The Second World War was finally over and all the young men came flooding back into Savannah and all the cities and towns all across America– and you could buy meat again and new tires for the old jalopy–or a brand new car, if you had the money –and there was a feeling in the air of unbridled optimism mixed with great relief.
Well, maybe not all of the young men came back.
She was 29 then, and beautiful, and smart, and she painted her nails red to match her lipstick and she ran the family’s new business with only one employee. She went to work there every day of the week except Sunday from 7 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock in the evening.
She and my father and the baby had left Florida the year before and moved in with her mother into the little red brick house she had lived in as a teenager.
The Washeteria® as the place came to be known, was open half-a-day on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Dirty clothes were washed, dried and folded for a total of nine cents a pound. Plus tax. The same price as bananas.
Each of the twenty Bendix washing machines had a number behind it on the wall. The numbers weren’t painted on the wall, but were made of brass. The kind people would put on their houses.
“There’s something wrong with Number Twenty, “ I remember my mother telling my father one day after he got off work and stopped by to see how she was doing.
The washing machines themselves were small and white and reminded me of big rolls of toilet paper turned on their side. Each machine had a round convex glass door which swung open by turning a grooved, black crescent-shaped plastic handle, so that you could put the dirty clothes in, and take the clean clothes out. There was a little chute, or opening at the top of each machine through which water softener and soap powder could be added at the proper time, which was after the water came in and the clothes were tumbling. Then, if the clothes were white, a cup of bleach would be poured in. White clothes and light-colored clothes were washed separately from darks. My Mother would go through all the pockets in case there was a crayon or a ball-point pen, which, if allowed to go through the cycle, would ruin the clothes as well as mess up the machine. When the machines were running, the wet clothes made a very pleasant gentle sloshing sound and you could watch them through the glass door of the washing machine tumbling in the warm soapy water.
In the very beginning, when they first took over the place from the previous owner, the customers came in and put their dirty clothes in one of the twenty Bendix eight-pound washing machines and said they’d be, “right back”.
But, very often they didn’t come “right back”, so my mother, or her assistant, Rudolph, the friendly, outgoing young black man she hired to help her, would take their dripping clothes out of the machine and place them in the metal washtub on wheels and roll it to the back of the place to the big stainless steel and black extractor. I liked Rudolph, but I never quite understood his connection to Santa Claus and how a young black man folding clothes and talking cheerfully to everyone could also be a “red-nosed reindeer”. I guess I just assumed when I got older, it would sort itself out. So I let it go.
The extractor, which operated on the principle of centrifugal force, and reminded me of the high-pitched noise of a jet airplane, would get most all of the water out, leaving the clothes only slightly damp to the touch, and then, when the customer still hadn’t come “right back” their clothes were placed back in their laundry basket. At first, many of the women (almost all of the customers were women) took their clothes home to dry on the line, but increasingly, they just brought their laundry in and my mother and Rudolph did it all. After washing and extracting, their clean clothes were now tossed into one of two big green dryers instead of taken back home and hung out to dry.
When the clothes were hot and dry, my mother and Rudolph would stand at a big wooden table in the back and fold the warm dry clothes before they had a chance to wrinkle (the warm clothes felt good in your hands on a cold Winter day) and then wrap them up in light-weight brown paper and tie them up with string. The tidy bundle was then carried to the front, weighed on a scale, then placed on a shelf to await its owners when they came “right back”. Each customer’s clothes had to be washed, dried and folded separately, for obvious reasons.
If someone came in to pick up their clean clothes when my mother was helping fold, Rudolph stayed in the back folding clothes and my mother sashayed up to the horseshoe-shaped counter in the front to greet them.
On the counter was a grey cash register and a black metal adding machine with a handle like a slot machine. Later on, after the vending machine company moved in next door there was a big clear glass bell jar with cheese crackers and peanut butter crackers in it, in neat little packages for sale for five cents a package. Six crackers for a nickel. Later on, after I learned to ride a bicycle and when I visited The Washeteria®, I was allowed take a pack without paying. I liked the orange crackers with the peanut butter filling best. My mother liked the orange ones with the cheese filling.
Sometimes, I sat at the counter and drew pictures of deep-sea divers and sharks and chests full of treasure.
