20. It All Comes Out in the Wash Water

There’s a scene from the movie El Norte that’s still with me 35 years after I first saw it. Actually, there are two other scenes I remember as well: the one where the father’s severed head is swaying in the breeze, and the one where Rosa and Enrique are crawling through a tunnel and are bitten by a horde of rats. It would be hard for anyone who’s seen the film to forget those images. But the scene I’m thinking about right now isn’t gruesome; it’s the one that comes to mind almost every time I do laundry.

Rosa and Nacha, the Mexican woman who has taken the young Guatemalan under her wing, are standing in front of a modern washer and dryer where the lady of the house—of the mansion—is explaining how the machines work. She wants the two women to wash and dry the clothes while she’s away. The rich lady is American (though with a hair pouf resembling Margaret Thatcher’s); she speaks English, which both of the maids understand only superficially. Nacha nevertheless pretends to follow the lady’s instructions, and whispers to Rosa that she should do the same. The lady cheerfully leaves. Rosa makes guesses, but the operation panels of the machines are completely overlaid with buttons, all in abbreviated English.

Rosa has an idea, though. She moves the clothes to a sink and washes them there, then finds a sunny lawn behind the mansion where she lays everything out flat to dry. She sits down with them, briefly, and smiles. In the end the clothes are clean and dry. The boss-lady is upset, nevertheless, that they weren’t done by machine. She says she can’t bear to think of someone doing such hard work.

Why was I so taken by that scene that I remember it almost four decades later? Even then, before I took the permaculture class and fell in love with basic mud construction, I appreciated the point: Hard work is hard, but under some circumstances you’ll trade it for simplicity, familiarity, and—sunshine?

The year I saw El Norte, I had a baby in diapers. Friends and family had given us many weeks of diaper service, so for a while, life was easy. (That part of life, anyway.) When the service ran out, I tried to stick with the cloth diapers, washing them myself. It was a big pain. I clothes-pinned them to our inverted-umbrella drying rack, once even posing with the baby in front of the “diaper tree,” white cloths waving like multiple flags of surrender. (Should I surrender, and switch to disposables?)

I didn’t mind the work that much. Of course, I wasn’t doing the wash by hand like Rosa did, but most of the diapers needed to be pre-washed, since our graywater went to a tree basin, and I wanted to be careful about what was in it. (Graywater from washing machines became legal not long after that. It seemed risky to me—but I suppose our poopy loads from those days would have to be considered blackwater.) The diaper tree days didn’t last long. But it wasn’t the hard work of washing that ended them. It was an incident.

We were in a fabric store shopping, the baby in my arms—I was holding her in the usual way, meaning she was sitting in the crook of my elbow. It was my fault. The leg of her elastic pants wasn’t elastic anymore, and it didn’t hug her thighs like it was supposed to. And cloth diapers were never meant to be leak proof. So what did I expect? At least it only got on my arm and clothes, not on the store’s floor or any bolts of fabric. Brown would show.

That’s what got me to switch to disposables. Not the work of washing. It was the embarrassment. Social pressures are strong. Including when it comes to consumer habits.

Clothes hanging on a line have strong social meaning. The sight signifies poverty. Neighborhood associations often ban it, even when the state protects it as part of one’s right to use solar power. In spite of this stigma, your clothes are supposed to smell like fresh air. A few years back there was a commercial that featured clothes blowing beautifully on a line, insisting that the product would impart the same freshness to your clothes if you used it. I don’t remember what the product was (which means the commercial was ineffective), but I laughed—in a jeering kind of way—because I had the genuine scent of solar heat and fresh air in my clothes.

I was unaffected by the laundry-line stigma. I wasn’t part of any neighborhood association. It was hard even to see into the back yard because it was surrounded by a dense oleander hedge. And some of my neighbors had clotheslines of their own.

