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Mark Hayward's City Matters: After 40 years, there'll be no Mo at laundromat

September 13. 2012 1:25AM

Laundromats have a way of stretching out time.

Maybe it's because washers and dryers rotate, as clocks do, in front of our eyes. Washing, rinsing, spinning, drying, fluffing - around and around, cementing us to a dingy storefront with strangers who we're never sure aren't peeking at underwear, tumbling erotic thoughts through restless minds.

Take those two hours of laundry-duty drudgery. Then multiply them into a day, then a month, then years, then decades.

When you get to four, you have reached the career path - or better to say, cycle - of Mohammed Guellil ... Mo for short.

Mo called it quits this week, putting an end to his 40 years as an owner of Second Street Laundromat.

'I want time off, I want a vacation, I want a holiday,' said Guellil, who is 76 years old. 'I'm going to miss a lot of the people. I'm not going to miss seven days a week.'

Except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day, Guellil has manned the laundromat daily for those 40 years. This month, he put up some signs telling his customers of his pending departure. He finalized a deal with the new owners, Red Oak Properties.

He started contemplating semi-retirement.

'He's one of the greatest guys I ever met in my life,' said Manchester resident Reynold Plaisir, as he folded some dryer-warmed clothes.

Plaisir has known Mo since 1996, when he moved to Manchester from New Jersey. A native Haitian, Plaisir shared the French language with Mo, a native Parisian.

'We can do laundry and chat together. He treats people like a human being,' Plaisir said.

Another time-stretching characteristic of laundromats, Second Street included, is their layout. They're like prison cell blocks. Both have facing rows of containers that get jammed full, then slammed shut with a locking door.

At Second Street, the walls are paneled, and the tile floor is as white as a bleached dress shirt. Mo is proud of the seats - two banks of leather-upholstered, wooden-hand-railed theater seats he purchased at auction for $1 a chair when the Empire Theater over on Massabesic Street closed down.

What isn't in the laundromat is the staple of the modern-day waiting room - a flat-screen TV.

There's no daytime soap opera or talk show. No 24-hour newscasts with Ken dolls and news Barbies reading, re-reading and repeating the same thing.

At Second Street, there was only Mo.

Speaking and listening does not come easy to him. An illness harmed his hearing a few years ago, so the non-native speaker who once struggled with the language now struggles with his hearing. He speaks a little slowly, a little loudly.

But to Ken Preston, a customer from back in the 1990s, that made it easier to get to know Mo.

'He was quick with a smile, quick with a joke, quick to lend a hand, easy to like,' said Preston, who met Mo when he lived in the Bass Island apartments.

Back then, Mo kept cold Budweisers in the laundromat basement for his special customers. On Fridays, regulars brought a Hibachi, and people would sit on a picnic table in the back, eating hot dogs and drinking beer while the machines spun and tumbled.

Mo describes his job as babysitting. Machines have to be fixed. Teenagers, dropped off by parents to do the laundry, must be supervised. Floors and folding tables have to be kept clean.

'Mo always was very nice to us and taught me a lot about laundry and machines,' said Lisa Swank, who visited the laundromat as a teenager. 'Mo's positive attitude made such a boring chore pleasant.'

Mo had a history to tell his customers. He left the City of Lights for the Queen City in 1968 to be with his wife, whom he met when she was living in Paris.

He first hated the city, he said. The snow, Manchester cuisine, the new language - even French-Quebecois - were all a challenge. Yet, he grew to love his new home.

For the last three years, Mo tried to sell his business. He finally worked out a deal with Red Oak, the dominant landlord in the Squog neighborhood.

'They didn't buy it; I gave it to them,' Mo said.

Now he wants to work part-time at machine repair, see the country with his wife, Clara, and perhaps visit France.

His customers have sent him postcards over the years, sharing vacations that Mo could never find time for. Now it's time to send his own postcards.

'Life is so short and I want to enjoy it now,' Mo wrote on a sign posted in the laundromat. 'I have so many things I've been wanting to do, now I'll be free to do them all.'

Mark Hayward has been a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader for more than 15 years.

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