By Mitch Lemus

Looking up from a frayed copy of Popular Mechanics, I noticed the washing machine had stopped spinning. I emptied my two sopping loads of laundry into a wire basket and wheeled them to the last two available dryers. "Those two are mine!" barked a woman from across the room.

"Oh. OK," I murmured, as I retreated to my plastic, orange seat where I leafed through my magazine and waited for another dryer to become available.

"Don't let her do that," whispered a heavyset woman folding clothes nearby. "She's not allowed to reserve a dryer."

It was 11 o'clock on a pleasant Sunday morning on the Upper East Side. Nursing a hangover from a wanton night of partying, it was amazing I found the ambition to get out of bed at all. But with my 3-week cache of Hanes 32 depleted, I had little choice.

"That's not right," the fat lady went on under her breath. "Her stuff is still in the washer." I shrugged, flipping through the pages of the magazine. I hadn't the energy nor the inclination to make an issue of it.

Upon looking up from my magazine about ten minutes later, I noticed that the woman who had claimed the dryers was still hovering by the washers. I don't claim to be an expert in laundromat etiquette, but this seemed wrong. "You know," I said to the fat lady, "you're right. Why should I have to wait? That woman has no right to claim dryers she's not ready to use."

I wheeled my basket over to the two empty dryers and began tossing my wet laundry in. Frantically, the woman raced towards me, laundry basket in tow.

"Oh no you don't! These dryers are mine!," she asserted.

"Well, you weren't using them. You just can't reserve dryers and let them stand while other people are waiting," I reasoned. She was a matronly looking woman in her mid-forties or so. She wore jeans that were way too short, and sockless loafers revealing nubby ankles.

"Look, mister, I cleaned those dryer's lint screens, and I'll be damned if you think you're going to use them!" she threatened.

"Hey, there are two empty dryers. Why don't you take one and I'll take one, OK?"

"No-sir-ee! I'm sorry!"

"Well, I'm sorry, too."

Negotiation did not seem to be on her agenda, and before I knew it, the woman reached into my dryer and began tossing my wet laundry onto the floor.

"What do you think you're doing!?" I asked in a hushed voice, not wanting to attract more attention than we already had. "Don't you touch my stuff!"

"Then get it the hell out of my machine."

"It's not your machine."

"Yes it is."

"No it's not."

"Yes it is."

We jostled and elbowed one other in my attempt to keep her from throwing my laundry to the floor. I had not been in a fist-fight since junior high, and would never think of lifting a hand to a woman. But suddenly, I found myself thrust into this ridiculous altercation. It was insane. We were acting like little children. But what was I to do? I wasn't about to let her dump my laundry. I wasn't going to hit her. Nor was I about to back down from her, either.

By this time, everyone in the laundromat had their eyes glued to us. And why not? This was eminently more entertaining than "Meet the Press" on channel 2. For sure they all knew I was in the right, right? Yet, no one would intervene, not even the fat lady who urged me to stand up for my laundromat rights in the first place. And where was the manager of the place? What if I had lost money in a broken machine?

I retrieved my socks and underwear from the floor and threw them back into the dryer. "Look, I'm really serious about this," the woman hollered. "There's no way I am going to let you have these dryers."

"If they're your dryers, how come I have my stuff in them now?" I shot back, as the jostling escalated to new heights of intensity. I felt totally embarrassed to be a lead in this theater of the absurd. But what was I to do? What to do? What to do...?

Ah ha! With a flash of evil inspiration, I grabbed the underside of her laundry basket ... and in one swift motion, flipped it over. Now all of her wet panties and laundry were on the filthy floor mixed in with mine. Yes, I had sunk to new depths of juvenile behavior. "You are a real ASSHOLE, do you know that," she said, infuriated. I stood there, waiting to see if and how she would retaliate. Just how bizarre could this fiasco become?

"You ARE an asshole, you know that, don't you?" she repeated, as if I didn't quite catch on the first time. "I can't believe anyone could be such a fuckin' asshole!" she snarled, flinging the dryer door into my shoulder.

I said nothing, and again picked my things up off the floor, placing them back into the dryer. She picked up her laundry and put it in the second empty dryer. Did this gesture indicate some type of truce?

I deposited 50 cents into my dryer, and stood there guarding it for a couple of minutes. Reasonably sure that she wasn't going to go on another offensive, I returned to my orange plastic seat, and resumed leafing through "Popular Mechanics." Perhaps there would be an article about how to install a washing machine in a studio apartment.

The fat lady, still folding her laundry approached me and whispered, "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't know she was going to act like that."

"You didn't know she was going to act like that? You almost got me killed! That woman is a lunatic."

The woman deposited change into her dryer, flashed me a nasty smirk, and took a seat at the other end of the laundromat.

Within minutes, several dryers quickly became available.

This story originally appeared in New York Press

Copyright © Mitch Lemus