By Brian Spencer
There’s a woman who works here named The Plug.
That’s not her real name. When she was born, her parents didn’t look down at their newborn baby girl, turn to the doctor, and say “The Plug. We’re naming her The Plug.” I’m fairly certain that no parents have ever named their child The Plug.
But, as it happens, it’s a name that would suit her during adulthood or, at least, as the adult she would grow up to be when in the context of Bubble Laundromat, a corner laundromat in Brooklyn where she’s worked for at least a decade. I know that she’s been there for at least that long because I lived in the neighborhood for that long, and washed clothes at Bubble for about that long. Of course, I left Brooklyn about a year ago, so there’s a chance The Plug has since moved on, but I doubt it.
All I’m trying to say is, don’t be disappointed if you drop off your laundry at Bubble, hoping to meet The Plug, only to find she’s no longer there.
And look, let’s be clear: my wife and I (and maybe my brother-in-law, I don’t remember) are the only ones who know her as The Plug, so if she is still working there and you do see her, don’t say “Excuse me, are you The Plug? I read about you!”
Don’t say that.
Because while my wife and I and maybe my brother-in-law privately know The Plug as The Plug — I mean, in my mind she is the one and only Plug, though I do still have this old drum ‘n’ bass disc by a different Plug laying around somewhere — she, in fact, hasn’t a clue that her name is The Plug. She’d have no idea what you were talking about.
We refer to her as The Plug — and I assure you there’s nothing mean-spirited about it, for facts are facts — because, first of all, we don’t know her birth name. Mostly, though, she has been dubbed The Plug because she plugs shit up in there. I mean she backs it up like big clumps of dried sticky rice in the kitchen sink drain. Of Latin-American descent, standing about five foot two in heels, solid as a brickhouse, this lady commands and sucks up space like I’ve never seen. She’s like a living, breathing, spacial sponge.
Give her space and she’ll make it disappear.
It’s tight in Bubble. Multi-colored laundry bags, mostly dropped off by white kids and stuffed with white-kid laundry*, are piled around the entrance and on a teetering, multi-shelved clothes rack next to the quarters machine. There are usually so many bags that they are also often tossed onto some of the mighty washing machines along one side of the space. Opposite the washers — just so you can be perfectly aware of how things are laid out in Bubble Laundromat — are the dryers, a line of them with one stacked on top of another. The washers are of a newer model than the dryers.
There’s a clothes-folding table at the back of Bubble, but you’re kind of a dick if you use it because there’s really no fucking room back there and you’re taking up what little room there is by spreading your shit out all over that table.
There’s an old metal folding chair next to the table, but if you unfold it and sit down in it, you’re blocking at least one washer, and people who are washing their clothes in those washers won’t appreciate you sitting there. While I waited for my clothes I’d sometimes sit there and scratch off scratch-off tickets, the $2 ones that look like Scrabble boards (or the $5 ones if I was feeling randy), though I’d usually only do this when it was dead or when my clothes were the clothes in the washer that I was blocking.
Once, and I do apologize but I can’t remember how in the world this came up, Bubble’s owner — an old, wiry, grisled Chinese guy who chain smokes and mumbles a lot — randomly pulled out a stash of DVDs from the back room, located next to the folding table, and asked me I wanted to buy any DVDs, Pantip Plaza style. I didn’t buy any DVDs from him, but I was so, so glad that he made the offer.
Maybe (probably) I’m not conveying just how cramped it is in Bubble.
Know that the washer and dryer doors open up into the narrow space in between them, which contributes to the claustrophobic ambience. Further, there are a bunch of wheeled clothes bins stuffed into that space — their loose, rattling wheels go tickety-tickety-tickety-tickety — and for future reference, only one or two of these bins have a crossbar on which you can lay shit that you don’t want to get wrinkled. The Plug, her colleagues, and the few white kids* who do their own laundry use the bins to move clothes from washer to dryer, or from dryer to clothes bag.
Anyway, my point is that these rattling bins take up a shit ton of precious space; you’ll remember that there really isn’t even any room to fold your clothes, and that the slim space in between washers and dryers is further compromised by the doors that swing outwards.
Also, looming, The Plug.
