Washing my dirty laundry in public

We feel like a teenager doing it for the first time. We’re embarrassed, clumsy, just a little bit confused by our lack of confidence. We’re worried that our equipment is going to let us down, that our pole is not long enough, that our technique is perhaps not what the locals would consider appropriate, that we won’t be able to find our underwear afterwards and that our sheets will never dry.

For some of us, it’s just that we are out of practice, not having done it for a while. For others it’s to do with manners; getting used to a whole new set of protocols and methods, as we haven’t done it in Japan before. For the rest, it’s that we simply don’t have the required skills, not having done before at all; a virgin after all. For all it is a highway pitted with potholes of potential humiliation. Without a doubt, for the busy single man in Japan, the road to clean laundry can be something of an uncomfortable journey. Yes, you heard me, laundry; what did you think I was talking about?

Actually, the connection between sex and washing puts me in mind of a good friend of mine. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘lucky at cards, unlucky in love’ or something like it, right? Well, Tim, ‘The Player’ as we call him, is very lucky in love (of course he is, he’s a player: I’m not saying that he ‘owns’ pussy, but he definitely has a controlling interest), but his luck deserts him when it comes to washing. You might not believe this (I assure you it’s true), but Tim was arrested twice in one day within a week of his arrival in Japan, and both incidents were washing related (more of which later). It is rumoured that he scored twice within the same period as well. I wouldn’t even begin to doubt that.

            Yesterday, when I was young, all that was needed to do the laundry was a washing line and some pegs. Oh, and a woman about one generation older (Mum) to explain, with diagrams, the mysteries of pre-wash, colour-fast and the eco-cycle. Back in those days, in the more cultured homes, an aerial dryer was very popular. I remember Mrs Jackson next door had a trendy cover for hers that made it look like a pine tree when she wasn’t using it, she thought.

Today, things have changed. It’s the future, I’m living in Japan and living here (in the immortal words of Ian Rush) is like living in a foreign country. Things are done differently here. When you move into your apartment, you see the balcony and you think, great, never had a balcony before. It’s only later when you realise that you still don’t have a balcony; it’s actually a drying room. Oh, and a place for banging your head on things.

Anyway, it’s your first free weekend in your new home and you finally need to get down to the business of being domestic. You wander into the bathroom and look with apprehension and foreboding at the washing machine. There’s a pause as you stare at the controls, and then a wave of relief… great, some pictures, so that’s sorted then. There’s even one picture showing you what might happen if you open the machine mid-spin and stick your hand in; nice!

So, 26 minutes later you respond to the alarm at the end of the cycle and start to unload only to realise you don’t have anything to unload he washing into, nor come to think of it anything to hang it from. A quick look at the neighbours’ balconies gets you a few ideas about kit, and a couple of dirty looks from said neighbours who assume that, as you’re a foreigner, you must be a bit shifty.

Armed with the mental images of what you’re looking for, it’s down to the nearest ‘homu senta’ to get fixed up with the right equipment. The choices are myriad and crucial, but being short of time and the Japanese language, you just select until your trolley is full. You choose from wash nets and wash bags, baskets and buckets, racks and rails, hooks and hangers, pegs and poles, clamps and clips and grips, and frames, and airers and spare us… a drug user has less paraphernalia than does the virgin launderer. And like the addict he is compelled to lay it all out in front of him before getting started, and then he becomes its prisoner. He becomes bound by its charms. Like many before him, he trips on the pure hit of clean laundry, is drawn by the quest for the perfect dry. Avoiding all the things that stand in your way:

The old guy in the old house next door; whose land the block is built on, who thinks he’s still a farmer rather than a landlord and as soon as the shirts hit the hangers, he appears, scurries around his garden for ten minutes or so, and then lights a fire.

The wind; do not cut corners with clips, purchase as many pegs as possible, or you too might find your pants in the next street.

The rain; you know how it is when you’re busy. Is it going to rain today? Dunno, need the clothes anyway. Did it rain today while I was at work? Nah, don’t think so, I’ll chance it: the young salary man brushes past you on the commuter train. Your eyes follow him as he makes his way across the train. He turns and catches your eye as he takes out his manga. The slightest of nods from him is answered with a mini bow from you. He thinks that he’s just made some sort of cross-cultural connection, but you’ve merely acknowledged someone whose shirt smells as bad as yours.

These experiences may strike notes of recognition for some of you. Others may well have had a more problematic time of it. Few, however, could claim to share the experience of The Player.

The first arrest was a slapstick affair. It occurred when he was cycling back from the local homu centa with two washing poles thrown over his shoulder. Any of you who have seem the old Eric Sykes movie, ‘The Plank’ can see where this is heading. As he clatters past his local kōban, using their stealth tannoy, the police officers inside call out for him to stop. Surprise and reflex turn him. The poles spin, narrowly missing an elderly couple just walking along the street minding their own business, and crashing into the side of the office building next door. If the couple had been any younger/taller – then I’m sure The Player wouldn't have got off with only the stiff warning he received.

Arrest number two came later on in the day: washing done, poles in place and fully loaded, and the drying gauntlet (farmer/rain/wind) being run in the early spring breeze. Tim settles down to flick listlessly through a magazine. As he’s reading, he hears the hangers and frames clattering away on the balcony, and thinks perhaps he’s underestimated the strength of the said breeze. A quick check tells him that he has indeed inadvertently skimped on the clips. His laundry is strewn about the frames and the balcony, and one or two items he can see have gone further afield; a shirt and his running gear on the lawn below, and his red and white heart boxers high in the cherry tree opposite, and his socks, where are his socks?

After securely over-clipping the remainder of his laundry, he tears downstairs to round up the runaways; work shirt, sports shirt, and with the help of a bamboo stick, his boxers. But there’s still no sign of the socks. He casts his eyes frantically along the balconies of the ground floor apartments, and eventually spots them dangling among someone else’s washing. It’s as he’s leaning in and retrieving them that he spots the old lady in the adjacent flat eyeing him suspiciously with the phone pressed against her ear. She catches his eye, spits some words in his direction and retreats into her living room. He’s just about managed to free his tangled socks and pull them out onto the lawn when the police arrive. As luck would have it, it’s the same two as before, along with a female colleague. The two of them size up the situation pretty quickly, and set about placating the old dear, and the other neighbours who have been roused from their mid-afternoon torpor just in time to jump to conclusions too. In the meantime WPC Suzuki makes a show of seriously questioning The Player, who just stands shrug-like with only his own clothes in his clutches. She looks at his laundry, sees the heart shorts and then shyly meets his eyes. The two of them exchange a little smile and she leads him to one side in order both to remove him from the situation and give him a card with her phone number on it.

 That’s the way it goes with The Player. And that’s definitely the way it goes with laundry: experience gives us what we need, and slowly we become adept, skilled even, until the whole process becomes as smooth as one of The Player’s chat-up lines. Well, smoother than one of yours, anyway.


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