There are 12 laundromats on Fullerton Avenue. If you follow them out from Western Avenue to the Brickyard Mall on Chicago’s outskirts, that comes to one every three blocks. They have between them 651 washing machines, 749 dryers and several small communities of people devoted to doing our dirty laundry.
Some are almost supermarket size. They hide under colorful signs like Bubbleland, Spin Cycle, Suds, and Scrub-A-Dub that make them seem more like amusement parks than workplaces. Odd corners are filled with kid’s rides, massage chairs, even a gourmet cafeteria. Some feature free Wi-Fi. Others just struggle along, fading reminders that as much as you gussy it up, laundry is a chore silently accomplished, mostly by poor women, out of the mainstream of American commerce.
Laura Garcia, 50, manages the Scrub-A-Dub at 3333 W. Fullerton. It is not an easy life. The laundromat is open seven days a week (6 AM to 11 PM) every day of the year except Christmas. She splits those hours with two other women in alternating shifts, but she’s comfortable in the job, happy with her boss and pleased to have regular customers who appreciate the little extras she provides.
Scrub-A-Dub offers washers at $1.50 – $3.50 (20, 40 and 50 pound loads) and dryers at 25 cents for 15 minutes. The prices vary little up and down the street, so Garcia tries to distinguish her service from the others with supermarket tabloids neatly arranged on the counter, a massage chair, a kid’s corner, sandwiches and snacks. The most unusual thing about the job? The sex toys customers drop off with their laundry. “I give it back to them and say ‘that’s yours to handle,’” she says.
Garcia worked previously as a nurse’s aide at a hospital (“That’s where I learned to keep things clean.”) but started thinking about working in laundromats when the JM Laundromat opened down the street from her house at Laramie and Fullerton. “They had an attendant named Liz who was really my role model. She made a point of knowing her customers, so I’d only go when she was there.”
The Community Center
The JM was the first of the supersize laundromats on Fullerton and remains the busiest. Liz Milete, Garcia’s mentor, was there when it opened eight years ago and still works part-time as general manager. When I arrive, she is busy cleaning up after a washing machine that overflowed. She mops, answers questions and, when that is done, checks in on a picnic table in back where a half dozen kids are wolfing down the donuts she brings in every morning.
“It’s always something,” she says. “But I like this job. It let’s me make a difference.” The JM doesn’t have the amenities of other establishments on the block, but Milete runs it like a community center.
Besides the free donuts, she brings in books for the kids and reads to them or helps with their homework while their moms are doing laundry. “When I’m not here, I nanny two kids at home. I run the block party in my neighborhood; and I do what I can to fight drugs and gangs there. So when I’m here, I look for ways I can make a difference.”
The Las Vegas Strip of Laundromats
After JM opened, two other supersize laundries launched within two years on both sides, each with its own formula for success. Bubbleland lures its clientele in with cartoon graphics that make it look kid-friendly and Express Laundry bills itself as Chicago’s largest with 132 washers and dryers –– and the only solar-powered laundromat in the city. No less a personage than the current Governor Pat Quinn was there for the ribbon cutting.
For all the hype, neither is particularly busy on the day I visit. A few kids chase each other around an X-men coin-up ride at Bubbleland; and a freelance DVD salesman roams the empty washers and dryers at Express trying to find bargain hunters. But Milete’s concept of community is nowhere to be found.
Not all the laundry owners on Fullerton are happy to see it become the Las Vegas strip of laundromats. The tattered sign of Windy City Laundry speaks loudly to how hard it is for smaller establishments to keep up (even if its Spanish-speaking owners cannot); and Sue Dwyer, who has run the Surf Laundrette with her husband for 23 years, eyes me suspiciously as I count her washers and dryers.
“You’re not going to open another one,” she says. “That’s what they all did. They count my machines, they check my prices then they open up next door.”
