12/30/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

What One Encounter at the Laundromat Taught Me About Life

Joseph Devenney via Getty Images

It was almost closing time when I met Tom. Closing time in my world is at the laundromat where the last wash is at 10 p.m. and the doors close at midnight.

I made the few blocks trek from my apartment to transfer my clothes to the dryer. Arriving at this local Queens establishment, I eyed the suds splashing against the glass window and the man standing near me in the small row of giant machines reserved for people who are down to their last pair of socks and are washing every item they've ever owned, maybe even including a comforter. Lots of laundry aside, I had a problem. Typically a cycle only takes 30-40 minutes. Why were my clothes still.... washing?

Tom had accidentally deposited quarters and detergent in my machine instead of his. The whirling wash couldn't be stopped until the cycle was complete. It was a work night. I was exhausted. This meant I couldn't fall asleep for over another hour. Slight irritation simmered inside of me. Luckily, it never made its way to the surface. I know what it's like to feel frantic and make a mistake. Plus, it was evident Tom had more pressing concerns than a delayed bedtime.

Since he had put his quarters into my machine, he wasn't sure if he had enough money to wash his overflowing load of both his and his girlfriend's clothes. I handed over my bag of quarters. (Now that I know a little bit about Tom's story, I have enough reasons to let go of little frustrations forever.) But first, I swallowed the creeping thought of how I didn't want to go to the trouble of walking back to my place to replenish my coin supply in order to pay for the dryer.

I could feel the truth bomb ticking before it went off. Before we met, Tom had been sleeping in his girlfriend's car for two weeks. They had been driving around Queens for over an hour looking for a laundromat that was open. Her lease prohibits overnight guests, a rule the pair previously faced consequences for after alternating between her place and the car following a previous eviction.

Two actual thoughts about laundry have crossed my mind more than once in the past: some of my friends can afford to get their clothes professionally cleaned and delivered in perfectly folded squares. Some people I know have laundry in their building. These thoughts are flurries of self-pity that snowball into a hateful space of thinking I don't have enough or that I am not enough just because of how I wash my clothes in comparison to others. Self-sabotage is ungrateful and ruthless. It will use your regular coming and going against you if you let it.

Virtually unfazed, Tom invited me to his girlfriend's improv show next week. He explained that she was doing well but he was facing a rough patch. He had dropped out of community college but was trying to go back to school for a degree in technology after years of lackluster, low-paid and inconsistent retail and service work. He is good with computers and sees potential working in that field someday.

Pride and privacy prevented me from sharing what we had in common. I too was slogging through some educational hurdles. We discussed the paradox of startup costs -- how the people who need education and jobs the most often miss out because of lack of resources required to jump-start their dream.

Paying the fee for his high school transcript to be sent to his college was a current education deterrent for Tom. Part of me wanted to leap in and pay for it but I sensed this experience wasn't about helping a young man but about learning from him. Tom had a new job starting, and just found a room to rent in Brooklyn. Our clothes were about to be done.

I'm an adult living on my own and my mom lives two states over but she always saves her quarters for me to add to my laundry fund. Tom's mom passed away when he was 10. His openness with strangers acts as a walking eulogy to her. His life is not only a testament to what he's gone through but a singular force that could help others overpower the sometimes dismal circumstances our world creates. Less than six months after we met, Tom was accepted into the New York City College of Technology.

It wasn't that I missed out on going to bed at a certain time that night so much as I got a wake-up call. It's the small steps, like doing your laundry, that sometimes bring us to where we need to be. You might hire people to do your laundry or you might need a few extra quarters, but what I learned that night, which will now be my standing laundry metaphor for life, is this: just clean your clothes and get on with it. Use the energy you might spend viciously comparing yourself to others for connecting with others instead, all sorts of others, especially the ones right in front of you.

When Tom found out what neighborhood I work in, he flooded me with restaurant tips in the area. He held the door to the dryer open when my wash was ready. If we can be kind and light through whatever we face, wherever we go, we will get much more than just our laundry done. He joked about how my clothes were going to be unbelievably clean. I laughed. It was the laundromat equivalent of him buying me a round. And we shut the place down.

*Name has been changed. Story used with permission.