Mid-afternoon, a warm September day, and it’s hard to get up off the bed. But I put my book down anyway and stand up, noticing that the sun is coming in through my bedroom windows, the blinds swaying with the breeze as outside a motorcycle struggles to make its way up the hill. Opening my front door I see a flash of green as the local flock of parrots flies by squawking. Picking up my clothesbasket, I walk down my front stairs, cross the alley, and into the laundry to retrieve my clean clothes. I’ve almost gotten used to the sounds of my new neighborhood. If I spoke Cantonese I’d be able to converse with the family next door. If I drove a brand new BMW and had a six-figure salary, then the woman that was also waiting for her clothes would’ve kept talking to me. Only while we were sitting there waiting for the dryers to stop turning, she asked me what I did for a living and when I told her, she gave me a questioning look and then went back to reading her magazine.
Staring at the ceiling I wished that my clothes were dry so that I could put them in the basket and leave. Only I had just put another three quarters into the dryer: even though the clothes had been in there for 40 minutes, they still weren’t dry. Seems that laundromats in nice neighborhoods like this one cost a little more than their counterparts in the ghetto. At two dollars and fifty cents for a wash and twenty-five cents every eight minutes for the dryer, you’d think that these machines would wash and dry your clothes in a timely manner. But they don’t and so like I said I’m left sitting here between this woman reading her magazine and this nosey old lady that keeps looking in my direction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a rather disheveled fellow slip in through the side door and hurry over to the machines in the back. Obviously he ain’t here to do laundry, though he does have a large bag slung over his shoulder, which he drops to the floor after pulling out a long over coat that he suspiciously drapes over the open door of one of the dryers. Slyly he pulls a long thin screwdriver out of his back pocket and starts going at the coin box of the dryer that his coat partially covers.
Christ, I’m thinking, can’t I just get the hell outta here without all this drama jumping off? Fortunately the woman sitting next to me is oblivious, lost in her fashion magazine; however, the old lady on my right can’t stop looking at the guy as he works his screwdriver deeper into the coin opening.
“He’s breaking into the machines!” She says to no one in particular and then looks at me like I should do something about it.
“Yes, that’s what he’s doing,” I say. And then the other woman looks up.
“What’s he doing?” She asks – and rather too loudly if you were to ask me.
“He’s breaking into the machines and he’s acting like we don’t even notice,” says the older woman. Then she sort of stands up to get a better view.
And ya know at this point I’m not really that bothered by the fact that he’s trying to steal change out of the dryers. However what I am sort of bothered by is that these two are discussing him as if he’s not there, or worse, doesn’t even really exist, and he’s only ten feet away wielding a long, hopefully not sharp, screwdriver. And besides, just what’s this older woman going to do – confront him?
Where I used to live, people were jimmying the laundry machines all the time and it never really bothered me. It was kinda like the natural thing to do down there. Here of course it doesn’t appear to be a normal fact of daily life – hence the excitement in the older lady’s voice, the revulsion in the rich women’s face and my apprehension in even acknowledging that it’s actually happening.
Grabbing her cane, the old lady gets off the bench and makes her way towards the back of the building walking between the washing machines and the folding tables. “You’re not using those machines,” she says to the disheveled dude who’s now backing up, screwdriver in hand, a look of bewilderment on his face. “Why don’t you just get out of here and leave those dryers be?”
This is not good, this is really not good, this is exactly what I was hoping wasn’t going to happen. Why is it that those with the most to lose are always the first to try and lose it? Why is it that this frail 90-pound old lady feels she’s the one that needs to protect the dryers from being broken into by confronting a somewhat armed and no doubt dangerous intruder while he’s in the middle of committing his crime? Like this guy’s really gonna just stop what he’s doing, thank the little old lady for pointing out the error of his ways and then exit the building in safe and sane manner.
Slowly his surprised expression fades to what I’m assuming is anger. “People always mindin other people’s business. Don’t worry bout what I’m doin.”
It is only after he talks that I begin to detect that he’s not quite right in the head. Not the not-quite-right-break-in-and-steal-in-broad-daylight not right, but the maybe-mentally-retarded-sniffed-too-much-
glue-as-a-kid kinda not right in the head. And now I’m starting to get a little concerned, not for my sake mind you because I can run like the wind when necessary. No, now I’m getting a little apprehensive about the old lady possibly getting a screwdriver shoved in her ear and so I quietly slip out the front door and dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone.
“SFPD emergency. How may I help you?”
“Ah, screwdriver, whack-job, old lady gonna get a shiv,” I hesitantly mumble in the phone.
Pausing for two seconds I regain my composure and with one eye on the front door just in case the glue-sniffing disheveled coin bandit prematurely finishes killing the old lady and then comes out to get me, I say, “Laundromat on Union Street, man breaking into the machines. Elderly woman confronting him, possibly going to get assaulted.”
“Please stay on the phone the officer’s on the way.”
Immediately I hang up not really feeling too good about calling as I’ve never really been down with being a snitch. But then again do I really want this uppity old lady’s blood to literally be on my hands for not going for help?
Meanwhile back inside they’re both still going at it; only now the would be coin bandit is pacing back and forth across the back of the store in such a way as it’s obvious that he’s feeling trapped by the old lady, because there she stands one hand on her hip, the other waving her cane a few feet off the floor, gesturing in as menacing a way as a four foot three inch frame can muster.
Suddenly an unmarked police car slides sideways to a stop in the street in front of the laundromat. Two plainclothes police officers push past me and immediately the glue-sniffing bandit drops the screwdriver and takes the surrender position: legs out stretched, hands above his head, facing the wall. It’s obvious that he’s had a bit of practice at this getting arrested thing before.
Opening the dryer I grab my clothes and stuff them into the basket and back out the door. Halfway across the alley my phone rings and I answer it.
“Sir, would you like to talk with the officers? They’re at the scene.”
“Ah, no thank you,” I whisper and then hang up the phone as two more police cars, three bike cops and an ambulance come storming up the hill, all with their lights on and sirens blaring. Damn in my old neighborhood, if you’d actually called the cops, it’d take at least a few hours for them to come, if they even came at all. Putting the clothesbasket down on my front steps I watch the cops hustle the coin bandit, now in handcuffs, out the door of the laundromat and into the unmarked police car at the curb.
Sitting on the bench by the front window, the rich lady looks up from her magazine and frowns. Standing out on the sidewalk, the old lady waves to the police and then turns to go back inside. Carefully, as if totally removed from any of this excitement, I carry my load of laundry up the stairs and slip into my apartment, shutting the door.