On a sunbaked Wednesday afternoon, Michelle Brousseau sits down on one of the benches in Fiesta Laundromat at 898 South Van Ness and stares longingly at the Mr. Pickles sandwich shop across the street.
“A sandwich sounds nice about now,” Brousseau says to no one in particular.
She and her husband, Robert Elvin, are among the handful of people doing their laundry in bulk, saving it for a time when they can cruise over to Fiesta, park easily in its front lot, and settle into a day of washing and drying their clothes in a place where they are likely to run into people they know from earlier visits — or meet new characters.
Fernando Portillo, a case manager for Mission Neighborhood Center, calls the 16-year-old, 24-hour, seven-day laundry on the corner of South Van Ness and 20th Street one of the landmarks of the Mission, a de-facto neighborhood gathering spot to meet neighbors, get advice and get your clothes clean.
“I feel like a laundromat like this one in the neighborhood is like a barbershop. It’s just like a community, people come here and meet new people,” said Portillo, who drops by occasionally to put old clothes into a donation bin.
An older man who Brousseau seems to know comes out to say that he just put quarters in the washer. The next time, she advises, he ought to throw his clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes before washing them.
“Bedbugs. It cooks them up first and then you can wash without fear,” she said.
Such is the wisdom that comes from living in a residential hotel and navigating life in the city.
Back within the laundromat, Santos Norello struggles to stay awake. He worked as an Uber driver until 4.a.m., he explains. He occasionally dozes off for a few minutes before waking up to Wendy Williams’ show on one of the laundry’s five flat-screen TVs.
Norello, a 15-year-Mission resident who lives just a block away with his wife and two children, makes the trip to the laundromat at least twice a month.
Right now his loads aren’t crazy because of the summer break. But when his kids are at school, they have to wash clothes at least once a week, a two-hour ordeal that costs him $30. Nevertheless, there are benefits.
“This place, it’s gotten better,” he says in Spanish, pointing to a washing machine and its card reader. “If I don’t have cash at least I can use my debit card,” he says.
Some of the machines have prices as low as a dollar to wash an entire load. That’s a godsend for families like the Norellos, who wash bags of clothes regularly. But drying clothes is another issue — one dollar buys you just 16 minutes. Though he was a cook for 10 years with steadier hours, Norello gave it up to do Uber full-time. It pays more, he says, and it’s less stressful. Moreover, he likes setting his own hours.
Hurry up and wait
The afternoon at the laundromat is a game of waiting.
Everyone bides their time, occupying themselves in different ways, either by streaming films on their phones or by gazing up at one of the five televisions tuned to Telemundo or ABC-7.
At times, opportunities present themselves. A young man cycles over from across the street, perches his purple road bike on the door and begins asking patrons if they’d be interested in either of the jackets he’s wearing or the bike he just rode in on. Raul, as he identifies himself, is on a mission to make money.
“I’m just trying to get some food,” he says.
It turns out that Raul, now 18, left Guatemala on his own at the age of seven, ferried to the United States by smugglers. His parents panicked, but he’s stayed here chasing a better life or, as he puts it, the American Dream.
When he finds out that our conversation is part of an article, his eyes brighten. There are good stories here, he says, referring to the laundromat.
“It’s not just Latinos that show up here. Everyone comes to this place to wash. This is a good place,” he says.
Eventually he successfully sells his North Face jacket for a few dollars and departs wearing a hooded purple vest that flails in the wind.
During the afternoon, mothers congregate to chat as they fold clothes, sometimes sharing cleaning supplies.
In the first row of washing machines, Rebecca Garcia grabs white towels, sprays them with a cleaner and then tosses them into a commercial washer.
It’s a stain remover, she says.
“Nobody else washes like I do,” Garcia says in Spanish, grinning. “This is how you get rid of stains. You spray them like this and wash them.”
Outside, as she smokes a cigarette, Laura Toledo is taking a break. Toledo is another Mission resident and regular here — although if she’s doing wash on a Wednesday, she prefers Laundré at Mission and 20th streets because it has one-dollar Wednesdays, where dryers are free to use. Otherwise, she prefers Fiesta because there is always an attendant on site and the place is kept clean.
Another draw for Fiesta: it has a parking lot with eight parking spaces, making it ideal for out-of-towners wanting to do some washing after-hours.
“There are a lot of laundromats that are left essentially abandoned, and anyone from the street can come in at night,” Toledo said in Spanish.
Toledo takes a puff of her cigarette and stares at the parking lot.
“Here, I can come and feel safe,” she said.