For me this evening, I went to the laundromat and forgot the reading that I had to do tonight. I could have gone to the tavern next door, but that seems too much like fun on a "school night." I already read the paper, parts of which from several days were strewn about the place. So, I bought an overpriced can of pop and surveyed my surroundings.
I have been doing my laundry at this place since I moved to Madison, but I realized that I never just sat there and watched life come and go (at least for the time when my giant slacks were being cleansed of their ickyhood.)
Tonight, it seemed that all of the regular characters were there. People coming in and out from the tavern, checking their laundry, some with drinks in their hands even (making me jealous, those bastards). Couple having a fight over the laundry which seemed to spill over into other aspects of their lives. Serious guy with a laptop who frankly struck me as the sort of guy who would hire a laundry service. Creepy guy in the corner just sort of staring (wait, that was me).
I guess that spending time in a laundromat allows you to, well, observe the lives of the sorts of people who use laundromats. Where I live, that means a lot of students and apartment dwellers who have landlords that don't provide laundry facilities. It also means a lot of homeless people who come in to wash their clothes, often using the bathroom to change. Lastly, it means people who are drawn in by the novelty and (frankly) convienence of a tavern next to a laundry. Even though there is a place in town that is a laundromat that serves drinks, that place is by campus and for jerks.
So, that's the scene as I saw it.
Great, you say, but why are you telling us this?
Well, I got to thinking about the sociocultural dynamics of the laundromat. It is an interesting place in that it brings a cross section of people who don't normally associate with each other in a place where they expose some of their most intimate things and are captive by necessity.
Doesn't it seem that it is the necessities of life that draw disparate individuals together. It can't really be called a community, as there is no sense of unity among the group, anything that can cause group cohesion and the only common thread is that the place has something that all these people seem to need for one reason or another. It is really not a group, but a collection of individuals.
That causes me to question the notion, first proffered by Ancient Greeks like Aristotle, that man is an inherently a social animal. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the Thomist Schoolmen to Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau have confronted this issue. It was only really Rousseau who questioned if society was good for us (he didn't think so, but he had a hard time proving it). In fact, that is one of the central questions of the human condition, namely what is the "atomic" unit of human life, the group or the individual?
I have always very much leaned on the side of the individual, but that is not to say that I think all people should be loners. Some of our associations we choose (family, friends, even work to a certain extent) and others we do not (usually situations where we are under coercion of some sort). In many ways, these situations that we do not choose are of necessity and as I mentioned before, cannot really be considered a group of any kind.
How does this relate to the laundromat? Well, it is really one of these very situations of unchosen association. Some might view that scene as proof of the alienation that all of us who live in supposed urban isolation confront every day. I really don't see it as that.
I see it as proof that the best associations we all have are those that we make the individual choice to form, out of some need. It is one of the features of "commodious living" that we all enjoy (in this country, at least).
I also see it as the vindication of that most elusive right, that right that the Supreme Court has never been able to define - the right to privacy. The best thing I ever heard on this score was actually from a former Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. He defined the right to privacy as the right to be left alone. I could strike up a conversation with any of the "laundromat people," but I choose not to. I respect their right to be left alone and would never think of infringing on it.
There are a lot of situations that I find myself in where people don't respect this right. On the bus, in line anywhere, when I am eating alone outside. I have never understood what drove these people to begin talking to complete strangers. Most of the time, if not all the time, I just wish people would keep their comments to themselves and go about their business and let me do the same.
I feel in these situations, a personal right of mine is being violated. I and I alone choose the people that I associate with and no-one should presume that I want anything to do with them. Don't listen to my conversations, don't comment on my purchases, don't tell me about your grandkids. I don't really care.
Does this make me a cold, aloof and cruel person. To some, perhaps. I happen to think that the nicest people can do for each other is to leave each other alone to pursue their own paths.
Some people like being alone. I have always been one of these people. Maybe the preceeding commentary says more about me than a particular view of the world, but it is worth considering.
All of this because I forgot my book at home. I promise it won't happen again.
If it does happen again, I might tell you, I might not. Up to me really, isn't it?