His name is Tony. He is a soft-spoken, gentle spirited man who I met at one of our local laundromats. On the fourth Saturday of each month, I would set up shop, hauling in a little table, detergent, dryer sheets, a case of water, snacks and rolls of quarters. We call it Laundry Love. It is a national initiative but a group of us have made it come alive in Salina, Kansas.
No matter how early I got there, Tony would be waiting for me. We would great each other, he would set up the table for me and I would give him a small packet with $3.00 in it. It was just enough to wash and dry one load. At Laundry Love we offer to pay for up to 5 loads per family. Tony said he didn’t want to take advantage.
We’d talk about how he walks everywhere, his good report from the doctor at the VA, his military service and his upcoming trip to Seattle in July to visit his daughter. I asked if they talked often. Hardly at all, he said. He hadn’t seen her in years and has been anticipating this trip for a very long time. As we talked he would meticulously fold and roll his laundry. When he was done, he would hug me, thank us and take off walking down the road with a backpack full of clean clothes.
On the fourth Saturday in December, Tony was once again waiting for me when I got there. I asked him how long he had been there. He said he couldn’t really sleep the night before, so he got up. He left his home at 6:00 and arrived at the laundromat at 8:00. It was always incredible for us to know that Tony had walked all that way to have one load of laundry paid for. We had a hunch that the friends he had made there made the walk as worthwhile as the clean load of laundry. At least we hoped that was the case.
We offered him a ride many times. I talked to him about the scenario of rain, snow or ice as winter descends on Kansas. What if the fourth Saturday fell on an inclimate weather day? I gave him my work number and my cell number to call for a ride but I knew he never would. I assured him that a man could transport him. He continually declined, citing the physical benefits of so much walking. He never would tell us where he lived. All he would say is “north of Pacific.” In December he talked about how he had lived on $2.00 for the past 4 months. I secretly always worried that he was homeless.
This past Saturday I arrived at the laundromat with my little table, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, a case of water, rolls of quarters and a dozen fresh donuts. I also had a card for Tony. He had been on my mind throughout the month. I wrote about how glad I was we had met and enclosed a $15 gift card to a local grocery store. I knew there was a chance he may not accept it but felt compelled to do it nonetheless.
There was just one problem. Tony wasn’t there. He was always waiting at the little table toward the front of the laundromat. My eyes scanned the rest of the laundromat, thinking maybe he was talking with someone or had somehow started his laundry on his own. I checked the area with the tv thinking maybe he had decided to watch tv while he was waiting. Tony just wasn’t there.
My heart sunk. I worried that he was sick or injured. I knew there was no way we could help him. We had no way to contact him and no idea of where to find him. I set aside his little packet with $3.00 in it and went about serving the others that were there for Laundry Love.
About 45 minutes later, Tony arrived, without his laundry. He explained that he had started receiving Social Security this month and would no longer be at Laundry Love. He didn’t want to take advantage. He wanted us to help those who needed it more than he did. He went on to explain that without our help he would have been washing his laundry in the bathtub and that he so appreciated our generosity and kindness. I told him it wouldn’t be the same without him. He conceded a bit and said he may come back to see us (and do his one load) every now and again.
He handed me $15.00 and told me to help others. I handed him the card I had written him. He thanked me for it without opening it, hugged me and said his goodbyes to the team that so faithfully serves at Laundry Love each month.
When I began this journey, I hardly knew what to say to people as they came into the laundromat. Now here I was, feeling a sense of loss because I would no longer be seeing my friend. The laundromat was bustling busy, with every washer taken and many other new friends there to talk to and here I was missing just one.
I thought of instances in the Bible where just one is important. A shepherd left his 99 sheep, to go find one that was lost, ten lepers were healed by Jesus but only one returned to thank him and a woman who had ten silver coins turned her house upside down to find the one she had lost. In each scenario there was rejoicing for the one!
It is the beauty of Laundry Love, or anything else that takes us out of ourselves and out of our homes and into our community. It is taking the time to talk to others, affirming that their one life really does matter. It is exchanging small talk only to discover friends, acquaintances or interests we have in common and realizing what a small world this is. It is finding out that we each have a place in this world, and sometimes it is right next to one another.
Tony has taught me a lot and we will miss seeing him. For his one life, however, we rejoice!
Learning Lessons One By One,