Google search: “laundrette, Well Street, Exeter.” nothing. Google search: “laundrettes, exeter.” Search “laundromats, exeter.” Search “laundrette EX4 ___”. Nothing.
I’m trying to find the phone number of the management of the laundromat nearest my house. I could tell that homeless people went there often because it’s unstaffed and warm, and there are signs hanging up saying “If you are not here for the intended purposes of this laundromat please leave as we have genuine customers. It is illegal to smoke and drink on these premises.”
I’d like to say that I’m not a person who would begrudge a homeless person a warm place to sit while it rains. But I learned today that apparently I am.
When I arrived at the laundromat this morning I noticed an unpleasant smell. I finally realized that someone had urinated into the trash can in the far corner of the room. This probably tipped the balance of my reaction to what happened later.
I decided to sit and wait for my clothing to dry. There was one other woman waiting as well, sitting in the plastic chairs by the dryers. The chairs by the washers were empty because they were close to the smell emenating from the garbage bin in the corner.
About ten minutes after I turned the dryer on, an old man shambled in carrying a plastic bag. I immediately surmised he was homeless and that this wasn’t his first bottle of the day. He set the bottle down on the chairs by the washers and went out again. The woman next to me began zipping up her pockets. The old man came back in, closing the door behind him. The woman got up and left — her dryer had finished tumbling.
I thought to myself, maybe it will be alright. Maybe he’ll just sit there and not say anything. But no, he wanted to talk. He asked about my studies. I told him what they were, and he responded, as so many people do by looking shocked and repeating the phrase, “Islamic studies?” I find this annoying because I study Arab and Islamic Studies — that’s the name of my course — and people often behave as if the Arab part doesn’t exist. This is doubly unfortunate because in my case, the Islamic part of my studies is entirely incidental and I can’t provide any useful information on comparative religion. But my university doesn’t offer a PhD just in Arabic studies, so there you are. I asked him if he was there to do laundry or not. He said he was sitting there because it was raining. I informed him I didn’t want to have a conversation with him. He said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” I thanked him and continued reading. Thirty seconds or so went by, and he turned to me again and said, “But we’re all supposed to be Christians, aren’t we?”
I left. There’s a small organic vegetable shop next to the laundrette, and I went in to ask if they had the phone number of the laundry management. They did not. I couldn’t decide what to do: I didn’t want to sit alone in the laundrette with the homeless man, but I also didn’t really want to call the police, because he wasn’t hurting me, he was just lonely and cold. I finally decided to call them in the end, since there was no way to reach the managers of the laundromat.
The dispatcher told me she’d get people to come and have a chat with the man, and move him along. I hung around outside the organic shop for a few minutes, then decided I was being ridiculous and went back into the laundrette.
The old man was gone, leaving his empty wine bottle behind him. Then I felt guilty: what had he done? A lonely old man with no place to go had wanted a chat, and I’d kicked him out into the rain. “The quality of mercy is not strained.” Well apparently mine is strained, or sprained, or maybe even broken. Would it hurt me to be nicer to homeless people?
I called the police and told them the man had wandered off. I searched again for the phone number of the laundry management, but in vain. I’ve kept searching — but all I can say to them even if I find it is, do you have a plan about the homeless people in the laundrette, because those signs you put up are obviously not good enough? And somehow, that doesn’t seem good enough a response.