vman

The writing I’ve done lately centres on a theme: recognizing alternatives to the ways men habitually relate with each other. I write these pieces partly for myself because I want to grow and change as a person – I want to live the best life I possibly can. I’m interested in tracking subtle changes as they happen in my life – the more they happen the more I notice them, the more I notice them the more often they happen. I offer what I find to the soup of information we swim in daily; the messages we knowingly or unknowingly re-act in our lives and relationships. It’s good for me, maybe it’s good for us.

I wash my clothes every Friday at Venable Laundry on the corner of Commercial Drive and Venables in East Vancouver. Wilson’s Laundry down the street is open later which is convenient, but I decided after one trip to Wilson’s that I would come back to Venable. I like the people who run Venable Laundry, it’s also cheaper and they have better machines. I’ve made friends with other folks who do their Friday loads there, and it’s cheaper. Did I mention it’s cheaper?

Laundry day is crucial for me. A week at the barn leaves my clothes sweaty, damp, full of hay and horse hair. Dirty items wind up scattered around the floor of the van and in my studio so by Friday I’m teetering on the verge of anxiety overload if I don’t deal with them. I’ve got to get as many clothes clean in one shot as I possibly can and to do that I’ve got to be wearing as few of my clothes as possible during that wash/dry. I’ve got a pair of black Kyodan sweatpants and a Cannibal Corpse ‘butchered at birth’ t-shirt turned tank top that serve as my trusty go-to outfit for the weekly occasion. I understand that t-shirts featuring fetal corpses hanging from meat hooks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve always been a sucker for obscene band T’s.

2 weeks and 2 loads ago I decided to leave my jug of sensitive skin high efficiency laundry detergent behind the counter with the staff at Venable. It might not seem like much to you, you with your plum basement laundry situation; you with your in house laundry and soap sitting casual wherever you please – but it’s about as serious as commitment gets when it comes to choosing a commercial laundering spot. Leaving my soap behind the counter says: ‘I’ll be back – oh yes, I’ll be back alright. Keep this behind the counter for me, I’ll be back. It’s got my name on it, my name is Brent … that’s right, I’ll be back for sure.’

I dropped the jug of detergent in Venable parking lot a few months ago, cracking the plastic screw top lid. When the container tipped over or I used the lid for measuring I got high efficiency soap leaking out all over the place – what a mess! Mending the top with 2 layers of red tuct tape worked pretty well to keep the contents under control. Consequently, it’s pretty easy to pick my bottle out of a lineup.

“Can I have my soap? It’s the one with the…” they know it by now. Such an individual I am 🙂

I get along well with the staff at Venable, although we don’t know much about one anothers personal lives. I feel a genuine respect has grown between us since I made my conscious commitment to their business. We often chit chat about the city and neighborhood; they switch my washed laundry to the dryer for me if I’m not around. I pitch them a few bucks for the favour and make sure to be back before closing time to pick things up.

On Good Friday I made my weekly trip to Venable. It was 15 degrees in Vancouver, on a Friday, on a holiday, so the shop was empty. Holidays be damned though, my socks are limited in number and filthy after a weeks work with horses. The middle aged Thai man I’ve come to expect folding laundry behind the counter seemed irritated and in his own world when I arrived. The shop bell chimed as I entered but he didn’t even look in my direction. On a usual visit we’d engage in some kind of banter back-and-forth, but not this day. Something’s eating him, but I decided to leave it alone.

I get back to the shop an hour after setting the wash cycle to take my things from the dryer, fold ’em up and pack ’em away. My sweater comes out a few minutes early so I can wear it while it’s piping hot then put it back in the dryer for a few more go rounds. I love hot laundry, and I really love folding hot laundry. The farmhouse I was raised in didn’t have a clothes dryer so it’s a luxury I take full advantage of now. Our clothes were dried on the line outside in warm months, then inside the farmhouse during winter. This had some benefits, no doubt. Our summer clothes always smelled fresh like the lilac tree next to the hay barn. Items dried inside in the winter helped offset the de-humidifying effect of the triple plated steel Kingsman wood fired stove that gave us our heat and kept the pipes from freezing in.

Win win, right? Sort of. Air dried clothes tend to get quite stiff, and they wrinkle like you wouldn’t believe. My mother, sister and I took turns ironing and folding the stacks of jeans and tshirts coming in from the line or down from the banister. It was tedious, there was always a stack to work through. My mother insisted on doing laundry several times per week which I always thought excessive. I’m more of a ‘save it up for the weekend’ kinda guy; I guess I just have other things to do. She insisted on us doing a set list of chores to keep the household running the way she wanted, and the laundry turned out to be my least hated of them. I preferred it to dusting the innumerable wooden antiques in our aged home. Ornately turned oak table legs and the impossible nooks and crannies of that relic pump organ. The foot powered sewing machine in the upstairs hallway that announced itself only when a toe was stubbed, the black lacquer bedframe that has occupied my sisters room since before the house was built. Beautiful handcrafts full of histroy, yes; dustmagnets, each and every one of them. The spray wood cleaner ‘Pledge’ irritated my sinus and made me nauseous. Ammonia filled bottles of Windex and aerosol Bon-Ami made the skin on my hands and forearms goosepimple red and my eyes water. She told me recently that she never used those products,

“Just vinegar and water!” she’s convinced herself…

…but my nervous system will never forget.

