Persona Non Grata In My Own Laundry Room

Here comes my hunter-green running bra again. My heart leaps in anticipation. I know my red plaid shorts are not far behind. I continue taking inventory: sage T-shirt, espresso socks, charcoal fleece-everything is tumbling along as it should be as I stare in contemplative meditation into the window of the dryer. That is, if being a prisoner in your apartment building laundry room is the way things should be.

I watch as other tenants enter the laundry facility, place their clothes in the wash, and then leave, confident that everything will be in place when they return. I’m jealous and I begin to feel a little claustrophobic. I know I should be upstairs staring at my computer screen, not someone else’s sudsy linens, but I console myself and think that it’s better than daytime television. And at least I’m still allowed in the laundry room.

As I sit, becoming more and more hypnotized by my own laundry-spinning, spinning, spinning-I think back to a time when I was able to do laundry just like everyone else in New York. When losing something in the laundry room-a single sock, an occasional T-shirt, rarely anything of true value-was an occurrence you could pretty much anticipate but an inconvenience nonetheless. But the last time I did laundry, what started out as a seemingly pleasant day turned into a nightmare which may have cost me my apartment-a very high stake in this city.

I guess I should start from the beginning. I live in a very large apartment building in Chelsea, where doing laundry can often be a bit of a production. That Tuesday afternoon, things seemed to be running pretty smoothly in the basement-I was lucky enough to land three dryers with less than a 10-minute wait. I left my clothes to go out and run a few neighborhood errands.

As is often the case, I was running late, and when I returned to the laundry room, my clothes had been removed from the dryers and placed in one of those industrial-load-size carts. Three loads looked a lot smaller than I remembered, and as I started to fold my clothing, I realized that I was missing many valuable items. I searched the room, growing frantic as the fate of my clothing became more evident.

In the time my clothes had been left unattended, someone had stolen a selective load of clothing. That’s right-the person guilty of this inexcusable crime actually took the time and care to select the items he or she wanted. I was incredulous, dumbfounded, absolutely livid. Someone had gone through my personal items and taken two of my favorite pairs of pants, a shirt, a jacket, a hat and the toppers, a bra and one of my sexiest pairs of underwear. This last item’s disappearance really started to make me feel ill. Personally, I don’t even like to touch other people’s clean underwear when I have to remove their clothes from the dryer. The thought of actually taking someone’s lacy thong underwear upstairs and trying it on had me really questioning my neighbors.

Then a strange thing started to happen. I began wondering what was wrong with the clothes this person didn’t take. Suddenly, the shirt that I had placed in the washer with love I was folding with disdain. Should I even bother bringing this upstairs? Why wasn’t this a desirable shirt?

My actions for the next 12 or so hours are a bit of a blur. I stormed back up to my apartment and made several phone calls to friends and family members I knew would empathize. This was the first time in my life I actually wished I had body lice-was there no justice in the world?

I called J. Crew and tried desperately to replace the stolen items-knowing that they were long gone from the catalog pages. The woman taking my order was very sympathetic and clearly felt badly that all of the items I wished to replace were either back-ordered or no longer in stock. I hung up the phone and tried desperately to come up with a means of retaliation.

Then I had an idea. I sat down at my computer and started furiously typing, deleting and typing again. I knew I would never see my clothes again, and if I couldn’t enjoy them, I wasn’t about to let someone else revel in their new fortune. I would rather see the clothes destroyed than adorning their new owner.

Now, how to scare the miscreant. I knew that whichever route I chose, my message needed to be sweet and apologetic, not angry and vindictive. My only hope for retaliation would come from treating this as some horrible mistake. A sign which pitied the poor person whose clothes had accidentally gotten mixed up with mine.

The next morning, the signs were ready to go. I had gone the toxic route: touting that my clothes had gone through the first of several washings with a chelating agent-a heavy-duty cleanser-but were still highly contaminated from mercury salts. The whole thing seemed ridiculous, but when you’re seeing red, lots of things make sense. I posted my “condolence” note at each of the 10 elevators and in the laundry room where the crime had been committed and went out for the day.

An hour and a half later, I called my answering machine. There was a message from my building’s management office-something about the Department of Environmental Control and the laundry room being sealed off. My heart started to pound. I quickly called the office and through the shouts was able to make out that my attempt at revenge had taken a disastrous turn. The Fire Department and the D.E.C. were at my building, the laundry room had been condemned, and the building manager screamed something about a police matter before he slammed down the phone. I stared at the receiver. The D.E.C.! Was this really happening? Was government action really being taken in a case which involved my stolen underwear? What was next? A phone call from Rudolph Giuliani telling me that I was banished for poor citizenship? Would I lose my apartment? I pictured my building surrounded by firetrucks, policemen waiting with handcuffs to take me away.

Was it possible that in the course of an hour I had actually caused my neighborhood to come to a grinding halt? More important, was this really a criminal offense, or was everyone just angry?

I spent the afternoon as a fugitive, avoiding my own neighborhood, flinching every time I heard a siren and playing the events of the day over in my head in the hopes of discovering the silver lining. That’s when it came to me-I had finally written something that someone had taken seriously. I had become a credible writer. Stolen J. Crew underwear was admittedly a strange price to pay, but I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason.

I finally sneaked back into my building, only to open my door the next morning and discover that my New York Times wasn’t on my doorstep. Had it been stolen? I felt my blood beginning to boil. Now, how to get the word out that my newspaper was carrying the Asian bird flu?

Persona Non Grata In My Own Laundry Room