Brent (now healed) is one of many who utilize the subsidized Bubbles laundry program every week.
Brent looks terrible. The whole right side of his face is purple and scabbed over. Still, he smiles.
As I put quarters into his washing machine at the Self-Serve Laundry on East Johnson Street, I ask, “What happened to you?”
“I fell off Monona Terrace,” he says, laughing. “Forgot my parachute.”
I worry he got beat up and doesn’t want to talk about it.
We’re at Bubbles, a free laundry service for homeless people, where I volunteer. There are four rows of Maytag washing machines down the center of the large room, with double and triple loaders along the back wall. The left wall is lined with dryers. On the right wall there is some seating. Right now almost every one of the machines is humming or spinning. Some blue laundry detergent, the slipperiest stuff in the world, has spilled on the dirty white tiled floor from a leaking container.
Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” plays on a little white radio with a bent metal fork sticking out of it instead of an antenna. The radio is sitting on one of the tables by the front window where some patrons play Rummy 500 as their clothes rinse.
This season people wash heavy-duty sleeping bags, blankets and winter coats in addition to the usual shirts, pants and undies. Over in the back left corner one man patiently watches his clothes dry. He’s a tall, good-looking man you might not recognize as homeless. He tells me about the secret clothing caches he has all around Madison in case he needs to change.
“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” he says wisely.
A good number of the folks who come to Bubbles have wisdom that they share with me. One of my favorite patrons, Larry, is an older gentleman who always wears a Packers jersey. He can’t read the buttons on the washing machines, but he knows everything and more about how to shear sheep. Another man, Jose, always tells me when I’m feeling restless that I should head up north to Alaska and help with the salmon harvest.
“You’ll make good money,” he tells me, “and meet a lot of different people.”
But there are plenty of interesting folks right here at the laundry.
There’s a 2-year-old with wild hair waddling enthusiastically over the white tiles as his parents bend over their washing machine, transferring damp clothes to a cart. I’ve been doing this long enough that I remember when that baby was born, when that mother was pregnant, and before.
I think a lot about the infants and toddlers I see at Bubbles. These are children of privation, some of whom are clearly well-loved, and some of whom are not. I wonder about their futures, their options. Will one of them grow up to be president? Or will they go tap dancing at midnight on the top of Monona Terrace, slip on some ice, and owe their lives to an awning they clip on the way down?
Bubbles Laundry program
Tuesdays and Fridays, 9 am-1 pm
701 E. Johnson St.
Madison Homelessness Initiative
Number of visits in 2014:
Amount of coins provided in 2014:
Cost of soap, dryer sheets, plastic laundry bags in 2014:
City of Madison ($13,500), the Madison Rotary Foundation ($1,500), plus private donations.