The bootleg DVD hawkers, the panhandlers and the pregnant women with toddlers pulling on their arms had all gone home. The TV went off, and it was just me, the attendant and a young man with a duffel bag full of clothes.
I was at a 24-hour coin laundry in Westlake trying to figure out why on earth anyone would do laundry in the middle of the night. I'd been assured the parking lot would be closed and only people with laundry would be admitted. We were mere blocks from what used to be big bad MacArthur Park, site of a notorious "open-air drug bazaar," as authorities liked to call it during the crack epidemic.
But when I arrived after midnight, Spanish-language ballads were blasting over the sound system, and the gates were open to all comers. OK, I was nervous. Yet, with the exception of a meth-zombie type guy who was easily pacified with a quarter, the people who started trickling in and out were working people.
Hard-working people. People with two jobs, a split or graveyard shift, and a week's or a month's worth of dirty laundry to wash, dry and fold before they could sleep. Jesus Vasquez, who cooks at a Chinese restaurant, then washes dishes at an Italian one. Gary, a skid row desk clerk on the graveyard rotation. A night bus driver, who studied his union contract during the rinse cycle.
Outsiders don't seem to get it, but the place they deride as La-La Land is actually the hardest-working city on earth. A city that washes its clothes at 3 a.m. What really struck me, however, was how cheerful everybody was, performing a task during the witching hour that I hate in broad daylight.
"To me it's OK," Alfonso Lara said lightly. He was the man with the duffel bag, loading the washer in the middle of the night.
Lara, a bus boy, works a split shift, covering the lunch and dinner hours, six days a week at a Chinese restaurant in Sherman Oaks, leaving little time for chores — or anything else. As he waited for the wash cycle to end, he browsed a free magazine, stumbling upon the Cleopatra exhibit at the California Science Center. He wanted to see it, he said. He also hopes to catch Gustavo Dudamel conducting soon at Disney Hall. "The people say he's very good," Lara remarked.
Yet he has no resentment that almost all his time is taken up with work.
"I work, I exercise," he said. "My whole time is busy, and I like it like that."
The coin-operated laundry is owned by Koreans and run by Spanish speakers. Some of the laundry soap in the vending machine is labeled in Korean and some in Spanish. Clorox bleach needs no translation; it's a universal.
The attendant, an extremely genial, shaven-headed Spanish speaker with a tank top barely covering his tattoos, worked tirelessly through his 12-hour shift, emptying the trash, mopping up, scrubbing caked-on detergent out of the rubber traps and lining up the metal laundry baskets.
He cheerfully stomped a cockroach the size of a mouse that scuttled in from the street. When the roach reappeared on its back, cycling its legs in the air, he stomped it again, finishing it off.
The owners apparently are equally industrious; the laundry doubles as a tax service business. A banner hanging from the ceiling advertises $40 to prepare a W-2 return, and $80 for a 1099 independent contractor.
Nor were these owners giving any ground in the pitched competition in the coin-operated laundry realm: The laundry business had held a grand opening raffle for customers in the spring, and tickets were piling up next to the coffee maker for another one in December. The grand prize was a 42-inch plasma HD-TV.
Another enterprising group in L.A. that has resort to all-night laundries is students. Maria Chino is only 18, but her father sometimes drops her off at midnight at the laundry after her night classes end.
"You get used to the loneliness and the dark and everything," said Chino, who is studying at Pasadena City College to be a civil rights lawyer. "It's not that big of a deal."
About 2 a.m., two women rushed in to grab free coffee before they started cleaning nearby offices. Juana Escamilla explained that she is training as a janitor so she can quit selling hot dogs from a sidewalk cart. "I'm too cold," the native Salvadoran said, displaying the fleece lining of her sweat shirt.
David Fernandez arrived on foot, with a sack of clothes slung over his shoulder like an old peddler man. He and the attendant had become fast friends at the laundry, Fernandez said, although he didn't know the attendant's name. The women returned from their cleaning job, drinks appeared and the party started.
I don't speak Spanish and couldn't follow most of the conversation, although I think they might have been making fun of me. At one point Escamilla told "Rocky" — Fernandez's nickname — to ask me to get her a better job, which set them off into rounds of laughter. "You can be part of our lavandería band," Fernandez said, sparking more peals of hilarity.
The little group was still laughing and carrying on when a woman talking to herself and pushing a cart full of toilet paper rolls shuffled in, and I made my exit. Just a block away, I passed a store lined with giant metal washers and dryers. Inside, a man pushed a basket of clothes down the aisle, pacing off the night in another 24-hour lavandería.