short shrifts and sliced shirts

John Bellairs
November 14, 1958, Scholastic #7

One day, after two straight hours of drawing concentric circles on the paper intended for my column, I looked about my room, which was littered with finely ground newspaper and excess hashish. This, to say the least, was not a place in which to invoke the Muse. So, with pencil and pad, I began a tour of the campus, and eventually stopped before the Laundry. In reality, I was overpowered by the indescribable odor of burning cloth and sulphur; but, at any rate, this seemed to be as good a place as any to investigate, so I wandered in.

The Laundry was a bustling hive of activity, filled with sinister gurgling and clanking noises, and was lined with huge machines and vats. As I approached, I was greeted by a short, roundish man in a white smock. He beamed as he shook my hand, and introduced himself as Dr. J. J. Starchmonger, Director of Luandering Skills. When I made known my intentions (some of them), he offered to take me on a tour of his fascinating kingdom. We stopped first before a huge machine composed mainly of two rollers, which were studded with cleats and knobs. Stifling the impulse to ask whether this was a rock-crushing machine or not, I asked my guide what purpose this machine had. He smiled and replied:

"This is our shirt-softener, although it may be used for some of our more stubborn socks. Its purpose is to reduce the fibers of the shirt to the consistency of warm oatmeal, so that it may be crimped in any way we please before being ossified by the starch solution. It also makes the work easier for the shirt-slicer, which places diagonal rips in the shirt's back when it resists the fraying action of the shirt-softener. We know that a shirt has been successfully softened if we can pour it into a quart jar."

He held up a jar of shirt for my investigation, then moved to the next department. We came to a room filled with steaming vats, over which hung an aura of greenish smoke. These, my guide explained, were the starch and acid vats, intended for the removal of mingling of the colors of the various articles of clothing, which were then petrified by the starch. He picked up a pole, with which he fished out what must have been formerly a Bermuda shirt, which was now a peculiar ashen color, with a faint remnant of design here and there. With a smile of satisfaction, he let it sink into the ooze, then led me to the starch vats. Selecting a pair of khakis at random, he kneaded the lumpy mass of cloth into a ball, then allowed three minutes for drying. Then, with an air of triumph, he offered me a chisel and hammer, so that I might test the results. I first tapped the ball, and was struck by the clear metallic ring the hammer produced. Then, with the chisel, I hacked at the solid mass until I was satisfied that nothing but a diamond drill could pierce the glittering surface of the starch. "One of our best examples," he remarked, beaming. "The trick is to fold the pants so that the pristine smoothness of the bundle can never be disturbed by anyone who might want to wear the pants. On shirts, the pockets are sealed by starch, and, on occasion, sewn shut with packthread. It makes for a very neat shirt indeed."

The next room was a distinct contrast to the others, in that there were no great machines, but hundreds of little work-benches, each occupied by a worker busily performing his task. Here, Dr. Starchmonger informed me, work was done which was far too specialized and subtle for a machine. He led me down the rows of benches, explaining as he went:

"Here is the last retreat of what one might call 'Creative Intuition in Art and Laundering'. This man, for instance, is a collar frayer. With a few deft strokes of his fraying hook, he can reduce a fine dress collar to ribbons, leaving barely enough to cover a tie. At the next table is an elastic remover, whose task it is to carefully extract all the elastic from drawers and socks. In 1957 alone, we reclaimed enough elastic to fit twice around the Equator, allowing for a mountain her and there. That man with the little hatchet is a button-splitter. He has the difficult job of breaking the buttons, while leaving a remnant of them hanging on the thread. This can deceive the student to such an extent that he will button his shirt, leave his room, and discover an hour later that every button has disintegrated. I could go on and on about the zipper jammers, the name-tag obliterators, and the cuff-smashers, but this is a whole world in itself. I will now show you what we call our "trophy room."