I have a collection of triangular burn marks on my thumb and forefingers from the tip of the iron getting too close to my skin. After the initial cautery I got used to the sensation, even began to anticipate it. I realized that although the burn was painful I could experience the pain without doing or saying anything about it. Have you noticed people saying ‘ow’ when they haven’t injured themselves? I’ve always thought that was strange. I came to enjoy the time alone ironing clothes and still find folding laundry to be an incredibly satisfying task.

I was early to pick up my clean and dried clothes on Good Friday, 30 minutes early to be exact. Sitting on the long black and white couch against the back wall of Venable I read a paper ‘The Georgia Straight’. The couch is in a quiet spot flanked only by old and unworking wash machines. Thumbing through and then bored with my paper, I look up and around the shop. The Thai man behind the counter is grimacing as he arches forward, reaching diagonally across his back, awkwardly, with his left arm. He’s reaching for his right shoulder blade and pawing lamely at the tight muscle contained beneath his parka. He’s in definite discomfort.

“Is your back sore?” I ask as I move automatic in his direction

He doesn’t respond with words, but he doesn’t need to. His contorted face says it all:

‘YES FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I’M IN AGONY!’

Maybe he’s not sure what to say?

Walking behind the counter I find him seated, leaning forward on one of those chiropractically useless fold out metal chairs. You know the type; they’re the kind that seem singularly purposed to give people physical discomfort. I ask him where his back is sore. He motions at two spots on his right side, one above the shoulder blade at his trapezius and another just below the shoulder blade about 10 inches off the spine. I start working at the top of his shoulder; it’s difficult because he’s still wearing his winter parka, a sweater and a t-shirt.

“Here, take your coat off.”

He removes an arm halfway out of a coat sleeve, uncertainly looking back at me like a hopeful and nervous animal, as if to ask ‘Is this enough?’. No, it’s not enough. He’s not totally sure what’s happening here, but he lets my confidence be his confidence. Horses are like that much of the time, so I’m in familiar territory. I tell him he’ll have to remove the parka, and he obliges. He’s used to seeing me on the other side of the counter and takes a moment to relax into our new relationship.

Glancing over at my drying load I see I’ve got 25 minutes to go. “I’ve got 20 minutes” I tell my patient, he nods affirmatively. I work around the indicated knots for a few minutes then press into them directly to get some blood moving. He needs a bit of prompting to breathe into the most densely packed nerve bunches, and I check in with him to make sure the pressure isn’t too intense. His initial gesticulations were spot on – there are two tightly packed pockets of nerves – one above and one below the right shoulder blade. After a few minutes attention on those spots I work over to his left side to give them a break; by that time he’s relaxed and grown used to my presence behind the counter.

He asks me how I learned this skill. I tell him a past girlfriend gave me great massages and I wanted to give something back to her. I also wanted more massage and figured the best way to get it was to give it. At the time it was one of the only ways I allowed myself to relax and find some peace. I had a serious cocaine habit from 2005-2007 and didn’t sleep very regular hours. Meaghan was always good to me during that time; when I got off a bartending shift at 3am or stayed out partying till noon she always looked after me. She’d run coloured baths for me to soak in and make sure the house was quiet and dark when I needed to sleep. She made a book with my picture on it called ‘Brent’s Sleep Book’ full of suggestions on how to get better rest. I tell him I was overwhelmingly a selfish person during that time. I say “I guess you get what you give” and I think that’s true, at least some of the time. I massage the mans back and shoulder for 20 minutes as a few folks step in and out of the laundry shop on this lazy holiday Friday. No one approaches the counter for change, so we continue totally uninterrupted.

When my clothes are just about dry I sit for 5 minutes and check my phone. A person sitting at the high table next to me had been watching while I worked and says

“That just totally made my day, that was really nice of you.”

I tell them it’s partly a self interested thing, that I want to live in a world where people help each other when they recognize someone is hurt or needs something. I say I’ve received a lot of that kind of care from others and realize that part of the way to get things is to give them – it might not work all the time, but sometimes is often enough. Another part of me wants people to see a grown man wearing a Cannibal Corpse tank top giving another grown man a back massage in a laundromat on Good Friday. It isn’t the main motivation for giving the massage, but it’s in there.