Law and Order in the Laundromat

Ever since my clothes got burned up in a laundry accident at my apartment, I go to a laundromat to wash my clothes.  I used to have a real negative vibe with laundromats for some reason.  Now I appreciate the ability to do all my laundry in an hour.  Though I would prefer a washer and dryer in my home, but that type of luxury is only a pipedream with a dishwasher and central air.

One of the things I never really thought about at the laundromat is how well regulated things are without an authority figure to maintain a sense of order.  Dozens of individuals with differing laundry needs, vie for limited resources to accomplish their goals with different deadlines.  When I go, I set aside an hour of time to wash and dry.  There are times when I can’t get all the dryers I need and have to put more clothes in the dryers I get which means waiting longer for the clothes to dry.

I know, it is all very complicated.  Yet, in this environment rich for selfish acts, there really isn’t.  For the most part people adjust their resource usage to the number of people who are there.  So the family with seven giant bags of laundry to be cleaned won’t take up eight washers if there is a bunch of other people in the laundromat.  This sense of order may come from experience.  Every once in awhile someone will come in and over utilize the limited resources.

One busy Saturday morning the laundromat was a bit more crowded than usual.  I was pulling my wet clothes from one of the triple load machines when a man in his late twenties came in with a duffle bag of clothes.  He grabbed a laundry cart and dumped his clothes in and quickly laid claim to three triple load washers.  He divided up his laundry into darks, colors, and whites and put them in the machines.  He didn’t have enough clothes to fully utilize all three machines.  This was noticed by a family who had a large amount of laundry to do, who had dutiful been using only two machines.  The tension intensified and while I wasn’t aware of the initial bits of dialog, a full scale shouting matched ensued.

Fairness is an ingrained concept.  We sense when we are losing out on something.  Some people react to that sense of loss by increasing their drive, their aggressiveness.  You can see these people in grocery store lines.  If one line begins to move faster, they need to jump over to that line.  So long as it appears everyone is being treated equally and fairly, this sense of loss doesn’t kick in.

Perception is reality.  All it takes is for someone to perceive they are being treated unfairly.  That is the kicker.  That is what makes this a mess.  The young man who came in and claimed more washers than he ‘rightfully’ should have may not have known he was violating an unwritten rule.  He saw three machines were available, and took them with no regards to the needs of anyone else around him.  The family using the machines near him who were probably eager to seize my machine as soon as I pulled my wash from it saw the young man’s action as aggressive.  He was taking something that they had a claim to.

The effect was not limited to this small group of people.  As soon as the argument broke out, everyone became much more territorial.  When a dryer stopped, someone would be there loudly griping about how the clothes need to be removed.  Carts were claimed and held onto for as long as possible.

I have no idea how long the chaos reigned because I grabbed my laundry from the dryers as soon as I could, beating a short older woman to the dryer before she opened it to start pulling my stuff out.  I remember sternly chastising her as I stepped up to the machine moments after the time ran out, “I got it!”
I had never seen things get that tense at the laundromat ever before or since.