Photo by Arif Riyanto on Unsplash

Does making sense make sense? — or, how to make errands and life suck less.

Al Gentile
Oct 17, 2019 · 8 min read

I looked up laundromats while on a trip Oslo — and Cafe Laundromat came up.

My ignorant American sensibilities perceived the words “Cafe Laundromat” together in two ways — cartoonishly convenient, and probably just a sandwich shop with a single washer-dryer combo unit. It would probably have linoleum floors, and you’d definitely have to bring your own detergent. The one dispenser probably jammed on a quarter long ago.

Instead, an inviting scene. An unassuming storefront of glass and brown framing gave off a yellow glow warming up that spot of the sidewalk. Through the front door and down a few steps I happened on a room of low wooden square coffee tables on old bathroom black and white linoleum. Ahead was a bar with liquor, beer, wine, and a percolator, serviced by two people whose role comprised in equal measure a mix of bartender and barista.

And, tucked in an alcove of linoleum flooring and the scent of cheap fabric softener, were washers and driers. I fumbled for coins, and deposited my laundry. I sat at the bar and ordered a Ringnes and took in the hum of activity. People meeting up for drinks and food at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. Friends and probably lovers on couches, armchairs, and second-hand ottomans.

After I finished my beer, I whirled around to a small, half-circle library just off the bar. I dove into a dusty copy of The Tolkien Reader, next to the warm aura of simmering embers. Led Zeppelin was on.

Maybe because the small library had a cozy feel to it, tucked away from the noise of the bar and the rattling laundry machines; or listening to Zeppelin and reading Tolkien, and finding a sobering comfort in the fact that my clothing was spinning in Norwegian water mixed with foreign soaps.

Maybe, it’s the feeling of a space that gets being Norwegian. Or, in a less tightly-fit way, anyone in a westernized city. We all have laundry to do, and some of us (like me) haul it out to a laundromat.

And doing laundry didn’t suck in Oslo. I was on vacation, and among the list of things I didn’t want to worry about was underwear. But this space — with its multiple uses and social hub-like feel — made doing laundry a pleasure. There were probably people there not doing laundry.

Our lives are busy as hell. Every minute can be optimized with caffeine and a good task management app, and many people do. The vast majority of places we work, shop, and mail postcards to grandma are purpose-built, not people-with-a-purpose-built.

Browsing a good farmers market, you often walk into a cacophony of energy, a place where you can buy produce and see a performance. And, you can browse crafts and art works. It’s like a bazaar, an ancient concept that’s been around a lot longer than our supermarket-dominated existence.

Can you imagine it? A library at the DMV — where we have equal chances to dive into a book or magazine, and mindlessly phone-scroll until your number’s called. The post office, where you can stand in line and complain, “What’s going on up there?” or watch a public art demonstration.

Or a library that not only rents books and compact disks — you can rent out instruments, tools, and even cookware.

Thankfully we already have that, and it’s a social experiment that’s proving quite successful in the communities they serve.

Social isolation is and will perhaps forever be an issue in our technology-driven society. We can pay all our bills online, and Amazon Prime a coffee mug into our hands in under 24 hours. The need to actually be anywhere, much less talk to someone, is itself becoming a taboo.

In fact, social isolation is something to laugh at, even if it’s just a meme.
In fact, social isolation is something to laugh at, even if it’s just a meme.
Social isolation is even something to laugh at, even if to feel more comfortable about it through a meme.

That very taboo is evidence of missed chances to speak to someone — to activate those small bursts of oxytocin we experience when we bond socially with others.

Oxytocin has evolutionary precedents. Being an animal without claws, and weaker than many leading predators of the great Savanna, the humans and pre-humans who experienced psycho-somatic rewards (that warm fuzzy feeling) in social bonding succeeded in building things, stalking large prey, and unlocking the secret to their continued thriving.

Today, I think we have a different relationship with oxytocin. Social bonding is not necessarily imperative to survival on a basic level. We can order Door Dash, but a prolonged lack of the stuff has been shown to hasten the development of depression.

Our relationship with it today is one connected to our belief that social bonding is something we consider after we get things done. It’s relegated to hanging out with friends, and snuggling after work.

A fun fact for you — playing cooperative video games, whether in person or over digital networks, actually increases feelings of generosity.

We all have tons of ways to incorporate being around other people more often, and I can imagine that it would help make life more enjoyable, and potentially help people who suffer from the effects of prolonged social isolation.

I think our relationship with oxytocin can be compared to rediscovering an old passion, a feeling many people might have experienced. I’d spent years without a vinyl collection, and that whole time I lived without it perfectly fine. Until I started my little record business, I’d forgotten the excitement of reading liner notes and lyrics.

Re-experiencing that excitement was like meeting an old friend. And the feelings we experience when socially connecting with people is something we’re capable of, and need.

