For close to five years during the booming decade known as the 1990s I worked as an employee of Seattle's Pink Elephant Car Wash. I've long felt the events of my tenure there should be recorded for future generations who could learn from my experience, but was unsure of the format I should use to do this. After all, my experience at the car wash wasn't a flowing narrative, but rather a constant, ever-changing flux of people - some of the most eclectic, larcenous, engaging, conniving and big-hearted folk I've had the (sometimes mis-) fortune to meet. Because of the people one meets, a job at a car wash is truly unlike any other.
During the 90s, the Pink Elephant Car Wash had several locations. There was one in south Seattle, several blocks past the infamous King Dome (a sports stadium that was dynamited in the late 90's.) But Seattle residents were probably more familiar the downtown Elephant Car Wash, which had a gigantic spinning Pink Elephant Sign that lured customers with its siren call. There was also another Pink Elephant about 30 miles south of Seattle in the town of Tacoma and one more up North somewhere.
I worked, on and off over the course of five years, at both the south Seattle and downtown Seattle locations. My duties involved vacuuming the insides of cars, scrubbing the exteriors, shampooing, waxing, selling sales tickets, driving cars on and off the track* and fixing the decades old chain when it slipped off its gears. But as hinted above, the experience didn't imprint itself into my mind so much for the sheer joy of the work, but because of whom I met there. It was the ever-eclectic citizenry of the Pink Elephant's employment roster that made it a memorable period. And as I sit her, quill quivering above parchment, it seems that the best way for me convey the character of the car wash is to introduce you to the characters of the car wash.
* I've probably driven more models of cars than anyone I know, though most for no more than fifteen feet.
Dennis, Clark, Bob, Royal
 Work release: A key term to understand if you are going to learn about the wash. In Washington state, convicted felons could earn a sort of early parole if they got a job in the outside world and saved up money. In return, I believe the establishment that hired them got some sort of tax break. Prisoners thrived at the Pink Elephant and often more than half the employees were on work release. Their crimes ranged from drug use to robbery to murder.
Like I said, Dennis was a nice enough guy. And he was truly upset when, about three months into my employment, Clark got high on crack one night, broke into the Elephant office, opened the safe and ran off with the day's receipts. (Probably around $300.) After all, Dennis was the one who'd made Clark assistant manager thereby giving him the combination to the safe. That's why it was all the more surprising when a few months later, Dennis got high on crack one night, broke into the Elephant office, emptied the safe and then stole a car off the street. (They found him weeks later in Texas, but Washington wouldn't pay to extradite him back North.)
Now might be a good time to explain exactly how one worked at the Pink Elephant. It wasn't your standard 9 to 5 or McDonald's shift where you show up, work eight hours and leave. Rather, employees would arrive --- anywhere from 8 to 1:00 in the afternoon --- and wait to get on the clock, which depended on how busy the day was. (Eventually I developed a habit of calling in to even see if it was worth showing up.) But once you got on, there was no guarantee you'd stay on the clock and as a result, while you might spend a ten-hour day at the wash, your paycheck would only be for six hours. (On a busy day one could easily spend 10 hours performing active physical labor, but I found that actually made the time go faster.) In the off time, which was plenty, we'd sit around watching television, reading, or generally bullshitting. Some people would disappear for weeks at a time, then appear out of the blue and still have their job. (Try doing that at your law firm!)
For instance, the third brother, Bob, followed no clear schedule and came and went at will. He spent many an hour off the clock regaling listeners with stories from his past. My favorite involved an exploding car and transvestite hooker. (Elements essential to any great tale.) Driving down the freeway somewhere in Idaho or Montana, Bob's beater car began to fail. Enraged at the vehicle's insubordination, Bob hatched a plan to deliver a form of punishment to the machine. He drove the car up onto a freeway median and then stuffed a gas soaked shirt into the fuel tank and lit it on fire. Several seconds later, the car's engine exploded causing a mass of billowing smoke to rise into the air. The cops arrested Bob walking down the median about fifty yards from his still smoldering vehicle. He ended up in the local jail, waiting months to go to trial. (By the time he got to court they gave him credit for time served and released him.)
