For the last three months, my favorite car wash at the corner of Buford Highway and North Druid Hills Road has been closed for renovation. It’s not that I have my car washed all that often, but when the urge struck, there it was. You pulled your car up to a sheltered pavilion, the attendant would ask whether you wanted the special, the super special, or the really special special. None was cheap and god forbid, you splurged and added on the spray-on wax. I’d need a second job to cover that nut. Once you exited the car, one of their dozen or more employees would begin to vacuum your rugs, with great care, and then came the big thrill. I can vividly remember going to the car wash with my mom or dad, more than fifty years ago, and experiencing the thrill of watching our car through a foggy window get pulled along by chains, alternatively sprayed by soapy water and smacked by large cloth rags hung from the ceiling. My car wash still operated that way and walking alongside my car as it slowly made its way through the car wash water boarding always brought back sweet memories. And at the end, came the piece de resistance. Three or four more employees would descend on my car with rags and spray bottles and spend what always seemed like an extra special amount of time and care hand drying the exterior and hand cleaning the interior of my car. I was always moved to leave an extra large tip in the jar. The fact that every one of these hard-working employees was of Hispanic descent only encouraged me to stop back in and leave an even larger tip the next time.
This past week, the grand re-opening happened. The new electronic sign flashed news of free vacuuming, recycled water, and a three dollar car wash. Wow! This was going to make my day. As I pulled into the entrance, I began to get the idea that an awful lot had changed. Yes, there were free vacuums, but I was the one who had to do the vacuuming. If I wanted to vacuum for free, trust me, I could do that all day in my own home. The attendant then began to wave me into the car wash, holding up a sign that said “Put car in neutral”. Wait a gosh darn second. Was I actually going to have to sit in my car rather than get to watch the entire experience from a walkway? Was my childhood, as I approach age sixty,actually going to become a thing of the past? Well, at least I will have all the smiling faces greet me, back to work for the first time in three months, as I left the tunnel of wetness. But wait, were they going to ask me to get out of the car at the end? Where would I wait? Or would they just clean the interior of my car around me? That seemed like an odd plan, Maybe they would just hand dry the outside as I sat inside, watching and smiling myself. And then I saw it. This immense brand new drying machine that descended upon me and grabbed my car and heated it up before I was allowed to leave. There would be no more workers awaiting me and my car. They were never coming back to work. This whole enterprise had morphed from a friendly place of employment to an efficient and admittedly less costly machine.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the people who used to work at my car wash. Who worked so hard and so meticulously, for what I always assumed was little pay. I imagined that they had recently arrived in our country and happily took the lowest paying job that few American-born people would agree to do. And they did their jobs with such a sense of pride. I loved the spirit that they showed. I loved their commitment to do their job well, despite the pay, despite the conditions. Somehow, for me, this was an American story, touching and Important. I hate that this story has come to an end. I wish I could still pay three times as much, yet feel like my having my car washed contributed in some small way to people wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. I wish.