Former nudist trades buff for fluff in laundry business

Former insurance worker says: "Laundry is my ticket to freedom."

September 30, 2001|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- Lisa Budnick has been liberated by laundry.

Which is ironic.

For 20 years she was a nudist, preferring, whenever possible, not to wear clothes. Now she supports herself by washing them.

Not that nudists don't have laundry. "There's always sheets and towels," she says.

Budnick, 43, of Philadelphia, has been cocaine- and alcohol-free for eight years. Last year, she sold her weekend place at the nudist colony in the Poconos. No more time for nudity. She's focused on laundry.

She spent 15 years at an insurance company, then worked for a hospital. She tried hard making it in the corporate world. But last year, she quit her job as an administrator with LexisNexis in Liberty One and bought a laundry.

Instead of staring at spreadsheets, she's washing bedsheets.

"Now I'm living my dream," she said. "Laundry is my ticket to freedom."

Budnick, the former nudist, the former corporate drone, now introduces herself to potential customers this way: "Hi, I'm Lisa the Laundry Lady."

Let's start at the beginning.

She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, in a broken home. Her mother divorced, remarried, and had more children. Lisa and her sister felt unloved. Both became addicts. Her sister also has turned her life around; she graduated last spring with a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania college of general studies.

After years of addiction, in the early 1990s Lisa got sober.

Six years ago, she met Jim Benson, her partner and significant other, a native of Cherry Hill. He inspects elevators for the state of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia has great elevators, he says.) He loves Lisa but doesn't like the way she folds his pants -- she likes to fold them along the seams, and he prefers the creases.

Together they have started building an empire. They own the three-floor rowhouse where they live near the Art Museum and a second building they rent out a few blocks away.

Last year, Lisa was at an office cocktail party and heard about a coin laundry for sale at 10th and Ellsworth, in South Philadelphia. She left a note stuck on her home computer for Jim: "Want to buy a Laundromat?"

He likes to fix things. He figured, "Why not?"

They bought Tenth Street Laundromat in January 2000, but she couldn't take the plunge and quit her day job. She flew to Mesa, Ariz., in March to a national meeting of the coin-operated laundry industry, where she learned all about the world of front loaders, water heaters and extractors. (Extractors are machines that draw water out of washed clothes before they're put into dryers, making the drying faster and more energy-efficient.)

She then spent three days hiking at the Grand Canyon, and looking mostly inside herself. "It was very spiritual," she said. She decided to wash her hands of the corporate world.

After a year, she has yet to make a profit. But she and Jim have renovated and improved the coin laundry. She has started a pickup and delivery service, now doing 2,000 pounds of laundry a month. Her goal is twice that. Recently, she picked up laundry for some X Games contestants at two Center City hotels ("Mostly thick socks and short pants," she said), sheets and clothes from a nursing home resident at the VA Hospital, Shabbat tablecloths from the Society Hill Synagogue, and laundry from a retired couple living in a high-rise along the Ben Franklin Parkway.

"It's the greatest thing in the world," said retired hatmaker Harold Selvin, 72. "It costs us more to do it here. And she's wonderful. As far as my wife is concerned, she's a godsend."

Lisa has a good friend, Judy Husbands, a nurse, who has helped her with many ideas at the laundry, including painting the walls lavender. The other morning, Judy called Lisa's cell phone. Judy was in a panic. She had taken her clothes to a different laundry, one nearer her home, and someone had stolen her bras.

"Baby," Lisa snapped, "you cheat on me, you let somebody else wash your underwear; I don't know that I can give you sympathy."

What Lisa loves about her life is that she can work when she wants to, take control and think big. She's considering a new idea -- picking up laundry from commuters at Main Line train stations one morning, returning it to them washed, folded and bagged the next evening.

Lots can go wrong, too. The other afternoon, a man named Tim walked in with a stack of neatly folded clothes -- belonging to somebody else. He'd dropped his own laundry off the day before to be washed, and one of Lisa's workers mixed it up. Tim came back with somebody else's underwear and wanted to find his own black Calvin Kleins. Lisa promised to buy him new ones if she couldn't find them. (The next day, she did. They'd gone out to some X Games guy, who promptly returned them. He was more the boxer type.)

Some days, The Laundry Lady is baking hot or machines break or business is slow or she's stuck in traffic and she wonders what has she gotten herself into. But mostly, when she goes home at night, she feels good.

"There's something finite about doing laundry," she said. "The clothes are washed and folded and delivered. And I feel like I did a day's work."

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