Dwyer would like to sell. Her husband is bed-ridden with a lung disease so she runs the laundromat with the help of her son. The long hours she must stay open keep her away from home, but she knows the chances of someone coming in to buy her out are slim to none. “Nobody buys laundromats these days,” she says.
Except, perhaps, Howard Ha, a Korean, who runs the very busy Spin Cycle laundry at 4418 W. Fullerton. Ha did not intend to buy his laundry. He actually bought a laundry franchise in a chain that was traded on Wall Street. When Wall Street became disenchanted with the business, however, franchise owners were given the option five years ago to buy their store or close.
Ha chose to stay. He knows his customers are 90 percent Mexican and South American. In his own business establishment, he remains the man in the closet marked “Employees Only” who leaves customer relations to his Spanish-speaking manager out front. But he is a shrewd businessman nonetheless.
He offers a FREE DRY for every washer load over 40 pounds (and makes up for it in the cost of the wash.) He leases space in his facility to DolEx, a wire transfer facility that lets customers send money back to families in Mexico. And he quietly watches his income and his customers. “We have so many different characters who come in here,” he says. “Sometimes they are bad, sometimes sad, and sometimes they help each other.”
Dios Benedice America
Behind twin concrete pillars emblazoned “God Bless America” and “Dios Benedice America,” John Shim, another Korean-American, runs the no-frills J & S Laundromat –– unless you are counting the plastic flowers that sit on the dividers between machines as frills.
Shim has no illusions about his customers. “Poor people use laundromats,” he says. Whether they are old Poles, new Hispanics, or the perennial students looking for cheap housing, the two-flat and three-flat apartments in his neighborhood always guaranteed a steady income. “But everything is going condo now,” he says. “To sell them, the developers put in washer-dryers. The old customers move away. The minimum wage goes up. The technology gets cheaper. It gets harder to make a profit every year.”
After a long day in the laundromats on Fullerton, I drive home only to notice one that I missed, Brendel’s at 2550 W. Fullerton. The sign advertising “Laundromat – FREE WI-FI” is hard to read from the street.
Brendel’s is a small, but first class operation. Its motto – “The stamp of excellence” – is posted on every wall. Whose stamp and where it came from is never mentioned.
Not Responsible for Gym Shoes in Dryer
Iris Correa, the day manager, can’t tell me. But she can tell me that Brendel’s has been in existence for 38 years. Correa is a pleasant, quiet person. As she talks, I notice above her the posted rules for her establishment:
• No radio playing.
• No kids alone in laundry carts.
• Not responsible for gym shoes in dryer.
• Not responsible for stolen clothes.
A baseball game is in progress on the TV sets. Four or five people quietly do their wash in the darkened, air-conditioned silence. I ask Correa what’s different about running a laundromat today.
“What do you want me to say? It’s different these days?” she asks. “It’s not. Clothes get dirty and we wash them.”
THE LAUNDROMATS ON FULLERTON
1. Brendel’s, 2550 W. Fullerton
50 washers, 42 dryers
2. Scrub-A-Dub, 3333 W. Fullerton
62 washers, 60 dryers
3. Plaza Jimenez, 3810 W. Fullerton
56 washers, 80 dryers
4. J&S Laundry, 3913 W. Fullerton
50 washers, 72 dryers
5. Windy City Laundry, 4254 W. Fullerton
35 washers, 27 dryers
6. Spin Cycle, 4418 W. Fullerton
30 washers, 56 dryers
7. Bubbleland, 4748 W. Fullerton
50 washers, 80 dryers
8. The Surf Laundrette, 5046 W. Fullerton
28 washers, 38 dryers
9. JM Laundromat, 5130 W. Fullerton
72 washers, 54 dryers
10. Moonlight Coin Laundry, 5304 W. Fullerton
47 washers, 40 dryers
11. Suds, 5841 W. Fullerton
39 washers, 68 dryers
12. Chicago’s Largest Express Laundry, 6040 W. Fullerton
132 washers, 132 dryers