By: Amina Susi Ali
I see these people all night long. They come in, they leave out. Next week, they come back. They come in with dirty clothes, leave with clean clothes. Back and forth, all night every night. Every week, the same people. Sometimes someone new.
I try to make it easy for them, because who likes to be stuck with doing laundry? Nobody. So I keep the floor swept, throw away the empty bottles and garbage and vaina people leave behind, mop the floor when it gets a little slow. Good thing most of them know my rules and don’t be leaving crap around. Because if I catch you everyone will know about it. I don’t need you coming here making more work for me, so if you want to live that way you’ll want to stay away. Go bother the losers who work down on 39th Street.
My name is Cinthya Mendez. I was born in Brooklyn and I work here at the Redi-Kleen 24 Hour Laundromat. My name is spelled Cinthya, with the “I” first and “Y” last, but people call me Cindy all the time which I do not like, but what can you do? That is how people are, always trying to make things short and easy, always trying to make people fit in. Fit in to what? Hell if I know. What I do know is my friend is a dollar in my pocket. I’m working here twelve years now. Sometimes I think about going back to school but I am not sure what for. When I figure it out it will probably be time for me to sign up for Social Security. Right now I am trying to save some money.
Everything I need to know about this particular line of work I learned from my Aunt Mary, may she rest in peace. She was from Puerto Rico, high up in the mountains, from a town called San Sebastian. She was what you called una espiritista, a spiritualist, which means she didn’t put spells on anyone. She just talked to the dead people. She did that at night. During the day she worked for the rich people, cleaning their houses. She just cleaned houses, didn’t raise nobody’s kids, didn’t cook for nobody because she didn’t want to talk to those people and sure as hell didn’t want to deal with their kids. She just cleaned houses.
I don’t know too much about the espiritismo part because I was a kid and not allowed in the room. That’s something that comes from Puerto Rico called mesa blanca. They called it that because people would sit around a table with a white tablecloth. You hardly hear about it anymore. They would say some prayers first and then there would be some tapping. Aunt Mary would call up their dead relatives, after asking their permission. She would talk in their voices, in Spanish. Just another thing she did. It’s supposed to run in families, but I don’t even like cemeteries! Ew! Los muertos me dan un asusto! Ay no!
She always wore her hair in a bun and wore heavy gold hoop earrings that stretched her earlobes. Yuck. I think that’s why I like to wear little earrings. Since my mother worked in the evening and my father was always in the bar, I went to Aunt Mary’s house after school. I also stayed in her house a lot in the summer. This was to keep me away from the “gente mala”, you know the “bad” people in the street. Every day there was a lesson. How to cook, how to clean, how to put the groceries away on the kitchen shelves. Her house always smelled of Café Bustelo and Lavender Mistolin.
She taught me how to wash clothes and fold up the sheets and towels and put them in the linen closet. She taught me how to peel vegetables or viandas, which are the big white starchy ones, always with a big knife, not a peeler. She never used a peeler! She would stand at the sink, peeling the batata or yautia or whatever, with her cigarette dangling from her mouth, one eye kind of closed, humming one of her old school Spanish songs, her big earrings dancing on her earlobes. She looked like she was communicating with another world that was out there, somewhere, I don’t know. Sometimes she had the radio on and whenever there was a commercial or somebody was talking, she’d watch the radio until the person stopped talking. Most of the family avoided her because she was una mujer rara, or weird.
Ay Dios mio, here comes this guy again. He’s always trying to sneak into a dryer. No sir, no! I have told you before. You can’t dry the clothes here if you have not washed them here. I have told you over and over again, what is your deal? We have rules in this establishment. Yeah, yeah, whatever. Try that on 39th Street.
What is it with people, thinking they can do whatever they want? That’s what’s wrong with people today. They’re all out there, drinking 40s and smoking weed till they fall on they ass. Get up the next day, start over again. That’s so stupid. Act like an adult. They have kids, can’t afford none of them, then go and have more. Crazy. Nobody thinks anymore.
So anyway, as I was saying, my aunt was a widow. I never knew her husband. She had been married to a Greek man, Harry the Greek, people called him. He died before I was born. She was permanently mad at the Catholic Church because the Church refused to marry them. Since Harry was Greek Orthodox, he was the “wrong kind” of Catholic. “He was a wonderful man, what was wrong with him?” she would say. “He was Greek, that was wrong?”
From time to time she had a drink, but since she was a lady she only drank at home and in the evening. “Ladies don’t drink in bars alone and certainly not during the day”, she told me. She kept a couple of bottles of those sweet drinks called liqueurs, which is French. Sometimes she would give me a glass of Goya nectar or some Good-o soda and pour herself one of her drinks, then forget that I was there and start crying. She made me really afraid to grow up sometimes.
I spent a lot of time on her living room sofa watching TV. When I was growing up we just had a few channels. There were about eight English channels and two Spanish channels. I remember watching the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 which was the same movie they showed every night but they changed it every week. I saw Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. They don’t make good horror movies like that anymore. My aunt’s sofa had these white crocheted doilies on the arms and where you put your head. I always had to be careful so as not to knock them down. On top of the TV was another crocheted doily that was really a plastic doll wearing a multicolored crocheted dress. She also had crocheted covers on the extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. I never could understand why anyone would want to make that stuff. Then she tried to teach me how! I just pretended like I couldn’t hold the crochet hook right. I kept dropping it.
She lived in a small building on the East Side of Manhattan. Real old school. Old time stove and refrigerator in the kitchen. She had been in that apartment a long time with her two dogs, no kids. The tenants across the way from her were this couple. The man was not that tall but he had a lot of muscles. He walked around with a big attitude. The woman was nice but she didn’t talk to anyone too much. She always looked scared to talk to people. Sometimes we saw bruises on her. One night we heard them fighting, or rather the man yelling at the woman. So Aunt Mary took her vianda knife, which was like a small machete, for a little walk across the hall. This was before anyone thought about calling the police. Remember, this was before they even had the term domestic violence. Aunt Mary minded her business most of the time but she did not like to see anyone being abused. I remember that night. As she was leaving, I told her, “Titi, don’t go over there. That man is scary.” She went anyway. I heard her ring the bell. It was quiet for a few minutes, then I heard the door open. Aunt Mary’s voice next, sounding sweet as birthday cake. “Oh hello, good evening, I hope I’m not disturbing anyone.” Mind you, she’s holding this big-ass knife the whole time. “I just been watching a little TV with my niece and it sounded like someone was in trouble and I was wondering if everything was all right in here. Because in this building, aqui nadie quiere problemas, nobody here wants no trouble, OK?” And after that, we never heard the fighting again. I don’t know if things really got better in that apartment, but we never heard that stupid man raise his voice again. That’s when I understood why she never used a vegetable peeler and that’s why I don’t use one. One knife for everything. Amen. You know, just in case.
Amina Susi Ali is a New York-born Puerto Rican who has written poetry and short fiction since the age of 12. She has been published in the original Nuyorican Poetry anthology (William Morrow, 1975), Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (Kitchen Table Press), Essence Magazine and most recently, Phatitude magazine and AM New York. She is currently studying fiction writing at New York University.