I’ve been offered a free electric dryer twice, and both times I’ve said Thanks but No Thanks. I’d used dryers at laundromats. They’re not usually places you want to hang out in for any length of time. So the experience of checking, checking, checking on the load—just to discover there’s hardly a difference in moisture content from one coin deposit to the next—was always unpleasant. Sun drying is different. I know there are rainy, snowy climates where the sun’s drying power is limited, even in the summer if it’s humid. Someone else will have to speak on that; place needs to determine our habits, anyway. But here in the desert, at least during the summer, the first items you hang up are dry by the time you’ve hung the last items in your load. Sure, you could say it’s work, but I’d rather be actively hanging my clothes than waiting, waiting, waiting for the inferior power of electricity to get the job done.

Skip the clothespins and go right to the colorful tree sculpture.

And anyway, I’ve improved on the clothesline. The lacy-metal patio chairs I’d bought in the eighties were dated now, okay, but conveniently full of holes that allowed anything laid out on the seat or thrown over the back to dry from both sides. Each arm had a flat armrest that was perfect for poking the ends of socks and underwear into, so they could hang down with air all around.

These two chairs are full.

I plan to have a race someday—give someone a clothesline, a bag of clothespins, and a basket of washed clothes, while I start out with the same basket and my chairs. I know who would win. I just don’t know by how much.

So I’ve been able to save some money over the years, not buying that new stuff—the dryers—and not paying for repairs, either. But I’ve used a washing machine since I moved in. In other parts of the country (or world) it might be unconventional to have the machine outside, and to direct the wash-water out to a tree—bypassing the drain. But that’s not unusual here. Except for these details, I’ve washed my clothes conventionally for years.

This part of my old washing machine makes a perfect solar oven.

I’ve had only two washing machines in my life besides the one I have now—all bought used. I wouldn’t want a new one, since it’s outside (though under a roof). It’s crazy, yes, but I still have the second machine—it just doesn’t wash clothes anymore. It bakes cookies. That machine happened to die while I was taking the permaculture course, so I thought about how I could keep it from the landfill. I took it apart. I knew nothing about how it had worked, but I just kept unscrewing, unbolting, pulling the parts apart. The shell fit right over my ugly laundry tub. (People still think it’s another appliance, until I open the lid.) The heavy part that turned still turned within its housing, and was weighted with concrete—good thermal mass for an oven? The fact that the basin turned inside a base meant it could follow the sun horizontally. I cut off the top of the agitator and packed insulation up to that point, then draped a black, heat-absorbing cloth on top. It needed a round piece of glass. No problem; thrift stores at the time carried a popular round, particle-board table topped with glass, the size I needed, always for $5. I added three reflective panels. And voila, I had a solar oven. Who could have known: the best mesquite cookies ever come from that oven now, a couple times a month—thanks to Terry’s evolving recipe.

Two loads, five chairs

But this post isn’t about baking. It’s about laundry, and how I’ve been a conventional laundress. I do remember once, on a small-group tour of Brad Lancaster’s permaculture site, he pointed to a five-gallon bucket and said, “That’s my washing getting done.” A woman in the group immediately piped up, “Oh, no! I’m sticking with my washing machine!” But now there’s a trend called “laundry stripping.” The idea is that your “clean” clothes still have residues from past detergent, fabric softeners, etc. You soak them, maybe in a bathtub, adding borax, washing soda, and laundry detergent. (Huh? Isn’t that what you’re stripping out?) You watch the water turn dark, or various colors.

Maybe I’ll try it. Maybe Brad’s soaking idea has some legitimacy. It would be nice to not need a washing machine. New stuff. But I’m skeptical. I remember watching Rosa, bent over the frothing sink, scrubbing. Friction and motion might be important. Rosa’s tradition was using rocks to scrub clothes against, at the bank of a stream or river, always with other women. I saw this once in central Mexico from the window of a bus, but we whizzed past.

