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It all comes out in the laundry room

Being a kid in the '30s was to learn the world in a time when almost no one was rich. The hospital patient in the old joke said it for most people when the nurse who was tucking him in for the night asked, "Are you comfortable, Mr. Grimes?"

"I make a living," he said.

A delineation of social status in my neighborhood was whether or not the mother in a family had to take in wash to make ends meet. The irony is that in my silver and scant-haired years, when times were pretty good, I would get into washing other people's clothes _ whether they liked it or not.

We live part of the year in our condominium in Treasure Island where clothes are washed in the community laundry room. Years ago when we settled in here, because I wouldn't allow my wife _ or she refused, I forget which _ to lug our dirty clothes down to the laundry room, I volunteered to be our Florida wash person. I had zero qualifications: never been there, never done that.

So I proceeded to make every possible mistake. The first, and one of the easiest, was leaving a red sock in with the white stuff, getting myself a complete set of pink underwear.

Another blunder that seemed to be popular _ at least everyone seemed to know about it after I'd done it _ is not checking the pockets and winding up with tiny facial tissue specimens clinging to everything, which is particularly stunning on navy blue or black things.

Then there is the putting-in of the laundry detergent before the water starts moving. That allows clumps of it to sit on those navy blue or black things and bleach random parts to a permanent fiery purple-pink or dead white.

The worst is what I mentioned _ doing other people's wash. There are a couple of ways to approach it, if you'd care to learn. One is not to put your head in the washer you're about to use to notice the lovely woman's sweater clinging to the side near the top, probably having been cold-washed.

You set the washer on "hot," throw your soiled linens in with the concealed sweater and take a hike _ that's what I usually do while my clothes are being washed, timing my stroll so I get back just as they're done. Sometimes, as in the sweater example, there is another person waiting there for a joint celebration of the completion of my wash _ without a neighborly smile on her face.

Another way to mess up is to set the machine on "hot," wait for the tub to fill and start churning, without lifting the lid. You get to know what taking in wash means when you do open the lid to put your laundry in and discover that you are already washing someone else's already-washed wash.

There must have been another time in my life when I felt as stupid, but I can't remember it. Or when I felt as helpless; there's no "stop" button on the washing machine. The cycle you started on someone else's second-time-around laundry will continue for the programed 35 minutes. Unrelentingly. It's a desperate feeling.

What I did (it only happened once, a long time ago _ trust me) is put my undone laundry back into my bag and took it home to wait a day or two for the laundry room scene to clear, for the cast of laundry characters to cycle, for my tracks to fade. I also lied to my wife about what happened, telling her all the machines were busy. You never know, as a veteran launderer she might have certain ethics. She might have turned me over to the authorities.

I imagine there is a national watchdog group _ there is for everything else _ called S.U.D.S., or something like that, that would have been more than willing to lay on me a malpractice suit; freshly laundered, of course.

Freelance writer Al Sandvik resides in Treasure Island and Minneapolis, where he is a columnist for the Edina Sun-Current.