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11 Secrets of Laundromat Workers

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Fresh, clean clothes help us live our best lives—thanks to the 200,000 U.S. workers who keep local laundromats running. Although they deal with grueling shifts and sporadic tips, there are some perks to handling strangers’ intimates all day: Laundromats often double as meaningful community spaces, and the steady demand keeps business stable. Mental Floss interviewed three workers in the industry to learn about what the job is really like, from the things you probably do that make them wince to the most bizarre items customers have left in pockets.

1. THEY WISH YOU'D TIP.

Laundry workers earn an average of $23,770 a year nationwide to wash your mismatched socks. But Pilar Flores, a laundry worker in Queens, New York, says "not a lot of people tip." At the laundromat where she works, a mason jar of dollar bills sits strategically next to the cash register, even though it doesn't see much action.

However, Jessica Steier, a laundry owner and operator in California, says she noticed a bump in tips when card payment and apps became an option for transactions, instead of just cash. (Her business uses the app Rinse, which works like Seamless, but for clothes.) Thanks to this technology, customers have fewer excuses to skip the gratuity. “I feel like they feel a little guilty if they don’t,” Steier says.

2. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DO 300 POUNDS OF LAUNDRY IN ONE MORNING.

“You’re constantly dealing with issues, jumping from task to task, on your feet for 8-hour shifts," Steier says. Flores, who works seven hours a day, seven days a week, says she has to wash between 250 and 300 pounds of laundry in the morning shift just to keep up with next-day demand. With such a tight turnaround, breaks aren’t common. “The only breaks we get is when it’s not crazy,” says Flores. “It’s always busy. I can’t even sit here for five minutes.”

3. THEY'VE FOUND SURGICAL EQUIPMENT IN PEOPLE'S POCKETS.

A male hand taking dollar bills out of a pocket
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Careless customers can create a real headache for the people doing their laundry. “Sometimes, especially women, they’ll leave their lipstick and it will mess up all their laundry,” Flores says. Kids are culprits, too, she adds—they leave crayons in their pockets, which can melt in the high heat and stick to fabric, not to mention the machine.

And while staining is a big source of stress, sometimes there’s little the laundromat worker can do. “We try to rewash it, but if we see it doesn’t come out, it’s not in our hands, it’s not our responsibility,” Flores says. “It’s the customer’s responsibility.”

Laundromat workers also often find spare change—but it’s not theirs to keep. “I once found over $60 in a guy’s pockets, and he was absolutely astonished that we gave it back,” laundromat employee Mehunno shared on a Reddit AMA. Other discoveries may be bizarre: “We do laundry for a few doctors, so I’ve found surgical equipment before,” Mehunno writes. “Found a car’s registration, pocket knife, and this guy’s wedding ring three separate times.”

4. THE WORK CAN ENDANGER THEIR HEALTH.

Some surprises workers find in the laundry aren't just odd, but downright dangerous. "We have seen used preservatives, bloodied sanitary pads, dirty baby diapers and even vomit," laundry worker Daysi Raimundo from Astoria, Queens, told Voices of NY. Besides being gross, bodily fluids like blood can harbor bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella—especially problematic since many laundromat workers don't have health insurance, as Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran of the New York-based Laundry Workers Center told Voices of NY. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has detailed information about how to handle contaminated laundry, but many workers just do the best they can. Based on complaints received at the LWC offices, many laundry workers suffer from problems such as back pain, rashes, skin problems, and respiratory problems, caused in part by repeated exposure to cleaning chemicals.

5. ECONOMIC SLUMPS DON'T STRESS THEM OUT.

“In the recession, a lot of people tried to cut back on expenses,” Steier says. “But everyone has to have clean clothes. So it’s recession-proof. You gotta do your laundry.” In fact, the Coin Laundry Association has found that coin-operated laundries thrive in periods of both growth and recession. And as home ownership decreases nationwide, people depend more on outside laundry facilities, according to the association’s website.

According to Steier, California’s droughts have also helped bump up business: When water bills soar for homeowners, customers flock to laundromats instead.

6. THEY HAVE CRAZY WATER BILLS.

It's not unusual for laundromat water bills to average several thousand dollars a month, which can make it hard to keep costs down for consumers. (In 2013, one laundromat in Maryland said it would need to raise prices 565 percent to keep up with their $6000 water bill.)

Joon Sohn, who's run a coin-operated laundromat for a decade in Lakewood, New Jersey, says his water bill comes to around $2000 per month, which he says is forcing him to think about selling his business. Ideally, utilities should only amount to about 20-25% of the gross self-service income from a laundromat, experts say—but older machines and changes in local water prices can make it hard to hit that target.

7. THEY'RE SCRUPULOUS ABOUT CLEANING THE LINT TRAY.

“We clean out lint trays every day,” Steier says. “They can cause lint fires.” That's not just a concern at commercial laundromats, either: The National Fire Protection Association found that municipal fire departments responded to home fires involving clothes dryers and washing machines nearly 16,000 times a year between 2010-2014 [PDF]. Dust, fiber, or lint were the leading causes of these flare-ups.

