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One Woman’s Discovery That Life Is in the Details

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beverly Armelin is at work on patrol car 058, one of the Santa Monica Police Department’s fleet of blue-and-whites. With a Q-Tip, she cleans between the chrome letters--C-R-O-W-N V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A.

“Did you get inside the gas cap?” she asks her son, Brandon Stephens, as he attacks tiny spots of rust on the hood of the 1992 Ford. She grins. “I’m picky, picky, picky.”

At 56, Armelin has left behind a $60,000-plus-perks job in the corporate world and shed her dress-for-success suits. These days, her briefcase is a plastic carrier with rags, brushes, polishes and sprays.

Armelin is an auto detailer.

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There is an irony here that has not escaped her. Her father was a janitor, and her mother cleaned houses. “I used to help her,” Armelin says, “and I’d think, ‘This is so embarrassing. I hate this.’ Well, guess what?”

But Armelin doesn’t intend to spend the rest of her working life bent over bumpers and wheel rims. She has big plans for her fledgling company, Vital Shines.

Those plans: to provide training and jobs for young people who see no future and for those who have temporarily lost their way, perhaps as a result of drug or alcohol addiction or incarceration.

Once, Armelin, who is black, saw herself as one of society’s outsiders, despite an 18-year career with Kaiser Permanente, during which she rose to corporate marketing and sales director.

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All that time, she sees on reflection, “I was examining myself, wondering if I got this job because of affirmative action. What could they possibly see in me? I had success, but I really didn’t feel like I deserved it.” She dwelt on not having a college degree.

Her self-esteem hit bottom, “just general, overall depression.” Thoughts kept gnawing at her: “What’s not working? What do I want to do?”

The 1992 Los Angeles riots helped Armelin find answers. She’d left Kaiser Permanente in 1989 and was working for a La Jolla-based management consulting firm. The evening the rioting started, she was driving to L.A. for an appointment at Hughes Aircraft the next morning.

She drove instead to her old church, First AME, and pitched in to help feed those displaced. Driving around the East 51st Street neighborhood where she grew up, she began thinking about inner-city kids with no education, no hope.

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She’d proved that she had a talent for helping people with problems flourish in the workplace. And, improbably, she knew a little about auto detailing from when a San Diego friend had enlisted her to sell a line of water-saving home and car cleaning products.

Another salesperson told her that he’d started a small auto detailing business using the products. Armelin thought, “Heck, if he can do that, why can’t I?” And, the reality was, management consulting had been badly hit by recession.

Armelin taught herself, going to auto detailing places, watching, asking questions. By the time she moved back to Los Angeles in August, 1993, she felt able to call herself an auto detailer.

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She went back to First AME Church and said: “I need some people who are ready to start moving on with their lives and need work.” Three men signed on. One was homeless; another was a parolee. Leaving flyers at medical buildings, Armelin found enough work to keep them busy for five months.

Armelin then took a hiatus to devise a business plan and to take a course in entrepreneurship at UCLA. Then, last June, she happened to meet Bill Stevens. Living out of his car, he was surviving by washing cars.

Stevens called the Santa Monica Police Department--"just cold"--and arranged for Armelin to meet with Sgt. Donald Quinn, who oversees fleet maintenance. He agreed to a tryout.

“They gave us this old car with the paint totally spent,” Armelin recalls. The result: a one-year, $4,000 contract. Twice a week, a Vital Shines crew comes and works on the cars.

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Currently, that crew includes Armelin’s son, 23, who was jobless after having his car stolen; Bridget Robinson, who’s studying criminal justice at Santa Monica College; Darrio McAndes, a former temporary worker for the Postal Service, and Stevens, who also has his own detailing business and now lives on a boat in Marina del Rey.

Within six months, Armelin hopes to offer profit-sharing so employees will see that “doing a good job pays off for them.”

She’s signed up the State of California garage in Los Angeles as a client and is thinking big: more city, county and state agencies, large corporations, colleges, airport shuttle fleets. . . .

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But for now, she’s out there with those Q-Tips. Bird droppings, tree sap, barbecue sauce--they’re all in a day’s work. Opening a rear door of car 058 to step up and reach the roof, she spots telltale debris: “The inmates or somebody has had french fries in this one.”

She and Brandon have been working on car 058 for almost three hours. Admits Armelin: “By the time you’ve done two or three cars, you really know you’ve worked.”

“They’re doing fine,” says the department’s Quinn. Herman Showers, who manages the state garage, gives Vital Shines a “pretty superb” rating.

Armelin is convinced that auto detailing is a growth industry. All the cars, all the pollution--and a recession-weary population “trying to hang on to what they have.”

She dreams of expanding to other major cities with large numbers of unemployed or underemployed. “I’d like to be in front of affirmative action changes by starting to empower young people.

“This is not so much about detailing cars,” she says, as it is about teaching work ethics and money management and self-confidence.

By investing her Kaiser pension, she’s surviving without a paycheck, plowing the profits back into Vital Shines.

And, she says, she is “on the road” to getting back her own self-esteem. She credits Buddhism, self-improvement courses and “the satisfaction of working on a project I am passionate about.”

Any regrets about leaving the corporate world behind? She thinks for a moment. “It’s been hard on my parents.”

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OVERHEARD: Animal rights attorney Michael Rotsten, talking to pet lovers at For Pets Only in Los Feliz:

Don’t assume Fido is innocent if the neighbor complains. There are barks, and there are barks. “You probably wouldn’t have the kind of dog that would make sounds that bother you.”

And, should a bark or bite case go to trial, what would Rotsten zero in on during jury selection? “I’d be looking for people with dog hairs on their clothes.”

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.


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