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 I am very sad today. It is a sadness of helplessness and a definite awareness of my own futility. I have this sadness every day, really, but Iím particularly aware of it today.

A little background: Since Iíve yet to join the ranks of the rest of you in the grownup world, I usually enlist others to take care of my dirty work. Specifically, Iím one of those lazy putzes who pays people to do my laundry and to clean my apartment. I canít really afford either of these luxuries, and often I have to scrap cash together or not eat for a week to pay for everything. But let me tell you, itís worth it. It certainly beats sweltering in a crowded laundromat for four hours and then finding out I left a pen in my favorite jeans, and it certainly beats crawling along my bathroom floor scrubbing lord-knows-what with a ratty sponge that hasnít been cleaned itself in months.

Other people do a better job cleaning my apartment and doing my wash than I do, and that makes my life easier. As far as Iím concerned, thatís what money is for. My friends often make fun of me for this, but it sure beats having wrinkled, smelly clothes.

There is a particular laundromat where I take my clothes every two weeks. Itís right next door to a used bookstore and one of those cheesy ďadultĒ shops where you can rent videos and buy underwear that vaguely resembles dental floss, so itís definitely in my type of neighborhood. Every other Thursday, with an obscenely overstuffed laundry bag, I come shuffling in, accidentally knocking over little kids and generally being a clumsy nuisance.

Every time, I am greeted by a smiling, extremely pleasant 50ish woman who always appears to be happy to see me. I donít know her name, but she knows mine. She knows Iím a writer, and she knows I live alone with a cat (I shudder to think what else she knows about me just by smelling my clothes). Sheís the one with the unfortunate job of having to actually clean my clothes, but she shoulders the responsibility with a great deal of humor, poking fun at me for my goofy boxer shorts, my inability to find matching socks and the annoying habit of not turning anything right-side out before throwing it in the hamper.

Basically, she serves a purpose as a home-away-from-home mom, except she doesnít get tired of my stories and she never lets me borrow money.

I love meeting people like this woman. I have no real connection with her, and I only see her every two weeks on a purely professional basis. But for about 10 minutes every two weeks, I know Iíll get a smile of recognition and a sincere, ďHow are things, Will?Ē Sheís not a friend, an associate or an acquaintance, even; sheís just one of those people I know. In case you hadnít noticed, there are a lot more people that you simply know than are your friends, so you should learn to appreciate their presence almost as much as your friendsí.

I know very little about her life, and she knows very little about mine (other than the fact that I have Dalmatian boxer shorts, anyway). But what we do know is that we like each other, and thatís enough to last us a couple of weeks.

She always has what I assume to be a grandson (if itís her son, I hope she never reads this, or Iíll be really embarrassed) hanging around the laundromat, and the tyke always greets me with a ďHi, Will!Ē He and I often pretend to shoot at each other with our fingers while Iím waiting for my clothes. Heís a funny kid, and one time, when he offered me one of his french fries, I was in a good mood all day. Theyíre two happy people, and seeing them always makes an otherwise mundane task something to look forward to.

Last Thursday, I dropped off another mammoth load (that sounds gross; you know what I mean) and had a typically cordial if brief conversation with my laundry lady. She smiled and said, ďPretty big load this time, eh?Ē and headed to one of the washers. I thanked her, and consumed with my own problems, went back out into the world,.

The next day (24 hours seems like too short a time for someone to sort through all my swarthy garments), I dropped back by to pick everything up before heading to see a movie. The kid was at the door, playing with some Star Wars doll he got from a Happy Meal, and he gave me a jovial high five as I walked in. I proceeded to the counter and blurted out a boisterous ďHowdy!Ē to my biweekly comrade.

She turned around, and my jaw dropped. The left side of her face was in shambles. Her left eye was bruised, bloodied, swollen shut and pitch black. Her cheek was beet red, puffed up and out of place. It looked like the brakes had gone out in her car and she had to stop it with her face. She gave me a weary smile, and I noticed one of her teeth had been chipped. The chip might not have happened in the last 24 hours, but Iíd never noticed it before.

The ďHi, WillĒ didnít have its usual vigor. She looked tired, spent and, well, she looked beaten. I guess I had interrupted her staring-into-space thinking-about heaven-knows-what, because my presence served as a dream-snapper reminding her, oh yes, I work here, and this is the guy Iím always happy to see. She rushed along hurriedly, gathered my clothes from hangers and gave me the folded bag of socks and towels and things with a mumbling, head-down, ďHere you are, Will, hereís your clothes, how are you?, heavy load this week, everythingís fine. ...Ē

I didnít dare ask what had happened. I didnít even dare acknowledge that since Iíd seen her just the day before, the left side of her face appeared to have caved in. I just gave her a sad smile, thanked her and paused only to give a muted high five to the kid on the way out.

Sheís pretty much all Iíve thought about since. Should I do something? Could I do something? Do I storm in and demand to see who perpetuated this? Is it any of my business? Surely there has to be a friend of hers somewhere who could say something? Doesnít there?

This sweet woman is someone I only run into once every two weeks, and I have no idea what her home life is like, who she lives with or even what her name is.

I canít even imagine her face in the anguish it must have been in that night before. Sheís just one of those people I know, and thatís all there is to it. I canít make her happier, I canít help her, I canít do anything. I just have to live with knowing that in between those cordial, pleasant 10 minutes every two weeks, something unspeakable, something horrible, something unknowable is occurring, and there isnít a damn thing I can do about it in those 10 minutes. I, and she, just have to live with it.

I know the Life As A Loser columns are supposed to be stories about my life, stories where I get egg on my face and end up humiliated. Iíve got plenty of those to go around, donít worry. But this week, knowing something terrible is happening to someone I know and knowing I cannot in any way stop it, I feel more like a loser than I ever have. I feel helpless, I feel futile, I feel impotent. There might be other people I know that are suffering, friends even, and there isnít anything I can do about that either. But right now, I know something awful has happened. And it is horrible. Gut-wrenching. Agonizing.



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