Habeeb’s Launderette


Seeing as I’m here, in the warm, throbbing, shabbily clean environment provided by the launderette, I may as well say something about Habeeb.  Habeeb was, if not lord and master, then at least overseer and regulator of a domain just like this one, his warm-as-toast refuge against the spiky cold Chicago nights of my lean, unemployed, homesick months.  Habeeb’s was a launderette – although, of course, there they say Laundromat – of the ordinary kind;  smelling strongly of detergent, washing powder adverts on the walls, the television, on which Habeeb watched the basketball he claimed to loathe (cricket – sport of English Gentlemen – was his game, he claimed) by the clanking rhythm of dryers and the urgent whirring of washers near the end of their cycle.  Habeeb moved slowly in his small fiefdom.  He swept and mopped the floor, washed, dried and folded the clothes left in his care by wealthier customers than myself with a gentle grace.


When he wasn’t busy, which was often, he would sit chewing peanuts on a stool in the corner, reading his Koran – a version in Arabic, Urdu and English – and drinking cold Budweisers from the fridge.  “Read this” he’d say in the long idle laundry time, “drink this”.


He had come, originally, from Hyderabad, in the hot centre of the Indian sub-continent.  For a while, between many years spent at sea, he had stayed in Islamic Sailors’ homes in South Shields, not a million miles from a place I once called home.


A liberally Muslim Indian launderette manager in Chicago, he nonetheless retained fond feelings for the Imperial Britain he had lived under for maybe six or seven half-remembered years.  So we shared a nostalgia for our notions of faraway England, and I too contentedly washed, dried and folded in this warm imagined outpost of a dead Empire.


Though retribution may seem to come in flames, hell isn’t an inferno, its a freezer, as anyone who has locked themselves out on a windy January night in Chicago will tell you.  Eventually the ice-age thawed and work became easier to find.  I visited Habeeb’s launderette less often, but proudly with filthily soiled work-clothes, trophies of my refound status as productive economic unit, knocking things down, cleaning things, carrying things.


Habeeb said to me, exhausted at the end of a week of labour, “Why not be a taxi driver?”  He promised to put me in touch with his cousin, who ran a cab firm, next time work dried up or sooner.


Then, not long after, walking from subway to home one evening, covered in the grime of another eight hours digging holes in mud, I passed Habeeb’s launderette.  Now it was just a blackened hole in the little row of shops.


I had to start using the handy but hardly sociable laundry room in the basement of the apartment building and only saw Habeeb one more time, looking out of place in the street, far from his warm, lost kingdom.   “What happened?” I asked him. And he told me a faulty drier had caused the fire.  He looked a little dejected, walking alone in a coat too large for the spring heat.   “Allah decides” he said, holding a carrier bag with Budweisers in it and I noticed he’d lost another tooth.


I never got to drive a taxi.



(c) 1995

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