Workin’ at the Car Wash — Part Two

Many of the employees at the car wash spoke Spanish. Russ, my boss, didn’t. He got around this difficulty by yelling at the top of his voice and leaving out a lot of words. He’d hand a towel to one of the Hispanic guys and scream, “BACK. WINDOWS. WASH.” He accompanied his yells with flamboyant hand motions. The Hispanic guys, who understood a lot more English than they let on (and probably spoke a lot more than they admitted), would stand there and grin and pretend they had no idea what he wanted. Russ never bothered to learn their names either. He called them all “Bullet.”

Enoch was another guy who “worked” at the car wash. He was an old guy from Mississippi whose accent was, to me anyway, indecipherable. We called him Egg Nog, because that’s how it sounded to us when he pronounced his name. Russ could understand him, or at least pretended that he could. Egg Nog brought in a bunch of papers one day and asked Russ to help him figure out his taxes. It turned out that he hadn’t paid any in several years. Somehow, during this process, Russ discovered that Egg Nog had a “wife” and family in Mississippi and another one in Chicago. The most memorable thing about Egg Nog was his bellows. Once or twice a day, for no reason that any of us could discern, he’d step back from the car he was wiping and yell something that sounded like “OOOOOH NOOOOOO.” It was so loud that you could hear it anywhere in the car wash over the sound of the conveyor, the blowers and everything else.

The Skokie police department brought their cars through the car wash. The blower at the end of the line had a sensor wand on it that would raise it up so it wouldn’t scrape the roofs of the cars as they went by underneath. For some reason, we couldn’t calibrate it to sense the dome lights on the police cars and had to lift the blower by hand. To warn us that a police car was coming, the guys at the back of the line would turn the dome lights on so they would flash. Whenever a police car came through, Egg Nog spotted the flashing lights long before any of the rest of us, and he would disappear. We never could figure out where he went. All of a sudden, he would be gone. A few minutes after the police had driven off, he’d be back on his station.

The blower wasn’t our only worry. Jaguar redesigned its cars that year, and one of our rollers was positioned so that  it caught the back left fender and bent it out of shape. The first time it happened, Russ argued with the owner of the car, insisting that it hadn’t happened in the car wash. The next day, it happened again. Russ was out in the lot arguing with the owner again when another Jaguar came through, damaged in the same spot in the same way. When the owner of the first one saw the second one, he stopped arguing and pointed. Russ still wanted to deny responsibility, but he lost that one. Another time, an older woman came through in an old boat of a car. The entire front quarter-panel came off. The woman was almost in tears because she’d just come from the body shop where she’d had the part put on. We assured her that we’d take care of it. When we tried to reattach the part, we noticed that none of the holes lined up. The body shop had pretty much just balanced the entire quarter-panel in place and sent her on her way.

I had never driven a clutch when I started at the car wash. I learned by driving customers’ cars out of the building to the lot where we washed the windows. (Customers were not allowed, by law, to do this.) There were some pretty angry people in the beginning, watching me jerk and jump their cars as I tried to work the clutch. I soon learned by trial and error. One time a Volkswagen Carmengia, owned by the city of Skokie, came through the wash. It had an automatic stick shift (you had to change gears manually, but there was no clutch). I didn’t realize this and put it in reverse and backed it into the car behind. The car wash paid the damages.

There was a Dominick’s Food Store on the other side of our parking lot. The manager of the deli counter was about my age. He’d just bought an orange Corvette and liked to bring it through the wash. I worked out a deal with him — free car washes in exchange for free sandwiches from the deli. He used to pile ham and cheese on an amazing Italian roll with tons of mayo — to this day I don’t think I’ve had a better sandwich. My boss found out about the deal but didn’t care. My friend’s boss found out and did. That was the end of my sandwiches.

