Partners in crime


Late in life I acquired my own washing machine. Having previously lived in primitive circumstances, the high end of which was a rathole apartment in Central Tucson, I had no place to put one. With a personal automobile and a home Kenmore one is spared the need to visit two of the most depressing places in modern America: the bus depot and the coin laundry, leaving only the embalming room to look forward to.

The last year I made this unhappy weekly trek was 1995, and I expect that was more or less the time of the following small event, which has always remained in my memory as an example not only of personal poltroonery but of a wider and more distressing failure of the social fabric. It is a story I would rather not tell. Recent world events so closely mirror this particular tawdry vignette that I can't help but wonder whether they do not share an underlying psychology.

At that time my laundromat of choice was near the University stadium. As laundries go it was fairly modern and well lighted, as clean as an unattended public place can reasonably be in the middle of the night, near a pizza joint and a 24 hour convenience market with a gas pump. I generally went late, after eleven pm, in order to avoid other people. You don't strike up conversations with your fellow hominids in coin laundries the way you would at bird shows or book stores. The chance of encountering anyone extraordinary in such a place is very unlikely. The feeling is mutual. They don't want to talk to you either. You are, after all, parading your wet, steaming, never-perfectly-clean underwear past one another in large metal baskets, and the protocol is to pretend you are by yourself, the way you do when you come upon old women mopping the floors in public toilets in Europe. On this particular night there were maybe three or four people in the place, including some students. I mentally fitted them with big-pixel facial blurring, editing them into anonymity, as I am sure they did for me. I sat down on a hard wooden bench under loudly humming lights, and attempted to disappear bodily into the paperback I had brought to pass the longest hour and twenty minutes of the week.

An irregular banging of washer lids caused me to look up from my book. A grimy, weatherbeaten yokel, maybe in his late twenties, was going down the row of machines looking inside every one that wasn't actually running. By his army surplus jacket and generally inappropriate attire I guessed that he was a transient. "Looks like somebody left some laundry in this machine here," he said. His voice was a loud, gravelly honk, addressed to everyone within hearing.

The transient was one of a familiar species of desiccated, tattooed, braying drifter from Texas or points east. He was gaunt, garrulous, acne-scarred and crude, a sociopathic ignoramus, convinced of his own credibility and wily charm. The imagination sketches in the unimaginable history of such derelicts. It would be difficult to picture this unemployable pariah attending school or church, showing up responsibly for work, reading a book or passing a driving test, although he must have had such moments. Could he have once been a child or received a mother's love? Whatever incestuous, godforsaken backwater he came from, he was surely unwanted there by anyone but the local sheriff. A product of bleak genetic and developmental deprivation, friendless and chronically broke, he depended upon whatever scavenging skills he could muster to keep himself ambulatory, minimally nourished and within reach of cheap intoxicants and sordid sex until the day when, if his career stayed on track, he would be able to step into the prison cell that surely loomed in his future. The life experience of such unwholesome young men is of interest to no one, except for the wish to be distant from it. Poor Cooder was used up, morally shipwrecked, a bit frightening, getting on toward crazy. He had stopped by to steal some laundry.

"Do these here clothes belong to any of y'all?" he asked, generally addressing the forlorn gaggle of patrons who were grouped at the opposite end of the room from me. I inserted my attention deeper into the book. I really did not want to talk to this guy. Someone must have looked up at him though, so he continued. "This here load is done. Is it yours?" He was not a person accustomed to unambiguous conversational feedback. "Looks like some good stuff in there. I wonder if they're comin' back for it."

This intermittent monologue went on for quite awhile, as good ol' Cooder worked up sympathy for himself and laid out his justification for walking out of the laundry with a batch of clothes that didn't belong to him.

"I only been in town for a week. I left most of my stuff in El Paso. I could get work back there but some son of a bitch stole my money and now I can't get back. Maybe I'll just wait a little while and see if somebody shows up for this. I doubt it though. Sometimes people just leave stuff at the laundry. Never do come back for it. Shit, there's a good pair of Levis here. I could use a pair of Levis. That'd be a waste if somebody just left 'em here."

Of course I wasn't reading. I was thinking that the reason I had to sit in that hideous coin laundry instead of going for a walk or having myself a slice of pizza was to protect my clothes from bottom feeders like this. I wanted this loathsome fly to go away, but in order to do this I would have had to stand up and drive him off myself. Me, a balding, pot bellied pacifist in his mid-fifties, and him an irrational, desocialized animal in a state of permanent desperation, high on god-knows-what drugs, visiting from a world in which people are stabbed for their bedrolls and sterno. A kind of indignation began to rise up in me, a social theory according to which people who tolerate thieves and other criminals in their midst really can't complain when such people proliferate and make our cities unlivable. This was balanced by the knowledge that I could be out of there and on my way home in another 20 minutes without confronting this creep or risking an upsetting, unsanitary, possibly physical encounter. At stake, apart from mere principle, was a pile of wet clothing which for all I knew actually had been abandoned. Was I there to get my clothes clean or to defend other peoples' unattended laundry from the thieving vermin of the world?

