What is it about coin laundries? People meet in them, marry, set student films in them, write odes to them. So much romanticism directed at a domestic necessity. I didn’t get it when I was a girl from the far flung suburbs, where Hills Hoists squeaked and groaned in every backyard and there was no need for coin laundries. But I get it even less now that I live in a building with a communal laundry, where I fight a weekly battle of wills with a faceless neighbour who starts their washing cycle on a Saturday morning and then lets it sit there. All. Day. According to our ritual, I trek up and down three flights of stairs on an hourly basis, ever hopeful the offending washing will have moved (at least to the dryer!) before eventually moving it myself – not to the floor, which would signal outright hostility, but to the dryer lid which, I hope, signals that I am a reasonable person, but one whose good nature should not be exploited.
Even though I’ve never understood the romanticisation of coin laundries, a long time ago I was implicated in an attempt to perpetuate it. In another life I was a film and TV student. I lasted about a year before fleeing in confusion, but I have a whole (metaphorical) laundry basket of souvenirs from that time. A few good friends, a stint as a bar wench, a cassette tape show reel of news bulletins I read on Uni radio, free dinners sourced at burger eating competitions. And somewhere, immortalised on VHS, there is a four minute love story set in a coin laundry that I have a credit on.
Our first film project was plagued by mishaps from the start. The scriptwriter had based the story on his own ill-fated romance with a French exchange student, although he didn’t think we’d made the connection. He was fiercely protective of his script and refused to accommodate any changes, eventually leaving the group in order to maintain his creative vision, and taking at least one other group member with him. With no time left to source new material the rest of us kept the concept and setting, attempted to rewrite the dialogue and scouted for suitable laundries. Like Goldilocks we struggled through three venues. The first had insufficient power outlets so our camera battery kept going flat, the second spewed forth an angry owner and the third… well, it would have to do. Then there was the director who shot off to Sydney without telling anyone on a weekend we were scheduled to shoot, and the fact that we never quite managed to film enough dialogue, so our getting-to-know-you sequence ended up being sped-up visuals of our two actors talking set to music we’d shamelessly lifted from a soundtrack as unlikely and unromantic as Requiem For A Dream (a dystopian tale of addiction that was a favourite among cinema students that year). I called my essay on the process ‘Never Work With Children, Animals… Or Coin Laundries.’ Our lecturer (a hyperactive film buff fond of saying, “Bueller…? Bueller…?” whenever there was the slightest lull during roll call) wrote back: “Surely it cannot be true – for they are such pretty places!”
So I never really grasped the appeal of coin laundries, but nostalgia I do get and when one of my comrades on those ill-fated shoots, suggested we catch up at a café that has just opened up in an old coin laundry, I couldn’t help but be catapulted backwards through time to other, long-ago laundries. I relayed this to her as we placed our drink orders and she told me we weren’t just sitting in a former coin laundry, this was one of the coin laundries! It was a long time ago, and inner Melbourne was still mostly a mystery to me back then so I guess I hadn’t kept the coordinates in my head. But somehow, through the rabbit hole in time, there we were nine years later: breakfasting at coin laundry #1 (the one with the inadequate power outlets), right around the corner from coin laundry #2, which backs onto the building where I now live. I asked my fellow film schoo dropout if she could ever have imagined on one of those shoots that one day we’d be neighbours and drink soy chai lattes in the middle of our film set and she pointed out she couldn’t have because soy chai lattes didn’t even exist then, which blew my tiny mind even more than her first revelation.
I drank all this in as we clinked our tumblers of sweet, milky chai together and toasted recycled spaces and neighbourhood cafes and futures you can’t even imagine yet.