Thursday, February 21, 2008

Workin' at the car wash

I’ll start by saying that this has nothing to do with anything that my book, CHALKED UP, is about. It isn’t even obliquely related. It doesn’t touch on athletics, mother-daughter relationships, eating disorders, raising children, growing up in the 70s and 80s, what it’s like to grow up and realize you’re not that special having been THE most special at something at one point in your young life. I have no authority to speak on the issue I’m about to. I’ll be brief.

I was at the carwash this morning. I try to avoid going to the car wash for the simple reason that it takes the amount of water to clean my ten year old, beat up, shit-mobile that I imagine could slake the thirst of an entire Chinese village on the verge of dying of dehydration. It just doesn’t seem right to clean a car when there are so many people that are so thirsty in the world. That being said, the filth lining the floor of the back of my car and the moldy – hamburger? veggie burger? - unknown patty that was formerly food that I dug up from beneath a car seat yesterday afternoon prompted me to give in. I actually tried to just go to one of those places where you vacuum it yourself for $1.50, but all the vacuums were broken. I learned that after losing $4.50 in precious bus quarters.

I went to the big, fancy carwash a few blocks from my house. Every car there was a BMW, Mercedes or Lexus. The entirely Mexican, underpaid and overworked employee base was laughing at me in my Corolla with a hole in the trunk. They nodded at the car, snapped a towel in its direction, asking each other in Spanish to whom this jalopy belonged. A surreptitious nod in my direction by one of the dryers caused snickers. They either felt sorry for me or couldn’t believe I’d spend money to have the crap-mobile cleaned. But I like things clean and I don’t mind them old. Lucky for my husband. So, even though the car is scratched and cracked and painted over with the wrong color green paint, and there is a hole in the trunk the size of a very large ruby red grapefruit and its conspicuously covered with aluminum foil – my husband’s idea, not sure what he was hoping to accomplish – I clean it every now and again. The citrus sized hole is there because some ingenious thief dug the lock out to break into the trunk. Needless to say there was nothing spectacular in the boot of my piece of crap ’97 “Cool”. We call it the “Cool” because the same hooligan who dug the hole in the trunk thought it would be funny to remove the “R”, one “L” and the “A”. It now says “CO O L” on the backside of my car. Ironic.

The way this car wash works is you pay an exorbitant amount of money for them to vacuum, wash and windex your car. There is a great big tip jar and the 20 or so on-duty hand-washers/buffers split the kitty at the end of a shift. There are signs that indicate you are not to tip a worker directly when he or she gives you your keys. I gave each of my kids $2 to put into the big square, plastic box containing the tips and then we sat down to wait for the car. An elderly gentleman gave up his seat as he was handed the keys to his Lincoln and he slipped the Levi’s-wearing-thirty-something Hispanic man who finished up his windshield, a fiver. I don’t think the old man had read the signs posted everywhere. Either that or he just didn’t care. He got in his car and drove away and I watched the worker take the five-dollar bill and deposit it in the community jug. He could’ve so easily pocketed that money, I thought. I’m sure there are rules that the employees aren’t allowed to do so, but no one was looking. And yet, he embraced the rules of dividing the kitty, sharing the wealth, or in this case, the figurative nickels and dimes. I don’t want to make any assumptions about this guy but there is no way he was on easy street. He was making minimum wage if he was lucky. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys were all paid under the table with the tip jar money. And yet, he didn’t hesitate to share.

I thought immediately of the great immigration debate. Barack says give them driver’s licenses, which seems beside the point. Hillary says we need comprehensive reform and driver’s licenses are a distraction. At least that’s what she said last week. And the Republican candidates basically say, “Keep out!” The Republican voter population is whipped up into a frenzy about the influx of illegal immigrants. “They’ll take Americans’ jobs!” they say. Last I checked a lot of those folks were hiring illegals as nannies and yard workers and house painters and slipping them paltry tips for hand-buffing their shiny new Jags. I suppose they’ll do those chores themselves once they lock out all the hard working gents from south of the border.

I was so struck by this guy's sense of fairness. All day, all I could think about was how much I’d prefer to have him and his brethren here in this country, striving to secure a piece of the proverbial pie – not the whole pie – rather than the greedy, fraudulent, take-as-much-as-I-can-when-no-one-is-looking Texans ala Enron. These folks who want to keep people out just don’t want to share. They don’t even want to share with the people that are already here! They think they deserve as much as they can grab, gluttonous American style. Stuffed pockets, full bellies and they still don’t have enough. I say lets kick them out and have the guys who are willing to share come on in.

I said I wouldn’t relate it to anything in my book but just one teensy weensy link. Having been a championship level athlete impacts the choices that I make in raising my children, as anyone’s childhood affects the way that they parent. I was a self-centered little shit quite often, demanding all the attention and parental effort in the house be heaped upon me. Winning mattered most to me and I’d steal more than my share of attention if it meant I had a greater chance of medals. As I raise my own children, I try to instill a sense that there are things that matter more than winning, despite the prevalence and pride of the American ‘triumph over adversity’ tale (‘triumph’ usually means get the most stuff). I repeatedly explain to their very bored little faces that there is, in fact, enough of everything – love, food, water, toys – to go around in our house. There is no need to hoard. I’m trying to make them better children than I was. With that in mind, I related this story to my kids about the man who shared his measly five-dollar bill. I explained, as they fought over the change they found on the ground that had missed the tip box, that the man over there had anted up his money to the team even though he didn’t have much. Likely not enough to afford a car, or his own room, or even all the food he wanted to eat. Virgil, my seven year old, said, “I’d rather keep it but I guess I’ll put it in the box.” Not really the generosity of spirit I was attempting to inspire but it will due for now. If only we could get the Republicans to concede as much – or as little, I suppose - as my second grader.

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