Workin’ at the Car Wash — Part One

I finished high school in January, 1976. I needed a job to earn money for college in the fall but wasn’t all that excited about finding one. My dad wasn’t one to wait, so he found one for me — at the Old Orchard Car Wash in Skokie, Illinois. It was owned by M & R (Marks and Rosenfield) Amusement Companies, which also owned the Old Orchard Theater next door and several other theaters and car washes. The manager was a guy named Russ who went to our church. It was through Russ that I got the job.

Russ was a nice guy, if a bit of a loose cannon. He kept a kangaroo in a pen in his backyard in Prospect Heights. For the first couple months, Russ picked me up in his Jeep pickup and drove me to work. I recall opening the truck door my first day and finding a Doberman Pincher curled up on the floor. Russ assured me that the dog was friendly, and it was, although we had a hard time convincing some of the car wash customers when Russ allowed it to roam the hallways.

I started working on the front of the line, wiping down cars and cleaning the windows. Nobody explained anything to me. I was just given a towel and told to go to work. It was January, remember, and the wind coming in the front door, combined with the water off the cars, made me very cold. Between cars, I huddled next to the huge towel drying machine back in the corner. I stuck a sandwich and an apple in my pocket that morning. Nobody said anything to me about lunch, so around noon I took bites between cars. Both the sandwich and the apple had gotten pretty beat up during the morning.

That night, and for several nights afterwards, I had this endless dream about a stream of cars coming out the front of the car wash. After spending 10 hours working there all day, I didn’t much enjoy dreaming about it all night. Washing car windows seems like an easy task, but after a few days, the tips of my fingers became so sore that I couldn’t touch anything. For about a week, I was in constant pain, but then the nerves all died or something and I was fine. Many of the customers tipped us for washing their windows and detailing their cars. It was a great joy to spend half an hour cleaning a thick layer of cigarette smoke residue off the windows of a Pacer and be rewarded with .50.

Because I spoke English and was honest and reasonably intelligent, I was made supervisor after I’d worked there about a month. This basically meant that I had to work six 10-hour days every week with no overtime because I was on salary. My actual pay was about $2.50 an hour, and even though I still chipped in and helped wipe down the cars when things were busy, I rarely got tips anymore. There were even times when I’d do all the work on a car and the owner would tip one of the workers because he assumed they needed it more. When things weren’t busy, my job was to stand around and make sure the other guys were working, which was really boring. The only advantage that I could see was that, instead of a dumpy blue jumpsuit that looked like a prison suit, I got my own uniform. Every week a truck would come by and deliver six pairs of blue pants and six shirts that had “Roger Foreman” stitched on the pocket.

 My rides to work and home with Russ had been getting less and less sure. One day he was in a hurry and dropped me off by the “Welcome to Des Plaines” sign on Golf Road. I lived in Des Plaines, yes, but on the other side of town, about eight miles away. For a while, I got rides with Rusty, the assistant manager. He was a friendly enough guy, but a total moron. He used to drive about 80 mph whenever there was a chance. He was drinking a beer one evening when we were pulled over by a policeman. He shoved the beer in my hand and said, “Here, stick this under your seat.” I tried, but the can tipped over and the car stunk of beer. Somehow the policeman didn’t pick up on it, and Rusty only got a speeding ticket.

Rusty and I combined for one moment of great heroism. It was mid-afternoon on a slow day. We were standing in the lobby chatting with the cashier when we heard a yell coming from the line. The wash was automatic, meaning that the cars were put in neutral and pushed through the line on rollers with nobody inside. One of them had been jostled and came out the front in gear. The worker who was driving the cars outside that day reached for the handle, but the car didn’t stop. Instead of opening the door and stepping on the brake, he jumped back and yelled. Skokie Boulevard, a busy four-lane road, ran at right angles to the car wash about 40 yards from the front door. The car was headed straight out into traffic. When we saw what was happening, Rusty and I took off running. I was a little bit ahead as we tore open the lobby door, crossed the front section of the car wash and ran outside. The car was picking up speed, and we didn’t have time to create a plan. I made it to the driver side door first and managed to open it. Rusty stepped on my foot and tripped me right at that moment. I fell on my face. He raced up my back and dove headlong in through the open door and pushed down the brake pedal with his hands. The front of the car was about two feet from traffic.

Rusty quit before summer, and I was given his duties, although I kept the title of supervisor and didn’t get a raise.I was given my own set of keys, and as Russ often didn’t show up until later in the day, or at all, I had to open the car wash at 8:00 am and close it at 6:00 pm. I ran the register a lot when the cashier came in late (which happened frequently because she stayed up partying every night), handled all the money and helped with maintenance. When Russ was around, I assigned myself to the back pumps, filling cars with gas and writing the amounts on slips of paper that the owners would give to the cashier. One of the greatest joys was listening to fifty customers a day who asked for Polish Wax, but pronounced it as though it were from Poland, and thought they were being hilariously funny and clever.

Frank, a World War II veteran who had a palpable hatred for anything Japanese, including cars, worked the pumps in the mornings. As the summer wore on, I began working the front pumps on many afternoons.  This was rather funny, because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. On one of my first days, a customer asked me to check his oil. I’d been shown how to do that at some point. It turned out that he was a couple quarts low, so he asked me to add some. I hadn’t been shown how to do that, and he was pretty ticked off when he saw me about to dump it into his radiator.

My rides had dried up, so I had to get to work on my own. I had to set my alarm for 5:00 am. After a quick shower, I’d grab a Pop-Tart and walk two miles to downtown Des Plaines where I’d catch a bus. I developed the skill of sleeping in short stretches, waking up often to see where the bus was. Only once during that entire summer did I sleep past my stop, and then only by a block. Once I got off, I had to walk another mile to get to the car wash. I had to repeat the trip to get home. A bus went by at around 6:15. On the days I had to close the car wash, I had to make sure the gas pumps were locked, make sure the money was taken care of, set the alarm, lock the doors and sprint for a mile. If I missed the bus, I had to wait for about 45 minutes for the next one. There was a customer named Marvin Marvel (I kid you not) who used to come in right before closing every day and insist on having his windows cleaned, his oil checked and his tank filled. He was a scrawny, short little man who drove a huge Cadillac. If he got there at 5:59, after I had the pumps closed up and was about to lock the doors, he’d insist on service. He knew misters Marks and Rosenfield personally and would threaten me if I tried to insist we were closed. He made me miss the bus many times. On those evenings, I sat on a bench watching people coming home from work on the Skokie Swift, or I would wander the aisles of a hobby shop, looking at models.

This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll leave my further adventures at the car wash for another day.

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2 Responses to Workin’ at the Car Wash — Part One

  1. rae lyn says:

    I am enjoying your car wash story. Of course, “Car Wash”, the song is running through my head as I read!
    “You might not never get rich,
    But let me tell ya it’s better than
    digging a ditch!”

  2. karen says:

    I’ll bet if you were on the other side of the counter, you would have a hard time not making a Polish wax remark.
    :-)

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