The front area of Bubble: To one side, an old scale used for weighing laundry bags, and on the other side that quarters machine and clothes rack I already mentioned. Here you see a big industrial-sized garbage can mostly filled with discarded laundry soap boxes (those small, single-load ones), and there you see the “reception desk.” Behind the reception desk there’s a sign advertising a special sale on laundry bags, a sale which has been running since the first time I did laundry at Bubble in 2003.
This front area is also where The Plug and her handful of colleagues often operate, by which I mean to say this is where they fold all those clothes from inside all of those overstuffed bags of laundry after they’ve been washed. My guess is that they have fingered 75% – 90% of the clothes you see worn by the kids who live around this end of Graham Avenue. The Plug has seen the puke stains and the red wine stains and the poop stains and the resin stains on everybody’s clothes. She knows what you’ve been up to and what you’re trying to hide.
She’s guilty of laundering your dirty laundry.
The Plug sops up the reception area space admirably, but she earns her keep by stopping the whole place up during the washing phase. When she’s in the throes of washing, those rickety wheeled clothes bins piled high, paper tags on dryers indicating whose clothes are whose and what color bag they belong in, there simply is very little room to maneuver around her.
I don’t know how she manages to plug that space up like she does. She just does it. It’s impressive and it’s suffocating, like John Madden’s late-career Thanksgiving Day commentary. (Who doesn’t miss John Madden on Thanksgiving Day?)
I think, over the long years I lived around here, that The Plug came to recognize me. No small task, as I know that I probably look like every other white kid who lives around Graham Avenue in Williamsburg. In fact, I’m certain that I looked that way to her: an anonymous white dude with a beard. If she did recognize me — and as I say, I do think that she did — it was only due to longevity.
More than 10 years of semi-regular brief interactions with The Plug can be boiled down to:
1 – Me asking her for change for a ten or twenty so I could get change out of the quarters machine
2 – Me dropping my bag of laundry on the scale, then following her over to the reception desk, telling her my phone number, then saying “Would it be possible to pick it up later today?” At this, she would answer with a silent, begrudging yes consisting of punching numbers into the register with faintly perceptible sass.
3 – Me dropping off my wife’s bag of laundry and repeating the same steps in #2
You might say — you might rightfully say — that it’s offensive, perhaps even “so white of me,” that I don’t know The Plug’s real name, the one that her parents gave her when she was born. But… there was never any reason or any circumstance in which asking her her name wouldn’t have been weird. It would have been weird if I asked her her name, because that’s just how it is.
Sometimes, when you ask neighborhood folk, particularly in the service industry, what their name is, you ruin things. You ruin a perfectly fine relationship. You take things to a more personal level than you should. I’ve done it before, and I’ve regretted it before. If you’re a normal person, you know what I mean. Actual names, in many situations, are not as important as immediate facial recognition.
Beyond The Plug, a few people immediately and vividly come to mind in my old neighborhood. For one, the guy at the hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant with whom I’ve probably placed takeout orders and briefly chatted with well over a hundred times. There are the Arabic guys from whom I bought hundreds of scratch-off tickets. There’s the woman who works at that stalwart but shitty Mexican restaurant who’s bossy and brash and loud. The Vietnamese couple working the corner deli. You have your own locals that fit these roles.
(Pardon the vanilla descriptions, dear reader, for I’m not paid by the word, and I’m only boring you.)
I know these people well, at least in the capacity and context in which I could know them well, but I don’t know any of their names — and I don’t want to know them. Likewise, they don’t know mine and they don’t need to. Even if I did know them, I’d remember their faces and their mannerisms and where they worked and what that place looked like and when and why I used to go there long after I’d forgotten the names. The Plug is the only person in this group whose name I know and can share with you.
I hope, my most patient of readers, that you have not pressed on to this point hoping for a traditional grand finale, for if you have I’m afraid you will be disappointed. There is no “what it all means” or “what this goes to show” to follow. I cannot offer you a teaching moment, nor share with you something that I’ve learned about the world, myself, or laundry. I’m fresh out of wrapping paper and Scotch tape and fancy bows.
I do give you one final warning, however, that there is a peculiar lack of space on most days at Bubble Laundromat, located on the corner of Graham Avenue and Jackson Street in Brooklyn, realm of The Plug.
* In the interest of full disclosure and to be perfectly clear, dear reader, I do not refer to white kids or white kids with laundry bags with malice or disdain, for I, too, am a white kid who on many occasions has dropped off a laundry bag stuffed with clothes with poop and piss and puke and wine and beer stains at Bubble.