Of Dirty Laundry and Public Spaces

Back in third year high school, our batch’s entry to the annual drama fest was entitled “Laundromat Romance”. It was about finding love at the most unusual of places – at a place where you take out your dirty clothes and put them in washing machines that have been and for the use of many other people, all strangers. Aside from the fact that an environment that reeks of soiled clothing, detergent, bleach, and if you’re lucky fabric softener, would be the last place I’d go to for that sort of interaction (I’m focused like that), the entire scene was culturally unfamiliar – in modern, urban Philippines, cleaning your dirty linen was reserved to be done in the privacy of your own homes (hanging them to dry is another matter altogether). Our only exposure to a coin laundromat at that time would be the Western movies we’d watch. So, we relied on pure imagination and impeccable theatrical talent in pulling that play off.

I’m now at a laundromat and it’s a thing here now. There’s actually a franchise of coin laundromat that would probably race 7Eleven, Starbucks, and SM in putting branches in every corner; and someone in my context – doing pre-marriage, pre-fatherhood, post-fulltime employment domestic duties, they are a blessing. We’ve indeed come a long way and there are a lot at play perhaps – starting from the sheer convenience of washing your clothes sans the spike in water and electricity bill or actually owning that kind of a machine to adapting to a more hectic lifestyle which demands a lot of flexibility especially in terms of time to the difficulty of finding a trustworthy laundry person to do these things for you to actually being open to the prospect of performing one of the most private tasks in public.

(This is the part where I admit that my fascination about public laundromats would perhaps reveal my middle class/sheltered consciousness/upbringing. We’ve done this before – we’ve been told of stories of how our ancestors would use the sapa or the batis when they wash their clothes (with matching batya and palo-palo). I actually remember detergent ads showcasing this scene and having to factor in how safe their product would be for the goldfish who happens to thrive in the batis. Probably to a large extent, many who have access to natural flowing bodies of water (or those who don’t have direct access to clean water supply and are forced to find such in shared spaces like the town deep well) still avail of this mode and yes, washing our dirty laundry in public is not at all new. But then again for the urban middle-class, this still gives an interesting insight on how it has flexed expectations on the use of shared, public space for personal and private activities.)

Then, I think about our use of public space. I really cannot figure out how we collectively feel about and behave around public spaces. It’s either that or it’s just something I cannot accept. We use our side streets as an extension of our homes and commercial establishments or we’d see clothes hanging by the highway to dry or we’d see men facing walls or trees to relieve themselves in the same way that we allow private buildings erected on public plazas or we’d prefer to build private highways (with toll fee) instead of using such space (and resources) to improve mass transport. On a perspective that would require further scrutiny, we allow families to monopolise public offices or treat taxpayers’ money as private funds or the military as their personal security in the same way that we allow that space for free expression to be reduced to perfunctory allotments in exchange of an illusion of order or discipline.

In the same way that we have become open in spending more of our lives in the public domain, we have also shown the willingness, most of the time unqualified willingness, to relegate our public space to personal dictates. We have allowed, no, surrendered public space in favour of private interests; as such, those that we can share becomes narrower and the allocation continues to lean in favour of those who have already hogged a lot.

This is why the laundromat, now as I reflect on it while staring at the machines, is a wonder to me. It contravenes my personal presumption that Filipinos  now are not predisposed to share a space. At least here, we are; even if it means that we have to wash our dirty linen in public.


Ok, that’s an hour. I think my clothes are now ready for folding.


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