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).

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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