Clean laundry cost nine cents a pound, washed, dried and folded in the Spring of 1948 when my mother left me at age 18 months, in the care of my grandmother, to drive off to work there. If my mother and Rudolph were caught up and there was no folding to be done, my mother would sit at the counter on a high grey metal stool and do the crossword puzzle or read a book. My mother always liked to read. She read Pearl S. Buck and James Thurber and Bennett Cerf. And W. Somerset Maugham. I wasn’t old enough to read, but I was old enough to ask who the pictures were on the backs of her books.
Most of the time, though, she just let Rudolph fold the clothes and sometimes he’d take them out for the customers and put them in their cars. Sometimes the customers didn’t want to have to tip Rudolph or perhaps wanted to carry their own clothes out to the curb to their cars and those who did not, would sometimes tip Rudolph a nickel or a dime. The nickels had Indians and buffalos on them in those days and the dimes were all silver.
When the Korean War broke out, Rudolph got drafted. Business was good, so my mother hired two young women to help her in the laundry. Their names were Lila and Jean. Lila was short and stout, the more outgoing of the two. Jean was younger and thin with a heavily-freckled face. Jean kept her arms folded across her chest and seldom looked at you when she spoke, which was not very often. I liked them and they liked me.
One day, Rudolph came back to The Washeteria unexpectedly, following basic training. He looked very handsome in his uniform. He was about 20 then. Everyone, even the customers who never came “right back” were glad to see him. But he never came back to see us or to ask for his old job back. My father was not even allowed to mention his name. I’m afraid Rudolph may have gotten killed in the war, because I never heard anything more about him. My mother didn’t like to talk about things that upset her or made her sad. Her father had died unexpectedly when she was ten and she didn’t want to talk about that and she didn’t want to talk about Rudolph.
By age six, when I was old enough to ride a bike, and if I was at loose ends, which being an only child with no responsibilities and two parents who both worked and a grandmother in a wheelchair, I often was, I’d ride my bike up Paulsen Street, without bothering to call or even tell my grandmother, to visit my mother at The Washeteria. It was only a couple of miles away and in fifteen or twenty minutes at the most I was there.
My mother always acted surprised and happy to see me. So did Lila and Jean. And occasionally even one of the customers who never came “right back”. My Mother would let me go through the lint trap. Sometimes small items, like coins would get caught in there. It didn’t happen very often, but, if I found any, I got to keep them. More often I would get my fingers pricked by an open safety pin.
Before long, an area in the front by the window was cleared and a porch glider was brought in. There was a table in front of it with a glass top containing my mother’s shell collection. Mr. Cory, an old man from the neighborhood in a faded grey suit and fedora came in most afternoons to sit and pass the time after his retirement reading her Savannah Morning News which she had delivered and was waiting in front of the door each morning except Sunday.
Up front, on the other side was a Coca-Cola machine with red door on top . When I was tall enough to open the door, I could reach in and get either a heavy green bottle of Coca-Cola or Canada Dry which were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in ice cold water. Customers could buy them for a nickel. The water was so cold it hurt my hand.
One Monday morning after Easter Sunday, somebody gave my mother a baby chick and a baby duck. The little yellow chick grew up to be a big white rooster and the duck followed him all around the place. My mother said the duck thought he was a chicken. They both sat in my mother’s lap, no doubt to the consternation of some of the customers, who probably decided to take their business elsewhere. Business continued to be good in spite of the chicken and duck poop which, it goes without saying, was cleaned up as soon as someone had stepped in it.
In the center of the space sat a glittering Wurlitzer jukebox supplied by the vending machine company next door with over a hundred of the latest hits. Anyone could push the red plastic buttons and watch as the device selected the record they chose, placed it on the turntable and played it for free. Elvis and Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis and Connie Francis never sounded better. The music blended in nicely with the sloshing and the folding and the crowing and the quacking.
The years passed.
My father still had his job at the Union Station, but gradually, over time, most people either had washing machines in their homes or used coin-operated laundries which were scattered all over town and open 24 hours a day. My father got in on the ground floor of the coin-op business in Savannah and opened five other laundries over the decades which he serviced and kept operational even after he retired from his job after 49 years with the railroad.
We never had a pair of dirty socks or a dirty towel or even a laundry basket in our house as my mother did our clothes daily.
When I graduated from high school in 1964, she offered to give the business to Lila and Jean. They didn’t want it.
So she closed the place.
Though the price of bananas went up steadily after 1948, the cost of clean clothes always remained at 9 cents a pound.