I find a sudsy sisterhood at the laundromat

I've made several minor but necessary adjustments to my life since moving to New England. Having always lived in modern homes in California, I was accustomed to kitchen sinks with garbage disposals. Garages, often with automatic door openers, were taken for granted; and every house had garden hoses in both front and back yards, if not built-in sprinklers.

So now I remember not to clog sinks, my car is exposed to the seasons, and I feel I've struck gold when I come across a garden hose that reaches my intended destination.

But the most difficult thing to adapt to is my lack of laundry facilities. All my life (and definitely while raising three babies), the ability to do laundry in my home or apartment was a given. I never dreamed that someday I'd relish the memory.

But going to the laundromat doesn't seem to bother people here. The lack of adequate plumbing and electrical outlets seems to be part of the charm shared by many New England homes built in the 1800s.

For the first couple years, while renting top-story units in large old homes in Newport, R.I., I hauled clothes up and down stairs to the laundromat. Not the way I'd planned to spend my weekends.

While working and attending college, I indulged in the "wash, dry, and fold" service. How cool was that? I could drop off dirty clothes and, one day later - voilà, they were meticulously clean and folded. I felt special.

In recent months it's been hard to justify that expense. Besides, I'm perfectly capable of doing my own laundry. But I admit I've struggled with being a snob. As a child, I was heavily influenced by a grandmother who always had a maid. She was the daughter and sister of admirals, the wife of a Navy captain. Admiral Nimitz used to visit. From her I gained the distinct impression that one should not mingle with "commoners" to do laundry.

So I'd dash in and out, doing the job as quickly as possible. Then one day my neighbor offered to pay me to do his laundry. He stuffed 14 loads into my car. A quick escape wouldn't be possible.

Especially when a machine loaded with his muddy jeans got stuck on the "wash" cycle and kept washing and washing and washing. The door of the machine was locked. How would I rescue the poor laundry? With no attendant on duty, I felt a little panicky. Bill is a construction worker, and very devoted to his blue jeans.

Feeling helpless, I asked another woman for help. Thankfully she knew how to contact the owner. He was very kind and profusely apologetic, but a good 45 minutes away. He'd start over immediately.

Left to our devices, meanwhile, and determined not to let the pants suffer longer, a dear older woman and I fiddled with buttons, tried to coax the door into opening, then asked others customers for ideas.

A few of us huddled around the dilemma. We tried to fool the washer by switching it to different settings. After 15 minutes we finally outsmarted the machine, and the jeans were on their way to "rinse." When the final spin cycle finished, cheers rang out.

By then, of course, the owner walked in. He graciously handed me $5 for the inconvenience. But I hadn't felt inconvenienced; we women were thrilled to have fixed the problem. Besides, three washings for the price of one was a bargain. The jeans looked great.

With that minor crisis over we all went back to folding, and the owner got busy diagnosing his wash-happy machine. He didn't seem to make headway, though, and I overheard him tell his elated 8-year-old son that they'd leave to do an errand. I thought for sure the boy had been promised a trip to a video or toy store.

But 15 minutes later they returned with new wooden folding tables, and the little guy couldn't wait to dig out his dad's tools to assemble them. We patrons rejoiced as they set up the finished products, assuring dad's helper that we'd absolutely come back and make good use of them.

I was sad to leave my friends at the end of the day. I'd basked in the uncommon warmth and helpfulness of these kind, "common" people. We'd all felt special.

And I think I'm adjusting.

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