A carwash culture

Times Staff Writer

Last week in the suburbs, ash filled the air like snow, and people could be seen going about their day with a surgical mask over the nose and mouth area, a la Michael Jackson. Elsewhere in fashion news, local TV reporters were demonstrating that covering a scary, out-of-control fire, with loss of property and human life, did not mean that it was no longer important to accessorize.

Helpful hint No. 189: A nice set of earrings can really bring out the yellow of your fire-resistant jacket. Helpful hint No. 213: You have a rich head of silver hair. Sure, the higher elevations make it poof more -- embrace this!

As a committed urban dweller, I felt predictably hapless and removed from the misery in the mountains (one of the more selfish reasons for hating disasters that don't involve you is the perverse jealousy one feels being left out of a major event). The closest I could get to the blazes, at least figuratively, was to visit a few carwashes in the San Fernando Valley, where cars are promenaded up Ventura Boulevard like floats in a parade that never ends.

I discovered that living within a wind's breath of the flames was killing the carwash business, or at least putting a serious dent in it. Managers from Sherman Oaks to Woodland Hills reported that their business was off 50% or more. It was, to be sure, one of the more trivial but telling side effects of the fires. With so much soot and smoke and ash in the air, an L.A. ritual was grinding to a halt. Sort of.

Georgene Berman of Calabasas was getting her car washed while not-so-distant fires still raged. This was the afternoon of Oct. 29, at the Ventura West Car Wash in Woodland Hills. The Simi Valley fire was moving inland, winds blowing it to the south. Up and down Ventura Boulevard, carwash lots were eerily empty. Detailers stood around, with nothing to buff. I thought about the implications of this: Hummers going unpolished, Lexuses (Lexi?) losing their luster.

Berman, a wife and mother, was waiting for her Jaguar XKA. Somewhat sheepish about it, she conceded that in her family there are more cars (four) than children (three). Last week, she said, a neighbor was getting his car detailed in his garage, even as the ash swirled around.

Berman herself goes to the carwash "at least once a week."

"My husband has a theory about cars," Berman said. "It seems to drive better when it's clean."

So true.

And yet, to outsiders, our micro-world of carwashes can all look kind of strange. "In Los Angeles, my car was set upon by what appeared to be an entire village of Central Americans," Edward Zuckerman wrote, some 10 years ago, in Harper's magazine.

A New York transplant, Zuckerman was writing about the car-detailing culture in L.A. But first, Zuckerman had to experience a mere carwash.

"They vacuumed the interior, attacked the hubcaps with hoses and brushes, ran the car through a mechanical wash -- and then washed it again by hand. While this went on, I passed the time browsing in the carwash shop, inspecting the air fresheners and cassette-tape compilations of Elvis' greatest love songs, as well as earthquake survival kits, metalized packets of emergency water rations and several books in the Tell-a-Maid series, which contain tear-out bilingual instruction sheets to be checked off and handed to Spanish-speaking household workers (e.g., 'Please clean the baby from the waist down').

Then I joined my fellow customers on the carwash veranda, where I relaxed with a shoeshine and an enchilada while I watched a man meticulously dry my 1984 Nissan Sentra. I tipped him a dollar and drove away feeling clean."

OK, so maybe carwashes are microcosms of segregated L.A., of the class divide between the haves and the have-nots, of our deep and abiding need to groom our cars more than ourselves.

Maybe it doesn't take a village to realize this. Maybe it takes a fire.

Paul Brownfield can be contacted at paul.brownfield@latimes.com.

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