One day while Bob was in lockup the cops brought in a well-dressed businessman who was followed a few hours later by a dolled up transvestite prostitute. Somehow, Bob and his fellow prisoners convinced the businessman that the prostitute was a woman and talked him into getting a blowjob between the bars of the cell.
But the most memorable member of the clan was the 30ish fourth brother, Royal. Like Bob, he too was half Indian but was much more overt about his heritage, sporting flowing brown hair and Indian jewelry. Royal was of the Lakota tribe (an Indian tribe that settled in the North Dakota area) and spent many hours explaining the ins and outs of Lakota mythology to me (most of which I have now forgotten but I remember something about the animal people and the four elements of earth.) He often brought in a boom box upon which he would play traditional Indian chants and it was not uncommon to see Royal using the stereo to entertain a roomful of black dudes, all of whom wore befuddled expressions.
As a fellow Northwesterner, Royale nicknamed me "Montana" after my home state, but it never really caught on with anyone else at the wash. (Being that I'm a hopeless urbanite prone to quoting Woody Allen movies, I don't really scream out "Montana.")
Despite my genuine fondness for the guy, I always sensed a darker side to Royal. (I wrote in my journal at the time, "There's something about him that suggests to me if you crossed his path it would be a point of honor for him to kill you. Still, I like him.") This was confirmed to me by Dennis one rainy afternoon as we all sat drinking beers in the tiny breakroom. Outdoing the crimes of all his brothers, Royal had served 15 years in prison for killing a man whom had purportedly desecrated his Indian grandmother's grave.
Bob #2 (wacko one)
While he was reasonably bright, Bob was prone to believing in obviously farcical urban legends and once, while listing off the various monsters that lived in the American continent (Yetis, for example) he solemnly announced, "You know what they have in Los Angeles? Lizard Man!" I burst out laughing and Bob smiled, as if he'd meant it as a joke when it was clear he hadn't. (Years later, I named one of my musical projects "Lizard Man.")
I do recall one conversation that left Bob speechless. One of the black dudes, upon hearing that Bob had performed oral sex on a woman (not recently, but at some point in his life) became curious and sought out Bob's expertise. "I'll get a black bitch down here and you can show me how to eat that pussy," the man offered, but Bob only demurely smiled in return.
Bob was eventually fired after he drove a customer's Porsche into a wall at five miles per hour.
Mike and Greg
Mike was a red-headed, intimidating white dude who stood around 6'4, and despite being in his forties, looked like he could still snap most people in half by sheer willpower. He was not a trickster or a charlatan (as a lot the criminal element are); he made no bones about the fact that he didn't give a fuck. He'd just done a twenty-year stint for shooting a man to death during a drug deal and never expressed the barest remorse for his actions. In fact, I think he actually enjoyed his stay in prison. One day, while we were all in the break room watching a Sally Jesse show about transvestites (keep in mind that about half of Sally Jesse shows were about transvestites) he came in and announced in his southern drawl, "I'd fuck every one of those boys in the ass! Every one!" Tidbits of gossip I heard about the guy implied that he'd had a lot of experience in that sort thing.
Greg, a younger man was Mike's general compatriot. He was likeable in a quiet sort of way. After they both got released, they lived together under a bridge near the car wash. (I think they eventually got an apartment together.) For a long time I didn't really understand why they hung out together, but years later found out they were both shooting heroin in back of the wash, so maybe that was the source of their bond.*
* I'm not ignoring the obvious question: Was Greg Mike's bitch? Despite the fact it would make the story juicier I'm prone to believe otherwise. I just never felt the electricity one feels in the company of two men who sodomize each other.
One afternoon, when both Mike and Greg were off work release but still living under the bridge, Mike asked if they could come by my apartment and use my shower. Partly out of fear and partly out of my inane desire to be a "nice guy" I agreed, and at the end of the day we all took the bus back to my cramped, single room apartment in downtown Seattle. Intellectually, I recognized that inviting two ex-convicts, at least one a murderer, back to my apartment didn't sound like a great idea, but I really wasn't that afraid of anything happening. Neither of them really had any reason to, say, chop off my head and then strip the flesh from my bones and grill it up on a hibachi.
