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Pick of the Day: Clean Rite Laundromat

Maybe all of one city's dreamers, eccentrics, and really, really fastidious people congregate in one democratic setting, the kind with clanging noises, fabric softener and tennis balls. N.R. Kleinfeld, the lyrical feature writer whose graceful pieces have been one of the main attractions at The New York Times for decades, transported readers into such a place at the Clean Rite laundromat in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill.

Kleinfeld found hilarious characters, people who were not trying to be clever, but were just being who they are. I liked Richard Orange, a retired subway booth clerk, who was inside the Clean Rite one day, scratching out a novel about three children visiting another solar system only to be ordered back home to warn Earth about its "malevolent ways." Orange says to Kleinfeld: “The theme of my book is man needs to stop kidding himself and get his act together.”

Kleinfeld is patient. He waits for compelling scenes. He has an ear for the kind of all-too-real dialogue that anyone can relate to, whether you clean clothes in a laundromat or hire housekeepers to do the job for you:

An assertion in the back gathered attention. “Mister, you’re not folding the towel properly,” the wife said. “There you go being anal again,” the husband said. “We are talking about a towel.” “We are talking about my towel. Next we are going to be talking about folding your head.” Discussion gravitated to personal hygiene, the cellphone use of a daughter, the disappearance of a banana yogurt. It got brutal, got vulgar. People buried their eyes in their clothes.

On a broader level, I also liked how Kleinfeld explained why exactly laundromats, in general, are necessary in a city like New York: Lots of apartment buildings either don't permit residents to have their own machines or have dingy basements with machines in an unsavory atmosphere.

Laundromats aren't news, of course. But Kleinfeld makes me think about laundromats in deeper ways than I otherwise would if I had simply passed one on my way to work. The story, ultimately, shows how laundromats are one of those vestigial places that -- in a time when we all can be so easily siloed in our social networks, suburbs, or office buildings -- capture the soul of a community.

By Ian Shapira  | January 19, 2010; 7:28 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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