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
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
I never got to drive a taxi.