My flat in Yokohama had a washing machine that did not work.
On my day off, I packed up some of my heavier clothes and went off in search of a Laundromat. I was tired of washing my clothes by hand. Someone had told me there used to be a laundromat not far from the next station, and I was determined to find it.
Half an hour later, I was ready to burst into tears: I’d been on a wild goose chase looking for that elusive laundromat for over thirty minutes, and I was damned if I could find it. My feet hurt, and my trousers weren’t warm enough because all my winter ones were in the pack, desperately in need of a wash. I was cold and tired and hungry, too, and yet here I was going in circles, looking for a wretched laundromat. Everyone I met knew just enough to give me hope, but not enough to give me precise instructions. I felt like I was doomed to wander the streets for all eternity, humping twenty pounds of dirty laundry, searching for the laundromat from Brigadoon.
It would have been better if someone had categorically said that there was no laundromat in the area. The problem was, several people I stopped assured me that the laundromat was not merely a figment of my imagination. Oh yes, there was definitely a laundromat in the neighborhood, they were certain they’d seen it, although they themselves had never used it. When I asked them exactly where it was, though, they would furrow their brows and begin to hem and haw.
"Next to the supermarket, the new one," said a middle-aged woman with shopping bags hanging from the bars of her pink moped. She had a page-boy haircut with a striking blue rinse and a toy poodle better groomed than I was stared up at me from the moped’s basket. The woman had stopped to talk to a couple, an elderly pair who looked as though they were out for a walk.
“No,” the elderly woman put in, “that’s a dry cleaner’s.”
Her male companion disagreed. “The dry cleaning place is next to the pharmacy.”
“That’s the old one,” the woman with the pageboy said. “And it’s not a dry cleaner’s anymore. It’s a pet shop now.”
“Ah. I’d heard they were going to sell. Wasn’t that Yonezawa’s place?”
I felt like jumping up and down and screaming. “Umm, the laundromat . . .?”
They all stared at me for a moment as though they’d forgotten why I was there, in their midst. The woman with the page-boy smiled indulgently. “Have you asked at the police box?”
“Where’s the police box?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. This was my day off! If the laundromat really didn’t exist, I'd find some warm, quiet place and have a cup of coffee. I’d need a break if I was going to spend the rest of the day hand-washing clothes.
“Back that way,” the woman said, pointing in the direction I’d just been in. But my pack was heavy and I was loath to retrace my steps.
Just as I was telling myself that wearing dirty jeans for the next week wouldn’t be the end of the world, a young woman approached me. She looked about my age, but more tired and careworn, and she seemed distracted.
“Do you need help?” she asked shyly.
“Yes! I’ve been trying to find the laundromat.”
She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t know where it is, but I’ve got a map of the neighborhood at home.”
I was tempted to say I would ask at the police box – they were bound to know there, after all – but I decided to go with her, reasoning that her apartment was probably closer. I was relieved to know she had a map of the neighborhood: almost all Japanese neighborhoods have a map that not only shows you the name and location of every business, but the names of each resident. The trick is finding a neighborhood map when you need it. In some neighborhoods, they are handily posted where a poor lost soul can find them; in others, they are craftily concealed and only the locals can point then out. Japanese streets are generally not named; cities and towns are divided into areas, sub-areas, and blocks. Houses and apartments in each sub-area are not geographically numbered, as new units are constantly being built between old lots, and finding your way around in a strange neighborhood can be hellish. You have to pity Japanese postmen; after only a few months in Japan, I certainly did.
Unfortunately, the woman’s house was at least half a kilometre away, through a warren of dark, meandering little side streets. She walked fast, as though she were in a hurry to get home. Already tired and weighed down by my heavy pack, I had to struggle to keep up with her.
“Here we are,” she said at last, in front of a small, shabby house in a housing tract. “Come on in!”
Stepping through the door, I could smell the freshly-mown grass smell of new tatami coupled with sour milk and unwashed clothes. Looking around, you got the feeling that whoever lived there was very busy. I heard a baby crying, and when I looked in the direction of the noise I saw a child barely old enough to walk come toddling towards us, arms outstretched. The woman stooped down and picked him up.
“This is Gen, my little boy! Gen say hello to the nice lady!”
