He was a tiny old man, his head bare and his cheeks unshaven. Maybe he was afraid to get too close with a razor, or maybe he liked to use his chin as a blunt, scratchy weapon to keep his wife away. If he had a wife.
It must have been chance that brought him to the corner of Ibn Gvirol and Jabotinsky every time I ran out of underwear. An extraordinary kind of chance, because I never came the same day two weeks running. But there he was each time, greeting me with a squint-eyed smile that turned his face into an orb of creases like a beach ball running out of air. If he wasn’t busy loading or unloading machines, the smile might be accompanied by a remark about the state of the sidewalks that morning. “I counted twenty two pieces of dog shit on my way here,” he would say. “Twenty two, do you believe that?”
The first time I met him, I sat balanced on a high wooden stool with a history textbook pressed against my knees. My boyfriend Ron had explained to me that morning that the forty-five minutes I was about to spend guarding a public washing machine from clothing thieves could be the most useful part of my week if I only utilized it correctly. Utilized, that was the word he used, I promised to bring The History of War with me to cut his lecture short. Ron was the kind of roommate who hung inspirational posters in the bathroom and dreamed about startup apps that would help millions of people achieve their full potential. Sometimes I loved him for it, and sometimes I wondered whether punching him in the mouth would feel as good as it did when the scene played out in my head.
When an old geezer in slacks and a green polo shuffled in, I bent over my book to preempt any kind of neighborly engagement. It was my first time using self-service public laundry machines. I had a strong prejudice against the kind of people who used these facilities that was in no way lessened by the fact that I myself was now a customer.
The old man began to unload four plastic bags into different washers. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He puttered from machine to machine with his whites and colors, delicates and bed sheets, occasionally holding a tag several centimeters away from his eye to read the washing instructions. I never saw anyone so meticulous about separating laundry.