He led me into a great hall with a vaulted ceiling, and began again his lecture:

"This wall-to-wall rug was originally a cashmere sweater which was sent to us in the laundry by mistake. You can't imagine what a challenge it was to us. There in the center of the room is a ball of cord six feet in diameter, which is composed of drawstrings from laundry bags sent here from 1945-56. Here, under a glass case, is a very interesting exhibit. In the year 1937, a dress shirt was sent to us with the cufflinks still attached. The metal was beaten to paper-thinness by the softener, then fused to the shirt, with the result that the shirt became a very fine metal breastplate, probably the only one that ever had sleeves. You can imagine the owner's surprise when he got it back.

Here on the wall is a picture of the Walsh Hall class of 1940, whose entire shipment of laundry was lost one week and never recovered. In this exhibit we find a collection of crude pikes made by the students during their assault on the Laundry to recover their clothes. Next to this is the bust of Cleanth Inverness, who died of blood poisoning from a wound inflicted by a metal laundry tag. And, to top everything off, there is our citation from CARE for our shipments of clothing during the past two years. We are very proud of our record.

When we had finished the tour, I thanked my host and left. I was halfway down the walk when I noticed that I had left behind my pencil, notebook, and a pair of leather gloves. At this point, I heard a loud screaming of gears and grinding metal. Amusing myself with thoughts of what was happening, I went on my way, whistling out of tune.

IRATE PROTEST DEPT.

The other day I was called away from a heated game of Six-Pack Bezique to receive a panting messenger who clutched a scroll in his editorial fist. I examined the two-page letter, and noticed that it was water-stained, probably by tears of righteous wrath. As I read this stirring work aloud, the assembled students were rocked by emotion, and the weeping which followed extinguished several cigars. This defense of the existence of students in Howard (was first hung out to dry, then sent to Repercussions), where it probably is this week.

Later, I received a great number of postcards, all from students who apparently think they live in Howard. This is, I guess, a great tribute to the powerful mass hypnosis, but rather useless. For, although these students have sent about a hundred-odd postcards (some of them very odd), I have the advantage. For, by a few strokes of my magic pen (get your magic pen for 40¢ at the Bookstore) I can call into being thousands of dog-eared Scholastics dripping with venom. However, since my supply of venom has not arrived this week, I will satisfy myself by printing the awful truth which I have tried to keep from these deluded souls:

THERE IS NO HOWARD HALL!

My condolences to those affected by this news.


Commentary

Bellairs's article was simply an amusing riff on the Notre Dame laundry, which served all students living on campus and was a favorite target of student wrath, according to Bowen.

"I have nothing special to say about the campus laundry, except we were upset that the university wouldn't allow local laundries to pick up and deliver on campus, which meant that, unless you were prepared to undertake a long bus journey for the purpose, you were effectively confined to using their services, which included pressing shirts in some kind of aptly-named mangle that rendered them absurdly stiff down the front and, when it didn't actually break the buttons, pressed them level with the stiffly starched surface so that you had to pry them loose before the shirt could be buttoned. And then you had to pay them for doing this."

"As an historical note that is indicative of the University's ability to adapt rapidly to changing environments, you might be interested to know that, although Notre Dame went co-educational in September 1971, the laundry wasn't prepared to accept womens' clothing until 1998," says Myers. "The first generation of female Notre Dame grads therefore must be noted for its peculiar gaminess."

As for Howard Hall, "John remarked offhandedly in his October 31 column that no students were allowed to live in there and advised anyone who thought he did live there to send him a postcard. As it happened, at that time the residents of Howard were in the throes of a 'hall spirit' campaign designed to establish that their dormitory was no mere holding pen, but a vivid center of esprit and charisma that anyone should be proud to call home. For example, at the intramural game described in my column on October 24, they not only fielded a football team but a miniature marching band. John's remark apparently touched a sensitive nerve, and an outraged letter responding to it appeared in the Scholastic on November 14. Here is a sample:

As a second-year residence hall we can claim the finest hall spirit and organization. Nowhere else on Mr. Bellairs' ragged, run-down campus does such a cohesive hall unit exist. We are indignant at being termed "Notre Dame nonentities," and we wonder at the ability and talent of an author who undertakes to insult any group without justification or provocation.

And more of the same. The editors gave John an advance copy of the letter, so that his response appeared in the same issue where he revealed "the awful truth which I have tried to keep from these deluded souls: THERE IS NO HOWARD HALL!"