I’m sorting laundry in my bedroom.
Sitting on the end of the bed, a pile of dirty stuff on the floor between my feet. I’m picking up items and tossing them into one of three piles a few feet away — darks on the right, lights on the left, whites into the plastic laundry basket in the middle. I’ve done this thousands of times.
After my friend Rick died, when he was 20 and I was 19, and after the funeral and the cursing and the crying, I spent some time with Mel, his mother, whose heart was broken by the loss of her only son, her firstborn. We talked about Rick, the only thing we had in common. Mostly, I listened. She said that after he dropped out of school and returned to get a job and live at home, it took her months of careful sorting and bleaching to return his white washables to white again. Because he hadn’t separated his colors from his whites while he’d been away at school. I knew this was true, because during that first year at San Francisco State we had done our laundry together, stuffing everything we had into pillowcases and dragging the load a block or so down Haight Street to the laundromat, where we had simply and efficiently dumped it all into the minimum number of washing machines, his red sweatshirt commingled with my white socks.
The only sorting we did was when we separated his stuff from mine after we got back to the apartment. Using this technique, we gradually turned all of our clothes the same shade of dingy gray, the color of The City that fall and winter. We didn’t care at the time. We were liberated and studious, drunk on freedom and Red Mountain and there was no reason at all why we weren’t going to change the world, or why we should have really white T-shirts.
But there’s nothing like death to make you think of life, and after my talk with Mel I started to think about how important the little things are in life, and the more I thought about it the more crucial it seemed to do the things that wouldn’t break a mother’s heart, whether it was wearing safety belts on Highway 99, or properly sorting the laundry.
The safety belt thing was too late for Rick.
But I can still hear Mel telling me in a soft voice that it might take another couple of washings to finish her job of whitening Rick’s white clothes, things that he wouldn’t be needing. Since then, I sort, because I wouldn’t want Mel to be disappointed ever again, and because changing the world ain’t no big thing if your underwear is dingy gray.