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Coming Clean

The twisted tale of how an innocent neighborhood lost -- and found -- all its odd socks.

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At first, I thought I was going crazy. The simple yet effective system I’d developed over the years for scheduling my laundry had started to fail. Usually, I maintain a 1:1 ratio of underwear to socks; when my underwear runs out, so do my socks, and then it’s time to head to the wash-and-fold laundromat.

But lately the ratio had gotten out of whack. And last week, though I had a dozen clean boxers left, I found myself completely out of socks. In that moment, the calculus by which I ordered my entire adult existence had ceased to function. Bewildered and desperate for answers, I ran to the laundromat, but the attendant claimed to know nothing. He said they farm out the wash. Finally he scribbled down a phone number for me to call.

The not-so-friendly voice at the other end had an answer, all right: He said that when he comes across socks that don’t have a match -- I can remember the next words as though hearing them for the first time -- he keeps them. Before the awful callousness of his confession could sink in, I heard myself screaming into the phone. I was never warned, I cried. This is crazy! Like Argentine trade unionists, my socks had been “disappeared.”

Frantic now, but trying to keep it together, I demanded their immediate and unconditional release. The man sounded perversely bored by the subject. “Okay,” he said. “I have a bag of odds. I’ll send it over.”

The next day at the cleaners I was handed a vast bag containing at least 1,000 random socks -- a whole neighborhood’s worth. Feeling as the Allied troops must have felt when they rolled into Berlin, I wanted to run through the streets yelling, “You can come out now, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your socks are here. Your socks are clean.” Mine were there, too, tied together in a tidy bundle.

But as I headed home, my joy faded. I started wondering what darker truth that guy’s flimsy story might be hiding. Why don’t they just return the socks, instead of carefully sorting and storing them? And if everyone’s a victim of this scheme, why is no one speaking out? (If we were losing shirts, the city would be swallowed up in angry riots.) Perhaps it has something to do with those guys in the East Village selling junk on blankets -- doesn’t there always seem to be a random sock lying next to an old copy of Omni? I must warn the people, I vowed. Then I remembered another thing about New York: I have no one to tell. I don’t know any of my neighbors.


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