The first time I meet him, I’m in an almost-empty laundromat. It’s the height of the August heatwave. I’m folding my towels when he comes in. His hair is tousled. He wears a rumpled, button-up shirt with a ten-year-old blazer that was already ten years old when he bought it from a Salvation Army.
I know this, because he tells me it. I haven’t asked. He tells me he’ll forgive me for not having asked, this once.
He has a laundry basket full of damp clothes he’s brought with him. He makes no move to unload it.
“Oh, these are already clean,” he says. “Insofar as anything can be that has been touched by the detritus of a human life. I wash them by hand, one sinkful at a time. I could pay someone to do it, and it would probably be better. The first sinkful, I thought went pretty well. The second one, I enjoyed. From the third onwards, it was torture. Sheer torture. I dry them on the line afterwards. There’s something almost painfully authentic about a shirt that has breathed the same air as the city, don’t you think?”
“I have literally never thought that,” I say.
He gives a nearby front-loading washer an apologetic look.
“That was a quotation from James Joyce,” he says.
“No, it wasn’t,” I say.
“I’m a little embarrassed for you that you didn’t spot it.”
“It wasn’t Joyce,” I say.
“It was Joyce,” he says. “Joyce Carol Oates.”
“Jonathan Franzen,” he says. “Just now. When I said it, just now. Hi, I’m Jonathan Franzen. You might well ask, what is Jonathan Franzen doing in a mid-town laundromat with a load of already-washed, partially-dried laundry?”
“I’m really just here to…”
“I admire the fact that you feel you can do better with your half of the conversation on your own,” he says. “Most people would be too intimidated.”
“Fine,” I say. “What are you…”
“What is Jonathan Franzen…”
“What is Jonathan Franzen doing in a mid-town laundromat with a load of… of already-washed, partially-dried laundry?”
“I like the experience of freshly-dried laundry,” he says.
“Have at it,” I say, waving at the row of empty dryers.
“Of course, I feel a wave of crushing guilt and despair every time I fire up one of the dryers,” he says. “That’s what we’re all supposed to do, right?”
“I think I missed that memo,” I say.
“Because of the carbon emissions. So why should I feed that machine?” he says. “I don’t believe in paying for something to do what I could do myself. It’s how I maintain my essential connection to the struggle of poverty that defines America in the middle class teetering on the fulcrum of extinction.”
“Aren’t you an actual millionaire?”
“Only in a literal sense. You are burdened with a rather pedestrian and limited view of poverty,” he says. He gives a helpless look to a nearby empty cart. “Most people do, in my experience. I have had the humbling advantage of having explored what it is to be poor at a multitude of tax brackets.”
“That’s the opposite of being poor,” I say. “The exact opposite.”
“Sometimes you can only understand something for the first time when you see it from the outside,” he says.
“And sometimes the only way to understand something is to see it from the inside,” I say. “Being poor is like that.”
“Ah, I thought as much,” he says.
“I knew you were going to find something to hate in what I said no matter what happened, so I made sure to give you something to latch onto,” he says. “What’s the point in fighting? I can’t take who I am and mash it down into a package you’ll find palatable, so I might as well just say what I mean. I cannot live an artificial life, and that is why the world hates me.”
He delivers this last line to the glass door of a nearby dryer, as if he’s speaking to his reflection, or possibly believes a camera is hidden there.
“So…” I say, trying to find the actual thread of the conversation again. “You bring your clothes into the laundromat for a while because you like the experience, but you don’t actually put them in the washer or dryer because you also want to experience poverty?”
“No, that would be silly. Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “What I do is I wait for someone to take his or her clothes out of a dryer with time left on it, and then I put mine in.”
“So you’re going to sit here until I’m done with my laundry and hope I don’t run the dryer out?”
“I can count on it,” he says. “You have no book with you, nothing to distract you from the insufferable, oppressive reality of this place. You will be checking your garments every ten minutes.”
I hold up my phone.
“Got my books right here,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, giving a skeptical sidelong glance to the detergent vendor.
“One of those.”
“I shall take my leave of you,” he says, hefting his laundry basket. “Good day.”
And that was the first time I met Jonathan Franzen.