"You know what I think, I might just take some of this stuff. I don't think anybody's comin' back for it, and these Levis are about my size. Hey, it looks like two, three pair in here."

Vigilantism was not alive and well at the Speed Clean Coin Wash. My fellow patrons were huddled near their driers in the churning, gurgling, fan howling silence, speaking neither to Cooder nor to each other. I imagined that they too were wrestling, each in his or her private soul, with the possibility of their pusillanimous responsibility for the crimes of the world. Good men, doing nothing. It was not our finest hour.

"I slept outdoors last night. It gets god damn cold at night around here. If that old boy hadn't of stole my money I'd head back for Texas. Arizona sucks if you ask me. I got some friends in Texas. Got no rich daddy though. I'm gonna need them clothes if I'm gonna keep this shit up. This guy ain't comin' back, what do you think? How long I been waitin'? More'n a half hour now I bet. There's a couple of shirts in here too."

As the magical transformation of these anonymous goods into Cooder's proprietorship proceeded, I began to think about calling a cop. Tucson city cops have experience with these things, and would put all of this into the correct perspective. It took less than a moment's reflection to drop the idea. Leaving my own clothes in the laundromat to find a pay phone was out of the question. Then there was the likelihood that the police would not respond at all - something I've run into more and more in recent years. For all I knew it was not even illegal to help yourself to abandoned laundry.

Well, you get the idea. Certain finally that nobody who could leave several pairs of expensive Levis in a public laundry really deserved to own them, Cooder’s patience expired. And so in full view and shared knowledge of five law abiding citizens, any one of whom could as easily have been his victim, he scooped up the belongings of our unknown brother and hauled the swag out the door, convinced that he had sold us on the correctness of his deed. A smart cookie.

Still, I did not entirely understand what I had just witnessed. Was that his real motive, I wondered? Simply to make off with somebody’s laundry without interference from bystanders, without being wrestled to the ground by indignant citizens? To spend all that time announcing your intentions seemed like the riskier path, when the crime itself might have been better performed quickly and quietly. What had he been up to? Was there perhaps more to old Cooder than met the eye? A moral dimension? Could it be that some pathetic vestige of redemptive religion had stayed with him through all the bums’ jungles and bedbugs, compelling him to justify his behavior not only to himself but to a wider congregation?

We were not, of course, fooled by him at all, or persuaded by his subjective ethical guidelines. We were simply acquiescent. Complicit, you might as well say, for he had let us in on the plan from the beginning. This totally failed human being, lacking even the wherewithall to buy his own clothing, had nevertheless succeeded in making us his accomplices in plain theft. For the purposes of any one of our lives, the downside risk of intervention was not worth the value of the property lost or the discomfort to the victim. And so we, by permissive silence, gave away what was not ours. We absolved him of guilt. We let him have the trousers without evicting him from the brotherhood of man. We joined his gang. One thief entered the laundry, six departed.

Whereas what was betrayed, what was swept under the rug to nag and discomfort each of us for the next eight years and counting, was the precious idea of rectitude, the small failure of courage that informed us of the state of our souls, and the likelihood that larger, more significant, less trivial tests will also be flunked, assuming it is true that as in small things, so in large. We carry our report cards with us, for this crucial pop quiz in moral viability. It might not be a semester grade, but so far we are not doing real good.

God only knows what rough beasts were waiting to slouch out of Texas behind Cooder, or what caches of other peoples' stuff they would be eyeing in future years. All of us are sitting here right now with our noses in one book or another while some swaggering idiot on the TV loudly informs us that one thing is happening while clearly something entirely different is going on smack in front of our eyes. He’s telling us that this mountain of dead people is making the world safer. He’s telling us it's for freedom and national security and the great moral war in the sky. The evil Saddam Hussein has been ousted, his barbaric regime deposed, his bodyguards killed, his sons killed, their bodies hacked up and photographed (the price of savagery.) That oil (which of course belongs to the recently liberated Iraqi people) will go a long way toward repaying us for the cost of the war (which we never wanted.) So it's all ok isn't it? (For the complete story about how it is ok, in the form of a manic, non-stop mantrum of self-justification, just turn on your television.) It’s ok to go ahead and bring in some experts from Bechtel and Exxon and Mobile and Unocal and start siphoning off that lovely black stuff that the free Iraqis would certainly want to use (if any had actually been asked) to defray the cost of those multi-million dollar "reconstruction" contracts and the cost of all the bombs and soldiers, and the cost of that great big pipe sucking oil out of there to beat hell while neocon pitch men tell us that what we’re looking at is the liberation and democratization of the people we are robbing. We aren't stupid. We don't believe it. We know we are watching the most humongous act of piracy of our lifetimes, because right there in plain sight alongside all that obviously vapid talk, that is what they are doing. And we sit here and watch them do it anyway because the alternative is more than we feel like dealing with. Because somehow we have become accustomed to dismissing moral principles as abstractions, and letting sordid events flow around us as though we might not be stained or forever changed by them.