The Laundromat (1979)
Earlier that day, I was returning from the Laundromat carrying my basket of freshly washed clothes. What a tremendous discovery it had been, finding a Laundromat - the answer to my fervently neurotic prayer.
I had been grumbling for at least two weeks before, because I thought Durban which had gone modern in my absence, had remained stubbornly mediaeval about washing.
My neighbours in the flats had established clothes lines above me, under me and all around me and I assumed that I too would have to go back to the primitive system of having to wash my clothes by hand and hang them out to dry. How depressing!
I walked out of my door everyday, into clothes hanging all along the way, reducing me from a proud upstanding human being to an insect crawling under and around wet foliage on all sides. Looking out of my windows across to other buildings, across to yet other buildings, I saw rows and rows of clothes hanging on lines. For a while, I was in a state of despair. If only I could win one of those crossword competitions in the newspapers, I'd build a laundromat on the spot and become a laundromat millionaire with a chain of laundromats replacing all those clothes lines in and around Durban. But of course other people always win those grand prizes so I was stuck with my problem - until I discovered a magnificent, brand new laundromat in a brand new shopping centre! I wondered why nobody had told me about it and then I realised that the Indian community didn't really need it. Many Indians had their own washing machines and others were still contented with the old way. If I had never left South Africa, would I still be contented with the old ways? Would I still be trying to live in yesterday when today is almost over?
Anyway, there I was coming back from my first joyous afternoon at the laundromat when I saw a Coloured woman in the parking lot and wondered what floor she lived on as I made my way to the elevator. I stood waiting patiently; that is the only way to wait for the lift in our building, and when it eventually came, it brought my neighbour, Mr Reddy, down with it. He smilingly asked if I had been doing my laundry. Happily, I nodded, thinking how his wife had sweetly discouraged me from using her lines when I had hung a pair of trousers up once when the lines were free. I was trying to think of a way to remind him of this, but he had spotted the woman from the parking lot coming towards us. His face lit up as he welcomed her and I realised that she was white. We all rode up to the fifth floor together. They chatted about fishing and I stood contentedly holding my washing.
When we got to our floor, the woman got out and Mr Reddy held the lift open for me. Then he and the woman went off to his place. When their door opened, I heard Mrs Reddy's cheerful voice reprimanding the woman in a familiar way for being late. I wondered, is this South Africa? The country of discrimination? Well, maybe the laundry business hasn't moved into the twentieth century yet, but human attitudes seemed to be changing.
Later that same day, I popped back to the shopping centre for my groceries. Even though I wasn't doing any more washing, I felt a glow just knowing that my laundromat was there. In the supermarket, I felt how strange it was to be shopping like an American. After all, the American way of life is informed by the belief in freedom and having choices. Here in South Africa, in imitating them, we have adopted the form, hoping that the democracy that permeates it is somehow separate and apart. We have moved away from shops where things were behind counters and we waited till someone deigned to serve us. Now, we served ourselves like independent, free human beings, choosing what we wanted, behaving like free people. How long could we practice this supermarket democracy and not let it go to our heads and hearts and demand the same kind of freedom and equality in everything.
Again, I was struck by the ambivalence in our lives - living today with today's attitudes towards things and yesterday's attitudes towards human beings. I thought again of my laundromat that had freed me from drudgery and saw it in a new light. With the supermarket, it was a weapon, a revolutionary sword, ironically provided by the oppressor to end, unbeknownst to him, his oppression. Better than any Ché or Mau, they were indoctrinating us with ideas of freedom and equality. I looked at the row of bottles on the shelf before me, and as I reached for my jar of mango pickles, I laughed. Here, in the open, overtly, I had performed a subversive act. My neighbours and their white friend flashed into my mind. Yes, freedom was on the way.
This time when I got back to the parking lot at the flat, I saw a handsome, distinguished looking man standing in front of the elevator. We chatted about the lift, which as usual was dawdling somewhere up above, wondering if it was stuck again as it stayed an interminable time on the seventh floor. Our lift also seemed to suffer from the ambivalence informing all our lives. It wanted to live by yesterday's standards, but it used a twentieth century mode to protest. It went on strike daily, remaining jammed on some floor or the other and like all strikes in this country, was dealt with violently and summarily, usually being forced back on the job by a kick or a shove. But it arrived eventually and I got off at the fifth while my companion continued a slow ascent.
