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Farewell to the queen of wash and fold

Barbara Conway: retiring after 40 years of laundry.

FIRST PERSON | Lynn Harrison

“Got some new drawers, I see — finally. I don’t see how you keep ’em up.”

“Barbara, didn’t I have a pair of green . . .”

“Threw ’em out. Totally shot. You’ve been needing new ones since God was a baby.”

Barbara Conway retired June 25, 2008, after 40 years of running a no-nonsense wash-and-fold laundry service at Fillmore and California, now the Wash ’n’ Royal, but for decades the Wash Palace. During all of those years, she found more than a few surprises in the wash — from Halloween novelties to sex toys — alongside more sedate bags of laundry, including mine.

Barbara has been many things: the queen of wash and fold, the empress of local gossip, the cigarette’s handmaiden. It’s nostalgia, I suppose, but I still miss the faint puff of nicotine that used to emanate from my neatly folded package of not-so-tighty-whiteys.

But what she is and always has been is much rarer in this life. Barbara is a loving, giving, big-hearted genuine human being — a one-of-a-kind real person who never shies from saying what she thinks.

When my washing fortunes changed and I no longer placed my faded socks and drooping drawers under Barbara’s scrutiny, I felt that undeniable elastic tug of guilt. I could taste that soapy bittersweet flavor of remorse. But we still saw one another on the street, and our friendship continued.

Now that Barbara is retiring and I may see her less often, I have a confession: Things of cotton, even socks with holes, may come and go in one’s life; but Barbara, never have more skillful or loving hands been in my drawers for so long, and with so few demands.

UPDATE: Three weeks after Barbara Conway retired she checked into the hospital and never came home again. She died on September 21, 2008.

“I think she’d known for a while that something wasn’t right, but didn’t realize how bad it was,” said her only child, Marie Stroughter. “She didn’t tell anyone — didn’t want to worry anyone or be a bother. I didn’t even know.”

She had advanced cervical cancer, which led to heart trouble and blood clots that required her leg be amputated. “But she never lost her sense of humor,” said her daughter. “She was lucid, flirting with the doctors — very matter-of-fact to the end.”