As it turned out, it gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other. Mike was kind of an interesting guy; he'd been in and out of prison his whole life and had met several famous people while interned, including Jimmie Hendrix's brother. He also told of working as a carjacker for a guy who was now a famous Californian car dealer. (A Cal Worthington type fellow for those of you who know the area.) At night, as Mike told it, the gang would go out, steal cars and bring them back to the lot to be stripped, repainted and resold to unsuspecting buyers.
As clever readers have probably deduced, neither Mike nor Greg killed me that afternoon and I think they left the wash not long after. I'd heard some rumor that Mike left for his common law wife in Canada. (Baffling, as I can't imagine what type of woman would want a guy like that around.) The last time I saw him he was going to a strip club in downtown Seattle where he'd met an astounding large breasted performer a few nights previous. (He showed me a flyer and the woman indeed looked like she had two beach balls implanted on her chest.)
Leonard was also a hard core alcoholic (mostly 40 ouncers of Old E or Steel Reserve) and a serious crack addict. Sometimes homeless (he had a real love/hate thing going with his wife), months would go by with Leonard sleeping on the couch in the breakroom.
Because Leonard had worked at the wash for more than five years and knew the ins and outs of the place better than anyone else, he had a strange sort of seniority. When he really started to decline --- showing up for work completely smashed or yelling at customers --- the managers went into overtime trying to save him. (They would have fired anyone else.) I can't remember exactly what happened, but Leonard disappeared for a time, then years later I saw him. He claimed to have cleaned up - he looked years younger - and was generally on track. Out of everyone who worked there, he's the one I'd like to have kept in touch with the most.
Herbie was also, improbably, something of a ladies man (or claimed to be.) That said, the few ladies I saw him with tended to be of the 300 pound variety.
The last time I saw Red he wasn't looking so hot. I'd been in car accident with a friend of mine, and while I felt fine immediately after the accident, a few days later, the area where my ribs had pressed against the seatbelt was in agony. I decided to go into the emergency room, convinced my ribs were broken. I was sitting next to a father whose teenage son was having a bullet removed from his chest when I saw Red come in on crutches. The fit, towering giant of a man was gone. His voice was weak and he explained to me that he ankles had been swelling up (probably from carrying around all that bulk for all those years.) I ended up just having a rib contusion and getting some Tylonel, but when I said my farewells, I sensed that Red was at the precipice of a long decline.
* You might be questioning why I constantly note the physicality of the men who worked at the wash. This is not because I am a homosexual, but because as fun as the wash was, it was a lot like prison: how well you survived was determined by how tough you appeared. Wilbur for example, would not have been as effective a boss if people did not get the impression that despite his stature, he still stood a chance at kicking their ass. I managed to (mostly) avoid confrontation much the way Leonard did - by being a likeable, funny guy. It was not considered cool to kick our asses.
That one black dude
* See my point above about how it wasn't cool to fuck with me.
As I mentioned, Julius seemed like an extremely together guy. He was married and was the last person you'd expect to fall for the recurring car wash curse of getting high on crack, breaking into the office and robbing the safe. That's why it was such a surprise when he got high on crack, broke into the office and robbed the safe. (Of course, weeks later Leonard - that old scamp - confessed to me that he'd gotten high with the dude in the past.) I'm not sure Julius was ever caught but I never saw him after that and he certainly had a warrant out for his arrest in Washington State.
* I realize the insinuation there is that most black dudes aren't intellectual, well spoken or college educated, but, yeah, at the car wash most black dudes were not intellectual, well spoken or college educated. That's what I liked about them.
* Years later one New Year's Eve morning I ended up at the same restaurant. It was, like, the only place open in Seattle.
The story of Randy's downfall is a real teeth-grating tale of injustice. At the wash it was hinted, if not all out commanded, that salesman should do whatever they could to get a sale. So one day Randy offered to cut a deal to a female customer to upsell her a hand wax or something. She declined, then went into the office and told the management that Randy had made her the offer. Technically, he was in the wrong, so they fired the guy.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.
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