A place to wash clothes, tell stories

Families frequent Suisun City coin laundry

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

SUISUN CITY - This is a place where mothers chase children around whirring machines and where little girls get mesmerized by spinning dryers. It is where dreams are made, complaints are spoken and socks mysteriously disappear.

Yet this is also a place where folks bring stories beneath their loads of laundry, unwilling to share their narratives with fellow washers. Unless you're 74-year-old Mary Helen Lichauco, a Filipino woman blanketed with a distinct accent and unique perspective.

"People try to wash too much clothes at one time," the Fairfield resident says of the patrons at Sunset Coin Laundry off Highway 12, then offers an example. "There was a thong underwear that went into the tube of the washer and that's why it would not drain. The woman said it was not hers and wanted a refund!"

Lichauco, whose cropped silver hair shows traces of her original brown color, is at the Laundromat day after day with her 45-year-old son, Samuel. She accompanies him as he putters around the fresh-smelling facility fixing fireless dryers and broken machines, but never broken hearts.

"He is as shy as his father was," his mother says with a sweet laugh. "You know he is a single man?"
He was hired as a repairman and tailor almost four years ago, technically allotted to work two days a week yet frequents the place more often. Although his main focus is on repairs, he will sew hems, do small adjustments and make car seat covers if asked.

"I have my four-year degree from the Philippines in vocational tailoring, but it didn't transfer here. I would have to go to the university to take some subjects," he says respectfully in a meek tone.

Lichauco, meanwhile, volunteers to walk the yellow floor contrasted by myriad orange washing machines to answer questions and ensure the washing process runs smoothly. It is her way of helping her son.

Quite often, the two are practically inseparable and will compare laundry stories at home where they live with Mary Helen's daughter, Teresa, and three grandchildren.

It's not that Lichauco and her son want to gossip. But it does provide an interesting forum for dinner table conversation.

Spinning wheels

Folks should not walk out on their laundry.

Jesus Guiterrez is helping his cousin, Carolina Valdez, with her eight loads of laundry. He has a car, she explains, which makes it easier to bring the clothes from their home in Fairfield to the Laundromat's location in Suisun City. It's also cheaper than other washing facilities, he says, and offers eight minutes of drying time per quarter instead of the usual five.

They leave after placing a large load of wet jeans and jackets in the dryer.

Lichauco, with one eye on the Maury Povich show and the other on machines, knows this is a mistake.

"It is too heavy, it's too heavy," Lichauco says incredulously as the clothes later percolate from the dryer into a rolling basket. "This dryer cannot accommodate this. It's more than one machine can take!"

Other laundry folk, like Miriam Tiapula and her 4-year-old daughter, Sala, will stay next to their clothes faithfully. In fact, they practically live there, Tiapula of Suisun City says. Still, there are those who walk out and forget to return.

"This woman came back two weeks later upset," Lichauco explains. "We had the clothes in the back. But then she says, 'Where are my beautiful pants?' I don't know. It was out there for a while."

Some try to dry their clothes on nickels instead of quarters, Samuel Lichauco explains, who says he's found coins from all sorts of countries in the coin slot.

And yet others, like the homeless, are given clothes or blankets from items left behind more than three months.

But none of the stories in this particular Laundromat, at least not at this point, compare to Lichauco's history.

The Philippines

Lichauco's memories cannot be washed away.

The mother of seven, four girls and three boys, does not mind talking about the L-shaped scar below her right eye. It is a reminder of the Philippines, she says, when the Japanese invaded her homeland during World War II.

The year was 1942, one year after the Japanese attacked Manila, when Lichauco was an 11-year-old girl selling coconut candy from a crystal jar to earn money.

She was returning home, wearing wooden shoes and walking in the rain, when Lichauco stepped on one of many fragmented stones left on the war-laden streets.

"The bowl fell, broke and I fell on top of the glass," she recalls. "I stood up and couldn't breathe. I had to force myself."

She remembers how her wound opened with every breath, exposing her cheekbone to horrified stares from her friends.

"We couldn't go to the hospital right away because we were afraid to go to the checkpoints at night," she says. "The next day we went but the doctor told me he cannot sew it up. It wasn't fresh anymore."

From the age of 3, Lichauco lived and studied in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Institution in Tugueraro as a result of her parent's separation. She had infrequent visits from her mother, even fewer from her father, cried for endless nights and endured a childhood that only one hears about on late night news.

She recalls when the Japanese took over half the institution to embed a medical facility for the wounded. She can still visualize the severed legs of dead soldiers to be burned in the fields and the various surgeries performed without anesthesia.

Lichauco also remembers the words to a Japanese song instilled in her memory by the soldiers and begins to sing it in Nipango. She moves her finger in the air as if pointing to floating words. She is matter-of-fact and yet surprised at her memory.

Donning red glasses that frame her round face, Lichauco retains the memory of a soldier who wanted to slice her neck.

"I took his hand and said, 'That's not good, put it down. God is in our chapel and he is looking at you,' " she says and admits she felt fear throughout this time. "He put it back."

Eventually, Lichauco became a teacher at St. Paul's College in Quezon City, Philippines, married at age 23, had children and worked at a national library before moving to the United States in 1989, 11 years after her brother-in-law petitioned for her and her husband.

Although her husband died in 1993, Lichauco has found a way to keep busy. Sometimes she will sweep the floor at the Laundromat, other times she will advise people to keep on an eye on their belongings.

"Sometimes people leave money on top of the machines and I tell them you just never know who might come in and take it," she says. "That's why I am warning them. You never know who you will find at the Laundromat."