. I must admit that the public laundromat is a learning experience. There is a wide variety of people who use the Laundromat for a wide variety of reasons. This statement was never truer than this past Saturday morning.

My daughter and I got to the laundromat early in order to beat the crowd. Our clothes were 2/3 of the way through the wash cycle when a homeless man in a wheelchair wheeled himself through the doors. He had a small bag of clothes in his lap. Being the only people in the laundromat, he approached us and asked to borrow enough laundry detergent to do one load of clothes. He had an empty Pepsi bottle in his hand and I poured it half full, to which he quickly and happily told me he would be able to do his laundry several times with this amount.

He wheeled himself to a corner and began talking to himself. I paid little attention until I caught two sentences: “I am wearing the only clothes I own. I am going to wash everything I own.” He wheeled himself to the bathroom and I glanced at my daughter. She confirmed that she had heard the same thing.

In about five minutes, he exited the bathroom, using the wheelchair as a walker, all of his clothing in a pile on the seat. He was “dressed” in a red, sheer, rain poncho and the wheelchair was strategically placed in front of his body. He continued to talk to himself: “Be careful how you move. Watch how you sit. Watch how you turn. Don’t want to show anyone anything.” He loaded his clothes into the washer with the chair at his side to block him from the view of others. Once his clothes were in the washer, he sat on one of the chair with his legs crossed and his arms crossed over his lap, his wheelchair in front of him.

His careful attempts to avoid displaying himself and his daunting chatter continued throughout the process of washing his clothes. Once he had added his laundry detergent into the machine, he returned to the bathroom to “take a bath. Wish I had a private bath to use, but this will do.”

In the meantime, other people had entered the laundromat and while they were aware of the situation, they tried their best to ignore it. One young father came in with his very young son. When he realized what was going on, he volunteered to stay with the laundry and sent his wife and son back home.

When I told a good friend about the incident, she wanted to know why I had not called the police. A better question would be, “Why would I?” The man was obviously not in his right mind and was definitely more than a little down on his luck. All he wanted was clean clothes, and he had no other way to obtain them. He was very careful not to expose himself and was very conscious of the repercussions of such exposure. He left everyone alone and – while his actions were definitely inappropriate – he caused as little disturbance as possible. The truth is, the man needed medical/mental attention, not the police. The only thing the police would have done would be take him to jail. That would have solved nothing. Instead, we all gave him the only things we could – a little laundry detergent, a look in the opposite direction, and the refusal to humiliate him further.

I have to admit that I was not comfortable with the situation. I wasn’t. In fact, I am not sure I would have stayed to dry my laundry if other patrons had not begun to fill the laundromat. The old axiom, “Safety in numbers”, eased my mind a bit.

What filled me most, however, was sadness. We are one of the richest nations in the world and yet we have people who live in the “land of opportunity” who sleep in their wheelchairs in an alley or out-of-the-way doorway in the middle of winter and have to get naked in a laundromat in order to have clean clothes. There has to be something more we can do to right these wrongs.

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