This won’t ever be my social reality. No streams or rivers around here run regularly, and if they did, I don’t know anyone who would want to meet me there with a load of dirty clothes. But I’ll keep my chairs for drying.

The flat armrests on my chairs are perfect for grabbing and drying socks.

What if my old washer kicks the bucket? It has developed a glitch—not advancing by itself after the fill. I have to wait around about five minutes for the waterfall noise to stop, and then push the tiny lid-switch button with my thumbnail. It kicks back on, and everything’s fine after that. If it died completely? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a character in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist who threw his dirty clothes in the shower and stomped on them—where he would have been stomping anyway. That might work!

I can hear some informed friends reminding me that newer appliances are usually more energy efficient than the older ones. Would the newer washers use less water, also? Probably not, considering you’re the one who selects the water level to suit your load. Would the energy savings be worth it?

It depends on what you mean by “it.” Worth what you pay for the new machine? Or worth the environmental cost? The former is easily found on the price tag. The latter is almost impossible to find out. What are the materials? Where did they come from? What energy was required for the various parts and the whole? What pollution was produced? Are any of the materials recyclable? Are any of them toxic? To humans? Other biology? What fuels were used in shipping? And what’s the expected lifespan of the machine before it becomes trash?

It’s not an environmental factor, but I also like to know what the human toll is, in terms of labor conditions.

These are all unknowns, and to make these unknowns known is close to impossible, even for Donald Rumsfeld. We’re not supposed to know. For some people, the answers might get in the way of a purchase, and we can’t have that happen. But the veil of secrecy around what we buy—washing machines just being a single example among millions—is only partly intentional; it also stems from the increasing complexity and sourcing of parts. Of course there’s a supply chain problem when these sources shut down. Some of the dominoes fall.

I get angry when I can’t get the answer to questions about what I want to buy. My dollars are setting unknowns in motion—funding who knows what. Sometimes I say, screw it! I need this. I don’t have much choice. I have to buy it. Other times I say, screw you. I don’t need your plastic, your excessive complexity, your poison, your human-misery product. There’s another way I can do this (get this, make this).

When my washing machine konks out, I’ll try the bathtub soak, I’ll try the shower dancing, and who knows what else. But I’ve had a responsibility to renter(s) for years, and still do—I’ll probably get another used machine. I’ve had pretty good luck with them. I’ll show someone my cool solar oven, and let them have the dead washer to take apart.

I doubt very much I’ll ever get one of those shiny models with a billion buttons that aren’t useful at all unless you know English.

Go Rosa!

4 thoughts on “20. It All Comes Out in the Wash Water

  1. I really enjoyed that (20). I didn’t use a dryer until I went away to college. Only the Phx solar dryer after moving from Washington in 3rd grade. In WA, it was summer-solar and winter-clothes racks in the basement and over the coal heater grate upstairs (that explains a lot…). Thanks. It’s a lot like hand-washing dishes and drying in a counter rack: a true art form

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  2. My drying rack rocks instead of a dryer…But our washing machine is so old the stability is shot and when it spins, I have to stand by to make sure it doesn’t shimmy against the door trim. I’m dreading the day it can no longer be fixed. Wish there were simple machines available….

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  3. Thanks for the wonderful post. It’s not only hard work that doesn’t need familiarity and simplicity. At this point, I don’t worry as much about being an efficient worker. (Which can sometimes drive my partner batty.)

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  4. I grew up with a pulley clothes line outside the kitchen window of our second story apartment. My mother had some pecs! I’ve taken my drying inside to a collapsable dryer rack–with the added benefit of the clothes offering up some moisture to the arid air. Our 25+ year old washer needs to be held in place for each spin. Unlike my mom, my upper body wash-workouts come from the sets of push-offs I perform using the top of the machine as my fulcrum–the upper body workout linked with my chore of preventing the washer from ripping the trim off the wall. Looking at the complexity and lack of control offered with the new models, I’m looking forward to keeping this one going as long as absolutely possible.

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