I stared at Gen. A stream of yellow-green snot ran from his nose straight down to his chin. He stared back at me uncertainly from his mother’s arms and hiccoughed, still whimpering. I looked to see who had been caring for him in his mother’s absence, but there seemed to be no one else around.
The woman seemed in no hurry to go and look for the neighborhood map. She gave Gen a kiss and joggled him a bit to get him to stop crying.
I couldn’t help it, I just had to ask. I pointed to Gen and said “Hitori de?” There was probably a better way of asking if her baby had been left alone in the house, but I didn’t know how else to say it.
She nodded, misinterpreting my “all alone?” to mean ‘Are you by yourself.’ She juggled Gen in her arms again and said to me, “His father is in America,” as though that explained everything.
“Oh,” I said as though I understood – even though I didn’t.
“He is American,” she added.
“Oh!” I looked at Gen, and suddenly realized he was Eurasian. I didn’t know what to say. She was stuck here with the baby, poor kid, but her husband was back in America. I wondered how long he’d been gone and when he was coming back. “What state is your husband from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She bit her lips. “And he is not my husband.”
I held Gen while his mother went to look for the neighborhood map, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Mama!” he wailed fitfully, his arms stretched out towards her.
I tried jiggling him about the way his mother had done. “Gen, Gen! Look out the window there!” I positioned him so that he could see the birds in one of the trees outside, but he strained away from me. “Mama!”
“Um…I think he wants you!”
“Oh, he always wants me,” his mother called from the next room. “You always want me, don’t you Gen?” She had the map now, I was relieved to see, and was beginning to open it.
“Would you like me to look at the map instead?” I hazarded, juggling Gen on my hip and trying to make myself heard above his screams. Poor little Gen had a streaming cold, it seemed. God knew what he’d been doing all by himself in the house before we arrived, but it hadn’t been wiping his own nose.
“No, no, I’ll look – but if you could just hold him for me while I do . . .” She opened the map and started looking for the Laundromat.
Part of me was relieved. Maps are a challenge for me even when they’re written in English, and I found Japanese maps even more confusing. But hanging onto Gen was getting tricky: he didn’t like being parked with a stranger. He’d been waiting for his mother to come home, but her attention was elsewhere. Agitated, he squirmed and fidgeted and strained away from me and I wondered why I was supposed to hold him when he'd obviously been ranging freely about the house before his mother got back.
Gen now began to struggle fiercely, and I had to put him down. He toddled off to his mother, arms outstretched. “Mama, mama, mama!”
I’m not sure how long it took Gen’s mother to scan the map and find that there was no laundromat indicated anywhere on it. Five minutes? Ten? It felt like a lot longer. I began to feel panicky. I was never going to get my clothes washed! “Maybe I should just go and ask at the police box . . .?” I said, eyeing the door longingly.
At first she insisted that it would be there on the map – it had to be. She’d find it – it was just a matter of looking. Finally, though, she gave up. Gen was hanging on to her leg and wailing for all he was worth, crying to be picked up, to be noticed, to be loved.
“I don’t understand it,” she murmured, “I’m positive there used to be one next to the pharmacy in the old mall.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the former dry cleaner’s was now a pet shop. “That’s okay,” I said, desperate to leave. “They’ll know where it is at the police box. I probably should have asked there to begin with.”
“Yes,” she said a little sadly, “they’re bound to know at the police box.”
She picked up Gen and jiggled him on one hip. “You wouldn’t want a cup of coffee, would you?”
I could see past her into her tiny kitchen, the sink piled high with unwashed dishes. I was dying for a cup of coffee, but I wanted to be anywhere else but there. “No, but thanks.”
Stepping back into my shoes in the entrance-way and shouldering my backpack, I turned to wave goodbye to her and Gen. It suddenly struck me that I didn’t even know her name.
“Come back and visit us any time!” she called out, shaking Gen’s little wrist lightly so that his hand flopped back and forth. “We’re always here! Aren’t we Gen-gen? We never go anywhere!”
I smiled and waved. I had no intention of visiting again. But to this day I wish I had.
Tuesday, 8 July 2008
My flat in Yokohama had a washing machine that did not work.