The power of social interaction can’t be understated. Reporters talked face to face with 12 homeless people in San Francisco, and revealed their stories — ones that could change your perspective on homeless people.

The Community West Foundation’s blog describes how social interaction can change a homeless person’s life, in a real way.

“Due to the constant denial the homeless receive when asking for help, most admit to feeling invisible to the people around them… You taking the time out can help them feel like they matter, and provide the encouragement they need to continue in the right direction. Making direct eye contact, smiling at them, and offering words of encouragement are ways you can make a positive impact on them.”

I hate to say it — but that’s oxytocin, too. It’s also being studied to help with addiction disorders, and a number of other mental health issues. It’s needless, really, to say that oxytocin is some pretty powerful stuff. And it’s available to us for free.

It’s why parties are a thing, and it’s part of why we go to sleep. It increases sex drive, and helps solidify emotional experiences. Our mood is lifted when talking to strangers, and there’s nothing like reconnecting with old friends.

What we face is a world full of people increasingly isolating themselves, and it’s hurting us. And given the fact that we can’t simply bulldoze society and start anew, we need to use the spaces we have now.

So, who cares if a post office has a sitting area with coffee? It’s a strange idea, but why not allow for the possibility for us to be human in another space besides the home, or the bar every weekend?

Why not set up open-air community spaces, like the Ynot Lot in Baltimore — in areas not being used for anything useful right now? Why not develop subway and public transport systems with amenities to foster social connectivity?

Designs should pay attention to those who choose not to participate — feeling like you want to be alone is completely natural even in public spaces, and should be respected. But, with the opportunity to brighten your day, I’m confident a “people-with-a-purpose-built” approach could potentially illuminate surprising parts of anyone’s day.

Architects and designers are building hospitals using human-centric approaches, to stunning results. The Florida Hospital for Children, once scoring in the bottom ten percent in patient and family satisfaction, took a hard look at the hospital through a “medical ethnographic” perspective. Measures like installing ambient light and sound fixtures in patient rooms helped sick children feel less anxious and depressed.

The Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda — designed by architect Michael Murphy — has increased healing rates among sick people by paying attention to things like sunlight exposure and ventilation.

While we all don’t know how to construct buildings, we have the ability think creatively about the spaces we frequent, and how we can make them be better to our particularly human sensibilities.

Thinking about fostering social bonding is one way we can do this. We can also think more about color psychology when choosing the hues of our walls, experience the science-backed emotional and psychological benefits of a tidy house (I’m looking at you, Marie Kondo), or make doing laundry a pleasure.

It can even strengthen community-level democracy. In areas that offer childcare for people attending city hall meetings, participation is on the rise.

In Cafe Laundromat in Oslo, an unrelated set of enterprises blended together to create a spot that, though relaxing, left me feeling accomplished. I’d gotten something done — clean underwear — and was able to experience a better quality of life with some “bibliotherapy”.

I’ll never forget that experience, and judging by how many people were there this hybrid mish-mash of laundromat-coffee shop-library-bar appeared a popular rendezvous spot for the surrounding community. I spent about three hours there. Friends came and went, and it’s fair to say that in such a place love and new friendships could have been seeded there.

It’s an integrated, multi-use space with special attention on the human experience, whether intentional or not. Plain and simple.

So, does life have to “make sense”? I think Picasso put it best:

“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.”

  1. Cafe Laundromat — Oslo
  2. 8 Spaces Changing How We Think About Stuff” — Cat Johnson, 2016.
  3. Facts about the Cuddle Hormone” — Stephanie Pappas, 2015.
  4. What is Oxytocin?” — Hormone Health Network, 2018.
  5. Cooperative Video Game Play and Generosity” — Matthew Nelson Grizzard, 2013.
  6. We asked 12 homeless people what happened. Their answers show we all are close to the streets.” — Amy Graff, 2018.
  7. Why Do People Ignore the Homeless?” — The Community West Foundation, 2014.
  8. Targeting the Oxytocin System to Treat Addictive Disorders: Rationale and Progress to Date” — Mary Lee, Matthew Rohn, Gianluigi Tanda, Lorenzo Leggio, 2016.
  9. The YNot Lot” — Facebook Page
  10. Designing a Perfect Space for Recovery — and Retention” — Thrive Thinking.
  11. The Butaro District Hospital” — The Mass Group.
  12. Color Psychology: Does It Affect How You Feel?” — Kendra Cherry, 2019.
  13. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” — Marie Kondo, at Talks at Google, 2015.
  14. Offering Childcare at City Meetings May be Key to Diversifying Civic Engagement.” — Rebecca Ritzel, 2019.
  15. Can Reading Books Improve Your Mental Health?” — Rob Whitley, 2019.

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Al Gentile

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Al Gentile

Written by

Creative content type — marketing, music, and more.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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