Frequent cleaning of the lint tray can also help keep utility costs low. That's because dryers don’t work at maximum efficiency when lint trays are full, Steier explains.

8. THEY WINCE WHEN YOU ADD SOAP TOO EARLY.

A hand adding soap to a washing machine
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Ever stared at the soap compartments atop a washing machine, wavering over when to add detergent? You’re not alone. “The thing is that most people put their soap in as soon as the water starts running down. But actually the soap should be thrown in in the second wash,” Flores says. Otherwise, you may have just wasted some soap—and some quarters.

The first wash—or prewash—really just soaks the clothes in preparation for the suds that occur when the second wash kicks in. So be patient, Flores tells folks who use self-service machines, and add detergent when the second wash starts, unless your clothes are really dirty. Chances are, they don't need that first wash, and most of your soap is going down the drain.

9. SOME LAUNDROMATS DOUBLE AS AN ART GALLERY—OR A LIBRARY.

In some areas, laundromats are a get-in-get-out situation. Others try to make customers comfortable with coffee, TVs, and vending machines. But some go above and beyond—Steier cultivates her laundromats as community spaces by offering free Wi-Fi, and at her Silver Lake location, adorning the walls with local artists’ artwork. The nonprofit Laundromat Library League even stocks books in laundromats located in underserved communities across the country.

“You know when you see people on their laptops after their laundry is completed, they are comfortable at the laundromat,” says Steier. “It becomes a meeting place to not just do your laundry, but a destination to be a part of the community.”

10. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES CALL THE POLICE.

But not everyone is just hanging out at the laundromat drinking coffee. Sohn says that his customers not infrequently break the machines by adding too much soap (more than half of a ladle, as advised against in the hand-drawn signs on the walls). When the machines break down, customers have been known to call police to complain—in fact, it happens three or four times a year. The police generally side with Sohn. “If the machine has a problem, we put an out-of-order sign,” Sohn says. “I tell that customer: Don’t come again.”

11. DISH SOAP IS THEIR SECRET WEAPON.

A bottle of dish soap against a tiled background
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As you might imagine, people who do laundry all day long become an expert on stains—and most of them say you don't need anything fancy to get yours out.

“Dish soap is far and away the best stain remover. It’ll take out anything protein based (blood, coffee, food, grass, etc.)," Mehunno advises on Reddit. “For ink stains, use rubbing alcohol.”

The Cyclone Laundry and Internet Café in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which offers a bevy of stain-busting tips online, says that alcohol stains can often be removed by blotting fabric with a mild detergent solution, or with a mixture of 1/3 cup of white vinegar and 2/3 cup of water. A mixture of boiling water and borax will take off many other stains, while shampoo is great for getting out makeup (sometimes spraying a makeup stain with hairspray will also do the trick).

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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Pool Lifeguards
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Pool lifeguards do far more than just work on their tan: These trained professionals can detect sometimes-subtle indications of distress, shut down dangerous water activities, and keep visitors safe from harm.

But jumping to the rescue is only a minor part of their routine. To get a better idea of what their job entails, we asked several career pool lifeguards about their duties, from working with dangerous chemicals to dealing with poop emergencies. Here's what we learned.

1. THEY CAN TELL HOW WELL YOU SWIM BY HOW YOU GET INTO THE WATER.

Paul, a lifeguard at a private pool facility in Reno, Nevada, says that he can usually evaluate a person’s swimming abilities by how they enter the water. “People who are less skilled and experienced typically lower themselves into the pool or use the stairs or ladders,” he says. “More skilled swimmers do this thing where they jump into the pool, fully submerge, then push off the bottom and start swimming immediately. It's surprisingly common.”

2. THEY SEE A LOT OF CRACK.

Swimming trunks may be some of the least-intuitive apparel items of the modern world: Get them wet and they’re likely to make for an anatomy lesson no one asked for. “Kids, especially boys, have the strangest inability to notice when their trunks are falling off,” says Marek, an indoor lifeguard in Washington state. “It's usually not a big deal and gets handled when the kid's parent notices and scolds them."

3. THEY’RE AMATEUR CHEMISTS.

Responsibility for maintaining the pH balance of a pool and adding or reducing chemicals to preserve a clean environment is usually the duty of head lifeguards. According to Darrell, a 10-year veteran of indoor pools, handling these substances requires additional training. “This is done at the end of the day and I typically add chemicals twice or sometimes three times a week,” he says. “I add either calcium chloride to control the hardness of the water or sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, to control the alkalinity.” For germ-killing, chlorine and muriatic acid are delivered to the water through a computer-controlled delivery system.

4. SOME VERY GROSS THINGS LURK AT THE BOTTOM OF POOLS.

Some lifeguards are charged with vacuuming the bottom surfaces of pools, which usually produces a composite muck in the canister that Marek refers to as a “diaper”: It’s typically full of hair and gray sludge. But things can get worse. Much worse. “At the summer camp I work at, I've had the pleasure of fishing dead things out of the strainer baskets,” he says. “Frogs and rats. Having seen what comes out of those pools, let's just say that I'm not a big fan of recreation swimming anymore.”

