By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
As a veteran road warrior who has owned some of the worst cars ever made, including one jalopy I dubbed the Hatchback of Notre Dame, I like to wax nostalgic about my various vehicles. Every once in a while, however, my current vehicle gets so dirty that it needs to be waxed, as well as washed, vacuumed and fumigated.
So I recently took my SUV (sloppy utility vehicle) to Island Car Wash in Centereach, N.Y., where it was miraculously transformed into another SUV (shiny utility vehicle).
In the process, I learned that life at a car wash can be a soap opera.
My first clue was the ceramic jar that sat on a shelf above the register and was embossed with the words "Ashes of Problem Customers."
"If you behave yourself," owner Ron Kass told me, "you won’t end up in there." I promised to be good while Kass, manager Eduardo Valladares and cashier Kristine Koehler regaled me with stories of some of the characters who make working there such an adventure.
There was, for example, the guy who accused workers of stealing his marijuana. "He said, ‘You took my weed!’ So I said, ‘We can call the police and file a report.’ For some reason, he didn’t want us to do that," Koehler recalled.
"We looked in the vacuum," Valladares added, "and sure enough, there it was."
"Did you put the ashes in the ceramic jar?" I asked.
"No, but the guy took back his joint," Valladares answered. "It was, you might say, the high point of the day."
Then there was the hunter who came through in a pickup truck with a dead deer in the back. "He wanted us to wash the deer," Koehler said. "This thing was dripping blood, so he thought it would be a good idea to run it through the car wash."
"I told him that we wash cars, not deer," Valladares said.
Death paid another visit the day a hearse stopped by on the way to a funeral. "There was a corpse in there," Koehler remembered. "We just did the exterior because the guys were afraid to vacuum the inside."
"It’s nothing unusual," Kass said. "There was a lady who put dishwashing detergent all over her car because it was supposed to rain and she thought it would get the dirt off. But it only drizzled, so she came here." Kass smiled and said, "There’s enough material in this place for a TV series."
The show would, of course, be good, clean fun. That’s what I found out when my car went through the wash with Valladares and me inside.
First, we stopped at the booth where sales executive Shayna Tufano asked which wash I wanted. The choices ranged from basic ($15.50) to platinum ($24). "Give me the works," I said. Then Tufano asked which car scent I wanted. The choices were strawberry, cherry, vanilla and baby powder. "Vanilla is the most popular," said Valladares, who was in the driver’s seat, "but I think your car needs baby powder."
"Why not?" I said. "It’s about time I babied my car."
"There are a lot of crumbs in here," Valladares noted. "It looks like you’ve been eating corn flakes." I told him it was just dirt. Then he made sure all the windows were shut as we started to go through the wash.
It was better than an amusement park ride. The car was scrubbed, soaped, brushed, power washed, hosed, waxed, buffed with a giant shammy and blow-dried. It took three minutes for my car to make its way over the 100-foot conveyor.
When we came out, Valladares drove the car to an area where I got to help a couple of workers, a young man and a young woman, hand-dry it. Valladares gave me two towels and showed me how to fold them properly. Then he showed me how to dry the doors, the door frames and the windows. As I fumbled with the towels, he said, "Don’t quit your day job."
The two workers did the rest, which included the vacuuming and the application of the baby powder scent. When they were finished, my car looked and smelled brand-new.
"You guys do a great job," I told Kass before I drove away.
"You’re a good customer," he said. "We didn’t even have to put your ashes in the jar."
Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima