Israel is a land of never-ending discovery. My most recent, unearthed on a trip back after many years, was the laundromat on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv.
There may be Israelis who use laundromats but I haven’t met any. If my Israeli friends know where to find one, they’re not telling, and perhaps there is some pride in this. But I’m staying at an AirBnB and have run out of clothes, so I lug my laundry bag down the street, asking everyone: “Slicha—kvisa?” (Excuse me—laundry?) Five or six people tell me with certainty where to find a laundromat, but no two agree. So there is much walking back and forth until a couple of people point me in the same direction, and I head toward Allenby Street. There it is, a gray hut with a gray sign: “Kvisa.”
The tiny, spare place has no change or detergent machines. The only other patron, who turns out to be a non-Hebrew-speaking, English-challenged Asian tourist, sees me looking around. His lively pantomime indicates the juice bar down the street. Feeling slightly ashamed— Shouldn’t I have figured out that change and laundry detergent live at the juice bar? —I head out the door.
The juice bar is one of those holes in the wall with the best juice on earth. The proprietor, undoubtedly a pussycat with friends and family, scowls as he grudgingly confirms that this is the place, and hands over change and some soap powder in a container with no label. How much to use, I wonder, not daring to ask. Back at the laundromat, I gingerly sprinkle about half of the powder into the washing machine; then, with pioneer daring, dump in the rest. The machine accepts my coins on the sixth or seventh try. I push the button, the little light goes on, and … dead silence. “I don’t hear anything. Is it working?” I ask my mentor, still folding and sorting. He laughs—I take it as a yes.
My local American laundromat is friendlier, or maybe just more confident of its patronage. There are lots of signs with precise directions, detergent and change dispensers, a TV, a plant, and a couple of employees who will take time from their folding to whack an uncooperative machine for you and get it working again. Knowing that the cycle is exactly a half hour, I feel confident running an errand or grabbing a coffee. But here at the Tel Aviv laundromat, there are no signs in any language. How long do I have? I’d love to stroll over to the market and get some olives. Foolhardy? Perhaps, but …
I head out the door and up the street at a clip. “How far is the Carmel Market?” I ask a fellow watering the sidewalk: a warrior of sanitation. “Right there,” he gestures. I follow his pointing finger. “Where? I’ve exhausted his patience. “There!” he snaps. A young woman overhears. “Cross King George, then cross the next little one. Don’t turn on Sheinkin. Keep going, right after Balfour.” “What are you talking about?” exclaims the offended warrior.” It’s right before Balfour. The debate continues. I should turn back; this is not an urgent errand. But it has become a mission.
At the market I elbow my way through the crowd towards the olive man. “A quarter kilo of those, please—the green ones,” I say, trying too hard not to sound like an American in a hurry. The more I fidget, the more the fellow takes his time. “Savlanut,” he advises. Patience. Grabbing the wet bag of olives, I run back down the street. No one else is running. At the laundromat the little light is still on, and I pause for a moment of gratitude.
This triumph calls for a fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. I march down the block and order a large. Watching the juice guy squeeze grapefruit after grapefruit is Zen, and I feel overcome. “I love your laundromat,” I gush sincerely. His reluctant smile says Silly foreigners. Who needs these compliments? But I can tell that he is pleased.
The machine is still on when I return. As I am retrieving my clothes, an elderly man comes in with his laundry bag. He seems bewildered, and in the name of passing it forward, I guide him through the whole business. At last, like laundry pioneers before him, he pushes the button. After several seconds of silence, in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew: “I don’t hear anything. Is it working?”