As I got out, I saw Mr Reddy standing near his door; I smiled and went to my door. As I was turning the key in my lock, I was surprised to find Mr Reddy close at my elbow. In a very confidential manner, he asked me if an African had ridden up in the elevator with me. I nodded. Then he wanted to know if the man was going to the sixth floor. When I nodded, he looked at me with an air of excited distress and asked, ‘What do you think of that, eh?' Somewhat puzzled, I stood waiting for the revelation. ‘He's living here, on the next floor!' I was even more puzzled. Was I really in South Africa or was I still in St Louis? How delightful I thought, but when had apartheid been abolished? My neighbour continued, ‘He's a doctor.' I smiled. At last, some class in this place - my mind was ready to go off on its own tangent but a note in my neighbour's voice arrested me. It sounded familiar but I wanted to be absolutely certain.
He leant forward. ‘I work at the hospital, you see, and I know the nurse who lives up there. She was living there (he pointed to another building) but now she's moved here. African nurse. She's living here in our building. He's a doctor at the hospital. What you think of that? She was staying here by herself, but now I see he's coming here too.' On the surface it all sounded like the usual garden-fence variety of gossip, but I was aware of the strong undertow in Mr Reddy's communication and I was wary. ‘What you think of it, eh? Now they letting Africans into this building.' I stood there without speaking, my silence forcing him to damn himself and me as well - he had come to confide in me, someone whom he considered an ally. ‘After all, colour counts.' I looked at the two of us, both of us as black as night and I couldn't understand what he was talking about. ‘What do you mean colour counts?'
‘We can't have Africans staying here. I must put my mind to this thing.' Suddenly, this neighbour of mine, friendly, charming, kind, had turned into a viper right before my eyes. He had raised himself, spread his hood and was ready to strike.
Words tumbled out of me. ‘But I think it's a good thing. That's the way it ought to be. We should have African people staying here. We should all be mixed up. It's because we don't know people of other races that we are prejudiced. I'm glad that they are here. There's too much discrimination in this country and we must fight it.' My neighbour looked at me as though he were seeing me for the first time. He stared for a moment, but recovered himself and quickly gave fervent lip service to the idea of equality. ‘Yes, that's true, we have too much discrimination in this country.' He went back to his flat.
I thought back to Mr Reddy's white friend. Would he object if she took a flat here? And why was he so concerned about the African doctor upstairs? Was it because he was a doctor? Mr Reddy was the hospital cook and I could only assume that he resented the fact that an African man was a doctor, higher in status and in authority over him. And believing in the fallacy of racial superiority, he probably felt humiliated. Perhaps, frustration at work had spilt over to the home front when he found the doctor declaring his equality by living in the same block of flats. So he didn't want this threat to his identity, an identity established for him by the laws and social restrictions of apartheid rather than through his own search for himself. Now he planned to use the law against the doctor - a law that in other circumstances he would condemn as unjust; that keeps Black people oppressed and thus is no law at all. Here he was demonstrating the ambivalence in his outlook, the split in his personality that made him typically South African. He reminded me of all other split people, un-Christian Christians, White Liberals, and those most tortured of all, play-whites . He made me afraid to look in the mirror. I was terrified that I would find a fractured form. Even worse, would I see myself whole because like all those other bisected humans, I couldn't see that I was a divided self.
I unlocked my door and went in. As I unpacked my groceries, found my jar of mango pickles and I realised that it was more a symbol of ambivalence than a symbol of freedom. Free choice in a supermarket, in a racist society, is a form of schizophrenia. But it wouldn't affect the Reddy's of the world anyway; their wives were busy putting up their own homemade pickles. This was just a plain old jar of pickles in my hand and I put it up on the shelf,
A few days later, as I passed the Reddy's door which stood wide open as usual, I saw them chatting with the nurse from upstairs in a familiar and friendly manner. In light of what Mr Reddy had said, this was a surprise. A pleasant but astonishing surprise! What had happened to his endorsement of the Group Areas Act? I could only imagine that Mr Reddy's outburst had been a mood of the moment. After all it is hard to remain free of prejudice when the air we breathe is heavy with its pollution and, despite ourselves, we all slip in and out of attitudes that we know are wrong.
How strange though, that the Reddys' friends extended across all racial lines. How much stranger that I, with my liberal attitudes, who stood in judgment of Mr Reddy, could claim friends in only one racial community. How very odd indeed.