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“Sir, you dropped a sock” went the matronly black woman, her eyeglasses evoking the ghost of Shirley Chisholm. Go back to church I groused, as my acknowledging smile barely deflected her motherly persecution. Later, the laundromat’s tiny Philippine proprietress eagle-eyed the way I loaded wet ropes of laundry into the powerful moisture extractor and like clockwork, she came over to “assist,” admonishing the way I’d failed to tuck my towels tightly under. “It will all fly out,” she coos, referring to the machine’s centrifugal action. “Must be careful.”
I try to shake it off. But later, attempting to read amidst the sound of whirring dryers and the choking smell of Tide and fabric softener, I find that I’m probing my hurt like a tongue stabbing a toothache. Those surrogate mothers were only trying to help while sending the message that in matters of the hearth, all men are interlopers. They won’t let me join the club. Mistakes made in that temple of detergent amount to sacrilege; how many times have I heard “Boy, you dragging that sheet” from women younger than I am! As if. Always I ignore them with a confidence that purrs you’re imagining things, tend to your own whites.
All any of us want is control. To a man who refuses to send out his washables these ladies speak my language; unlike their husbands, fathers or boyfriends, a clean floor or glasses devoid of fingerprints puff me up to bursting. These signposts signal that my life is in order; else, why would those dust bunnies haunt my sleep alongside such pressing issues as is the theater really dead? Why, in an act of procrastination, must cleaning the bathroom acquire as much importance as addressing the national debt? These handmaidens of Clorox would sympathize with the true source of my ire: living one flight below are neighbors who deal in filth, whose landing seems indelibly coated with spilled drinks, dropped candy wrappers and cigarette butts. I spotted their latest affront—jungle-red graffiti—on the way to do my washing. I was so offended that I almost returned to my apartment for a bucket, bleach and a brush.
Nature or nurture? My farm-bred parents didn’t see us as ten snotty-nosed brats; to them we were a ready-made work force. With our brood there was no way my mother and sisters could keep up with “woman’s work,” so in addition to our usual chores—mowing the lawn, taking out the garbage and keeping my father’s car immaculate—all seven sons matriculated in household maintenance.
By the time I hit grade school, my responsibilities included ironing. I began with my father’s handkerchiefs: after flicking them with a spray of water from a small aluminum basin, I’d press the white dime-store squares flat as sheets of paper before folding them into the rectangles that lived in his back pocket. With the coaching of my older brothers I graduated to shirts, and even now I can hear their rote recitation (“collar, yoke, back, fronts and sleeves”) guaranteeing the absence of wrinkles and my mother’s kudos.
Back then housework or chores of any kind were not my favorite thing. I wanted to be outside digging for ants or trolling the neighborhood with my pals. My household burdens eluded them. If they had chores I didn’t know about it, and even if they did I’ll bet they had nothing to do with starch or dishwashing liquid. Maybe it was that their mothers didn’t work or they were only children (or at most had only one or two siblings). The first time I was called a sissy had nothing to do with my sexuality. It was the sound of my mother’s hog-calling yell that made me suspect: “Ennis, you better git up here and iron these pants. NOW”
Her voice would resonant once my grownup self moved to Manhattan. Her idea that “I raised y’all to take care of yourself” intersected with the discovery that making a meal, cleaning a toilet bowl or even vacuuming seemed one of the few things that I, as a struggling actor, could control. Waiting for the call that might yield a salaried acting job, my fate hung on the whim of others. Like a Handy Andy doll, I embraced the maintenance of our 2-1/2 room apartment. My “art” became whatever I could accomplish within four walls.
When my ex moved out, tending to home kept the depression at bay. Sunday afternoons were the worst, and to ward off the sudden loneliness I decided that each week I’d teach myself a new dish. Out came The Joy of Cooking and The Tassajara Breadbook, culinary tomes from which I taught myself everything from cheesecakes to roast chicken. In particular, I honed my already precocious skill in baking, and anything else made of flour. Clouds of white punctuated the kitchen’s warmth, spraying the air as I’d punch the dough for loaves of cracked wheat bread or rolled snakes of gnocchi flecked with basil. The curdled soothing smell of the sourdough pot complemented the sharp wafting of chopped garlic. Cooking taught me to trust solitude; through it I got to know myself by myself.
I could make the case that darning my socks, sewing on missing buttons and shining my shoes are tasks inherited from parents who lived through the Depression, or the result of my early Manhattan years when money wasn’t at a premium. That I haven’t discarded such habits indicates that either I’ve grown up to be my mother or that I’ve come around to seeing that these activities keep me grounded. Whether communing with a needle and thread or washing windows, the “work” slows me down in a world where everything tends to move a little fast. It’s cheaper than therapy, and I don’t have to wait to see results.
My acquired assurance sometimes spills over into a surprising self-satisfied arrogance. At the supermarket I’m the first person to tell some clueless shopper that the way to tell if that peach is ripe is to sniff it, not squeeze it. And for the life of me I can’t fathom why my current partner seems unable (and he tries) to distinguish between fresh thyme and rosemary, despite my patient persistence: “Sweetheart, the rosemary looks like a sprig off a Christmas tree.” Clearly he was asleep when they passed out that gene though in all fairness, he runs a mean vacuum cleaner.
Two weeks ago, a run-in with a church lady at the C-Town said it all. Waiting to put my groceries on the conveyor, this violet-clad Amazon (sporting a hat that threatened to ascend) dared to break in front of me. After she huffed a “Well, I didn’t see you,” I summoned the Gods of Brillo and Ajax. All puffed up, I hissed a deadly “Open your eyes” and commenced to load my wares. My mother would have been appalled at such rudeness, but you know I have a household to run too. I can’t be messin’ around. Collecting my receipt, I threw a glance at her groceries and immediately swelled with self-satisfaction when I spied an article of appalling sacrilege: a box of cake mix. As if. My brain whispers amateur; having marked my territory I saunter through the automatic doors.