Vernee-Watson-Johnson

Eavesdropping in New York

The location: A launderette in Bed-Stuy
A Tuesday in September
Around 3pm

“Mohammed, everything good? I missed you!”

“He’s been gone two weeks,” this woman tells another brown skinned man fixing a washer. “I missed him,” she says again.

Then she loads two duvets into a large washer and talks aloud, “oh no, I don’t want 16, I want 12. Sixteen? Hell, no.” She unloads the washer she’s just filled, reloads her laundry into a smaller one. She is clearly the kind of woman who likes to talk to people, things, animals, nothing at all. Her voice sounds like Vernee Watson-Johnson’s, the actor who played Will Smith’s mother on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She counts aloud as she loads quarters into the machine, even though a little LED display is doing the counting for her. A coin drops to the floor. “Aw, shit, man!” she mutters.

Mohammed comes over to help her. He reminds her about the importance of security in the laundrette. One customer loaded a machine and went home, he tells her, and came back to an empty washer. “You know how these people be, Mohammed,” she replies. “Why this machine only got 23 minutes, huh? This machine’s supposed to go 30 minutes!” She is riled up by the injustice. “You pretend you don’t hear me?” she says to Mohammed. “I’ll go to the Chinese place! Why this machine only got 30 minutes? I’m going to stop coming here. I only come here cos of Mohammed!”

She goes over to the caretaker manager that she doesn’t seem to like much, stands about two feet in front of him. “I used to run a laundrette,” she tells him. “On Marcy!” Why did you stop? he asks wearily. He looks like a quiet man, exhausted by life, and today, by this woman. “Too much trouble,” she replies with a knowing look. “Too much damn trouble for me and my son!”

“The water bill and the heating bill?” she continues. “Just too damn much.” She’s not clear on how much it costs now, “but I’m telling you my water bill was 1,500 dollars!”

Also, she adds, slyly, “you gotta get good people to service your machines.” The guy, holding a giant part of the innards of one washer, blinks slowly, but doesn’t rise to her bait.

“I bought it from a man who had a gambling problem,” she expands on her former laundrette empire. She goes on for a while. But inevitably, she ends up right back where she started. “You can set your machines to 30 minutes – that’s how the Chinese up the road do it!” She pauses. “But I don’t like them because the clothes don’t get clean. It’s dusty.”

Mohammed and the caretaker manager mutter things, try to get her to see that theirs is a fair system. “Don’t tell me, because I know!” says the woman. She’s not having it. “I’m gon’ stop coming. I pay good money, I want service. You can’t expect to make all the money. You got to treat the customers right!”

It’s like she’s fired up anew, and then her eyes light up as she takes another tack. “You supposed to be a good Muslim, Mohammed – Allah sees!” Mohammed discreetly rolls his eyes, and walks back into his tiny office.

“Thirty minutes for three dollars? You realise I could wash at home? I could! If I start telling the whole neighbourhood – you know how long I lived in this neighbourhood? – you know what’ll happen? I know what to do!”

This woman enjoys the noise of her own voice. Today, Mohammed gets to enjoy it too.

[© Bim Adewunmi. Originally published on Yoruba Girl Dancing on 22 September 2014]