One summer afternoon, I was working the back pumps when a storm came through. I didn’t think much of it and, in fact, was standing out in the parking lot watching the ominous cloud formations for quite a while. When the rain started, I turned and walked about six steps inside the back door of the car wash. As soon as I turned a looked back, the wind shattered the Dominick’s sign. A piece of plexiglass about the size of a card table flew by at neck level right where I had been standing. The storm turned out to be a tornado. We huddled inside and watched 50-gallon drums careening across the lot into cars. The car wash shared a building with a furniture store. The storm blew out all the front windows of that store, tore the roof off a Zayre across the street and leveled a liquor store about a block away. I spent the next hour walking through nearby parking lots picking up letters that had blown off marquees all up and down Skokie Boulevard. I sold them to the car wash for a dollar apiece.

The people I worked with, except for Russ, were a crude bunch. But I had several opportunities to witness. There was a guy from the corporate office who used to come by and flirt with the cashier regularly. I went with him one day to pick up some supplies at the other car wash and we got to talking about spiritual things. I loaned him my copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. To my surprise, I got it back about two months later, much the worse for wear, but I think he may have actually read it. The cashier, who I mentioned in my previous post, was rather loose in her morals. But one day she was facing some crisis or other and sought me out to talk with me about “living right and going to heaven.” I had a great chance to explain salvation to her, and I gave her a Bible, but that was pretty much the end of it. A guy about my age named Rick started a few months before I left for college. I invited him to church, and he came with his Jewish girlfriend and her Jewish friend on two or three occasions. About a month after I went to Moody, I got a phone call from a woman at my church. She was a member of the visitation committee. Rick had filled out a visitor card at church, and when the woman called to chat with him, Rick said he’s like a follow-up visit. This woman and another person drove out to his home in Skokie and led him to the Lord.

I left the car wash at the end of the summer for my freshman year at Moody. I came back for a few weeks over Christmas break, then returned the next summer. Ken, my brother-in-law, who knew Russ, was working there, and I rode with him. I was just a grunt, but since I knew my way around and had handled the money and all, things were pretty easy. I spent most of my time in charge of the gas pumps. Russ had been demoted to assistant manager. The manager was a contentious, beefy guy named Louis. He found out I went to a Bible college and took every opportunity to try to tear apart my faith. I used to argue with him in a friendly manner. I remember one rainy day when business was slow. He got on the subject of evolution and wouldn’t stop digging at me. I finally hit him with what I consider the unanswerable argument: single-celled organisms multiply by dividing in two. Complex organisms multiply by the joining of a sperm from the male and an egg from the female. What are the stages of progression between those two processes? Louie immediately said, “Don’t talk about birth. Birth is a miracle. There’s just no explanation for it.” I replied, “As soon as you admit one miracle, you have to admit the possibility of more.” He quit the conversation and I don’t think ever argued with me again.

One last story. Ken and I would do the Jumble puzzles in the newspaper every day. One day there was a word we simply could not get. We struggled with it and struggled with it. We brought the paper home and showed it to my sister who immediately said, “weapon.” Duh. We looked at the margins of the newspaper where we’d scribbled the letters in every combination we could think of. Sure enough, right in the middle of our scribbles was “weapon.” We distinctly remembered writing it because, at the time, we’d looked at it and laughed. “Wee-upon,” we’d said. “What’s a wee-upon.”

In July, 2010, my wife and I were out and about in Skokie and found ourselves near the car wash. I hadn’t been back in 30 years and was somewhat surprised to find it still in existence. M&R is out of business — it’s now owned by Turtle Wax — and the outside has been totally redone.

The theater next door is gone, replaced by an apartment complex. The Dominick’s is still there but is now an auto parts store. The few things in the area that haven’t been replaced have been remodeled to such an extent that I barely recognized the place. The gas pumps, both front and back, are gone. Here’s the back door. The back pumps were where the overhang is now. I spent many, many days pumping gas and sitting on a stool in a little booth.

The front door.

I pulled around in front of what used to be the furniture store and took a photo looking inside the front — which made a couple workers very nervous. Inside, it hasn’t changed much, although the door on the right has been added.

I have to say, looking back after all these years, I don’t miss it a bit. This was a miserable job.

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One Response to Workin’ at the Car Wash — Part Two

  1. rae lyn says:

    I am so enjoying this…real life drama. I’m seeing a book/movie here!

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