5. THEY DISLIKE LANE HOGS.

Some regulars who use private pools as part of their fitness routine can get a little too self-confident in their skills. “Narcissistic lap swimmers” are a pet peeve of Paul’s. “They can't share lanes and always brag about how they're the best damn person in the pool. It's like, man, I've seen 5-year-olds with a better breast stroke.” (Another way to get on a guard’s bad side: sitting over a lane and dangling your legs in.)

6. THEY’RE NOT ABOVE PEEING IN THE POOL.

It’s a testament to how potent the chemicals are in pools that some lifeguards offering swim lessons don’t mind relieving themselves when nature calls and they don’t feel like getting out. “I know plenty of swim instructors who will relieve themselves in the pool because they don't have much time between lessons and they might be stuck in the water several hours,” Marek says. “One of my former coworkers, and a good friend, has always said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that pee in the pool, and those that deny it."

7. IT'S HARD TO PREDICT WHEN TROUBLE WILL STRIKE.

While some lifeguards subscribe to a 15-minute rule—most questionable swimmers are going to get themselves into trouble within 15 minutes of entering the water—Paul cautions that there are always exceptions. “If you're a weak enough swimmer that you would have a problem, you're going to have that problem pretty quickly,” he says. “Though that is only most of the time. Some people get tired and get into trouble later on and some people have heart attacks halfway through their swim. You've got to be ready for anything.”

8. NOSEBLEEDS ARE COMMON.

Irritated nasal passages can be a problem at pools, which means that lifeguards are frequently charged with handling biohazards on or near the deck. “We see a lot of nosebleeds,” Darrell says. “We cover the areas with signage. Hopefully the patron has found a guard quickly if we didn't see it and hasn't left a 50-foot trail of blood on the deck. We then spray the blood with a disinfectant solution designed to kill blood-borne pathogens, wait 10 minutes, then hose directly with water.”

9. THERE’S A PROTOCOL FOR POOP.

It’s the emergency every lifeguard dreads: a fecal deposit in a pool full of swimmers. When that happens, it’s time to “shock” the pool by turning it into a chemical bath. According to Darrell, who considers himself a “poop whisperer,” solids come out first. “Dispersed poop? Everyone out. Scoop and vacuum. The pool is closed for a minimum of eight hours as we now have to chemically burn the water. [That means] basically bringing the chlorine levels up to where even cockroaches would die.” Vomit is slightly less dire: the pool is closed for 30 minutes while the chlorine goes to work.

10. A CROWDED POOL CAN BE SAFER.

The more patrons in the water, the harder it might be for a lifeguard to keep track of everyone. But, Marek says, having too few people can be just as much of a problem. “Crowded pools have the benefit of holding your attention better. If you've got two patrons in the water, it's easy to get bored and zone out."

11. ARM BANDS REALLY ANNOY THEM.

Those inflatable arm bands worn by children? Lifeguards hate them. “They may pop, which would probably be unusual, or they may leak slowly,” Darrell says. “But that's not the real danger. Although they will keep a small child afloat, this is assuming the child has the strength to keep their arms down in order to keep their head above water.”

12. THEY DOUBLE AS JANITORS.

At Paul’s private pool, lifeguards are expected to perform tasks that would usually be reserved for a maintenance crew. “Cleaning is a part of the job,” he says. “Many pools don't have janitors so the bulk of making sure the pool looks presentable is up to the lifeguards.” They’ll even set up tables for parties and clean the bathrooms.

13. THEY HAVE STRATEGIES TO KEEP FROM ZONING OUT.

Guards have all kinds of tricks for not letting their attention wander from swimmers: they keep their shoulders square with the pool, they count how many times a song plays on the radio, and they rotate positions every 15 minutes. “A wandering mind is a dangerous thing to have while actively guarding,” Darrell says. “I count patrons. I go through scenarios in my mind.” Cell phones are usually prohibited: getting caught with one can be grounds for termination.

14. POOL NOODLES ARE THE BANE OF THEIR EXISTENCE.

While people are welcome to bring their own noodles to public pools, Darrell prefers they didn’t. Instead of being used as flotation aids, they wind up getting used as chew toys. “They end up with bite marks and chunks ripped out of them,” he says. “I often wish we could purchase noodles made out of foam that tastes like something rotten to discourage this.” Darrell will not directly seize a noodle from a tiny guest, but if he happens to see one abandoned, he will grab it. And he will not be sorry.

15. THEY’RE NOT BABYSITTERS.

“I think my single biggest peeve when it comes to guarding is parents who assume that we are there to babysit their children for them,” Marek says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Lifeguards are there to supervise and ensure a safe, and hopefully fun, environment for all. It's incredibly selfish and irresponsible to assume that we are there to watch your one child when we've got hundreds of other people to keep track of. We are there to mitigate risk and respond if something does happen, not to babysit.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers
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Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

Customers line up near an ice cream truck
Andrew Cowie, AFP/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver looks out of his window
Roger Kisby, Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

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