The Succotash* Statement
By David Daniel
The Washateria’s door is propped open to the mild November dark and I’m sitting in a plastic chair, reading Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground.” After midnight on a Wednesday, I’ve found, is a good time to do laundry. The place is two blocks from campus and I have it all to myself. Before leaving the dorm on a laundry run I always ask my roommate if he wants me to wash his jeans. He’s been wearing the same pair since September. The denim is glossy with grime and stiff as sheet metal. He scowls at the suggestion. He’s a freshman from Passaic who spends most of his time writing irritable screeds to the campus newspaper. I never see him do homework. Quietly, I worry about the grades he’s going to get.
“I know,” I told him. “It’s your protest statement. Against . . . what again?”
“The system. The Man, man. Nixon. A plague of locusts is on the land and all you think about is clean threads? A pox on your house, man.”
“But if I wash them for you, then technically you’re off the hook.”
“Forget it. By June I want ‘em to be able to stand up by themselves.”
Why? Does he plan to send them to the Draft Board in hopes they’ll get drafted instead of him?
So, at 12:27 A.M., it’s only me and a sudsy twist of lights and darks beyond the round window in the Bendix. I’m just settling down to Dostoevsky, who I have to read for a literature class, when the three guys enter.
Like insects drawn by the light, they stomp in, squinting under the fluorescents. Guys my age, give or take, not a laundry bag or jug of fabric softener in sight. They ignore me.
I recognize one as a guy who hangs around the student union, always in the faded army fatigue jacket he’s wearing now, pinned all over with face buttons: Joplin, Hendrix, Lennon… People call him Buttons. The pair with him, one skinny, the other heavyset, aren’t familiar. Although he’s the smallest of the group, Buttons is in charge. “We’re doing this,” he tells them, “OK?”
Skinny looks doubtful. “I don’t know…”
“Be a trip, man. Be fun.”
“Yeah,” seconds Heavyset, “be a statement.”
Buttons unzips his jacket, the pins clinking softly. The smell of laundry soap is giving ground to the aromas of weed and beer. Buttons slings his jacket onto a plastic table for folding clothes and wanders over to a dryer. It’s a heavy-duty unit, for sleeping bags and quilts, a front-loader with a window door. He opens it and sticks his head in. “Remember,” he says, voice echoey inside the machine, “when I give the sign…”
“On it,” says Heavyset.
I’m suddenly alert. What are they up to? Gonna rob the place? Blow it up? He steps one foot up into the dryer. Then, ducking low, he scootches all the way inside. Skinny closes the door. Buttons splays his hands against the glass, smooches his lips, mugging. He’s on TV. His boys crack up. Buttons gives a thumbs-up, and Heavyset begins inserting coins. Skinny cranks the dial. With a squawk of drive belts straining under an unexpected load, the drum begins to move. Beyond the glass, Buttons commences a slow rotation.
The view is of a thudding, thumping whirl of arms and legs. I’m dizzied by it. A little scared. Should I protest? But I’m just then thinking of what my roommate would say: Don’t be a buzz-kill! Let people do their own thing! Except, the guy could die in there. I’m on the brink of intervening when, finally, after another racketing revolution, there’s a spank of hands on the inner side of the glass. Skinny tugs open the door.
The drum groans to a halt. Heavyset helps Buttons climb out. He’s rubber-legged, pale, hair wispy and on end, clothes snapping with static. But he claims the moment with a clenched-fist power salute, and his friends crow. “Right on!”
He wobbles toward the door, the others a step behind. I remember his jacket and say so.
Buttons ignores me, then, abruptly, lurches to the nearest open-top washing machine and barfs into it.
Skinny takes the jacket and then they are all staggering out into the night.
I’m stunned. Did that just happen? Finally, impelled by grim curiosity, I peer into the washer. In the bottom is a gooey puddle of diced vegetables and lumps of crust in a light gravy.
The aromas in the Laundromat are changing again. Time to split. But my wash isn’t done, and I’ve still got to dry it. So, what I do, I shut the defiled washer’s lid. I plug in coins and twist the dial over to a rinse cycle. The vegetables won’t go through the strainer—too big for the tiny holes—but the rest will. And at least the peas and carrots and corn will be nice and clean. Probably good enough for the dining commons.
Later, back in the dorm, I will tell the story to my roommate, who’ll be skeptical and ask was I tripping? But he’ll know otherwise. I’m an accounting major, for God’s sake. Maybe he’ll be stirred by Buttons’ outlaw act: “Riding in the guts of the MACHINE! If that’s not a political statement!” He may find in this further reason not to wash his jeans. If he asks, I might tell him about my political statement . . . a succotash statement, a volley in the war on hunger maybe, or bad hygiene, or the tide of anarchy getting ready to wash across the land, man.
But for now, 12:58 a.m. on a Wednesday night in November, I trundle my damp things from a washer into a dryer, take a seat, and pick up Dostoevsky. In the quiet, I hear the soft noise of the machines, like the world, going round and round.
* – Succotash actually has a history that predates the vegetable medley in a Del Monte can or Birds Eye frozen package that many of us remember. Created by the Indigenous peoples in what’s now known as Massachusetts, over time it became a familiar New England dish, common in Thanksgiving feasts. For more info on succotash, see https://en.wikipedia.