The twenty-four hour laundromat is a sterile dreamscape at three o’clock in the morning. When you’re a child everything is strange, and the rhythm of tumbling towels forms an endless tune like the hum of the universe. The fluorescence laminates the late night uglies, making their lives little more than a series of boxed and forgotten disposable camera photographs of the afterimages between memories. Time stands still.
Tucked away in the back corner, in a dark inlet next to a large dryer, was a black vending machine. In the well of the machine were ice cream bars stacked in teetering piles. The light had gone out and the portrait of childhood sweets was a chiaroscuro wash of browns and dusty cream. I put in a handful of quarters, the last of which was gritty and black, as if it had pasted through the hands of a mechanic. The machine whined, clicked, and settled into silence. Nothing came from it.
I remember a woman was sitting in one of those floor-mounted tables, in a rotating chair, reading a science fiction novel. On the cover was a man staring into the Sun, silhouetted by the intense orange glow if it. The woman’s expression never changed—a grim, deep-set scowl that her face had settled into over the years. I remember wondering why she would read a book that didn’t make her happy. She looked up at me as I stared into her eyes, and I was so terrified that I couldn’t look away, like a monster I’d suspected was real, and now that I’d seen it I couldn’t turn my back on it. A shot rang out from the dryer—a button on a pair of jeans cracking against the metal wall—and it broke my gaze. I ran around the other side of a line of washers, out of sight and breathing heavily.
In front of me was an arcade cabinet. It calmed my breathing, arresting me with its colors. A green space alien in a candy-red jumpsuit stood against an infinite black backdrop. It was like nothing else in the laundromat. It ticked and buzzed and I could feel the electric life of it vibrating in the soles of my feet. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few more quarters, but it wasn’t enough to play. I knew I’d get no more quarters, lucky to have the few afforded to me, but the machine was mesmerizing. I was content to watch the demo run over and over on the deep-set screen. There was something distant in the glow of it, like staring secretly into another dimension. A place where color was possible and nothing had a will of its own. The alien was an empty neon beast serving only its own track-minded instinct to proceed without concern for itself or awareness of the dangers ahead. And it would live this out in endless cycles, so long as power was fed to the machine.
In this cold white laundromat, I stood gazing into the blinking well of this obscure arcade cabinet, perpetually focusing deeper and deeper on the crisp edges of a little green alien, on the terribly tiny pixels that formed his molecular make-up, until the green of him bled into the black. Until nothing was clear anymore. I could not look away, and it did not make me happy.