Raymond Showers dropped out of Phelps Vocational High School without a plan. He vaguely thought he'd kick around on construction jobs with his stepfather for a few years. But layoffs, transportation tangles and a steady barrage of minor difficulties headed him off.
At 19 he landed at the Montana Double Car Wash with a towel in his hand. That was eight years ago. Now, as he scrupulously dries a water-dappled blue Chevy, he tells an onlooker, "This is the only job I could hold down." Showers always wanted to be a disc jockey or a radio and TV repairman, but bouts with alcohol took care of those dreams, he says. These days, Showers might still sip an occasional beer as he works in the hot summer sun or slug back a shot of whiskey to steam his bones in winter. "I drink to keep working sometimes," he says.
Working at the car wash. Three years ago Hollywood put together a righteous and funny film about a car wash, and called it, simply enough, "Car Wash." A funky sound track backed up the action, and Richard Pryor, in a cameo role as a flamboyant preacher, walked away with the movie.
But working at the car wash is everyday real for thousands who have fallen between life's cracks. It's a temporary, anything's-better-than-this stop for those who still dream.
"Every year, hundreds of drifters come by looking for a day's work," says Lou Fava, 49, who has owned and operated the full-service car wash, at 18th Street and Montana Avenue NE, with his brother Tony, 55, for 25 years. "Some stay a week, then disappear. I send out about 150 W-2 forms at the end of the year. Sometimes when we're short of help, we'll call down to the Central Union Mission. There's always some guy down there looking for pocket change. For the most part, we keep a crew of 13 men."
Working on that ever-changing crew are men who have almost given up on their boyhood dreams, and boys who have just begun to seek the outer limits of possibility.
J. C. Jackson, a 31-year-old Cleveland native who calls himself a recovering alcoholic, was looking for a job after leaving the Air Force, his wife and children in Germany five years ago when he found Double Car Wash.
"I like working here because I like meeting people," Jackson says. "A lot of women come through here and it gets to be kind of fun," he says. "When it stops being fun, I'll leave . . . . If I'd known what I know now, I wouldn't have ever left the Air Force. I thought I could find a good job." There are no retirement benefits, no pensions, no union and not much interaction among the car wash workers outside the job, he says.
It's an ideal job for a drifter. No formal education is required, no high school diploma, no job reference from a previous employer. But as he steps out of the driver's seat of a blue Ford and jumps into the dust-covered green Pontiac next in line, Showers throws in matter-of-factly, "A man's got to have guts and courage to work here. Anybody who will work his ass off all day without a break -- making little better than the minimum wage -- has got to have guts and courage or else be crazy. We don't get lunch breaks. As long as that chain is moving, we work."
"For the convenience of the customers," Lou Fava says defensively, "the workers eat on the run." And they are often on the run. On an average day, about 400 cars are washed at Double.
To break the monotony and tedium, the men ham it up, chiding and teasing, coining nicknames and calling one another down. "Hey, Mouth Oh Mighty, quit talking and start drying off those windows" . . . . "Lover Boy, leave that fine woman 'lone, she don't wanna talk to nothing that ugly" . . . . "Hey, Juke Box Kid, turn the music up so we can all jam."
Most of the regular crew earn the minimum wage or below, so the men wring the job for every penny by working seven days a week. What they think about most -- when they have time to think -- is finding another job.
But family responsibilities, age, lack of education and unfortunate pasts present formidable hurdles during their job search.
"When I got out of jail, this is the only job I could find," says 30-year-old Archie Ferguson, who finished an eight-year tour of Lorton in 1975 for theft. Ferguson is usually stationed at the end of the car wash with a towel in each hand, drying windows and doors. The cars keep coming and Ferguson keeps working, nonstop.
Hustling to keep pace with the 60-car-an-hour automated car wash, the 6-foot-3 Ferguson swings open the front door of a compact car and dries both sides of the window simultaneously with his towel-covered hands, working up a sweat that soaks his thick Afro, then drips. Recently recommitted to Christ through his wife's good works, he silently asks God "to give me a better job."
"I don't know for sure, but my next job might be working for the Lord. If I get called to preach, I'll preach. If I don't, I won't."
His buddies at the car wash think they soon may be referring to Ferguson as Rev. Ferguson. "He's pretty level-headed," says Jackson. "He's always talking about, 'Do what's right. Don't smoke and don't drink.' He's already a preacher. I think he'll be a good one if he decides to do it full time."
Ferguson and several other workers live across the street from the car wash in the Montana Terrace public housing development, which was only a wooded area when the Favas built their business. He, his wife Margaret -- who had seven children when they married and receives public assistance -- and their eight children share a three-bedroom apartment. Ferguson credits his wife for helping him get reoriented to life outside Lorton.
"She's a sweet little lady. She made me see that she really understood me and cared about me. She's trying to find a job now (doing clerical work). And I'd like to go back to school. This is not the best job in the world," he says, "but until I can find something better, I'll be here."
Greg Brooks means to get away too -- by hook or by crook. At 21, he's in a hurry and frank about his strategy. Tall and heavyset, Brooks dropped out of McKinley High School in his junior year three years ago to join Job Corps, was sent to Virginia, and was soon disillusioned by false promises and ugly reality.
Seventeen months later, he returned to D.C. and ended up in the city jail on charges that included armed robbery, petty larceny and receiving stolen goods. He has been at the car wash for one year.
"Ten years from now," he says, "I want to be laying back, relaxing, with a lot of money. Right now I'm trying to do it the honest way. But, if things don't click, I'll do a little hustling." Brooks vacuums car interiors now, wearing earphones connected to a tape player nestled in his pocket. The nonstop music drowns out the din. Pausing to remove the earphones, he explaines his position.
"The majority of the older brothers who've got a little stash tell me, "Hey, I've tried the honest way (but) it didn't pay.' So they had to do a little side dirty work -- hustling reefer, PCP, cocaine, stolen goods, whatever."
Younger coworkers Lance Robinson, 14, and Melvin Ward 15, don't plan to be at the car wash long either, but their route will be different.
Motioning with his thumb toward a group of older workers, Robinson, an eighth grader from Hyattsville, says, "I'm going to be a mechanic. I ain't going to be like these dudes out here -- 32 years old and working in a car wash, quitting school in the ninth grade. That's stupid." Robinson adds, "I know what messed them up -- drinking and all that stuff."
Jackson, overhearing Robinson, turns and catches him by surprise, "You're pretty smart - if you mean what you said. I know if I was your age, I'd be saying, 'Hey, I don't want to make that mistake either.' I gotta cut out drinking myself."
Ward, a slender ninth-grader at Shaw Junior High School, has big plans. "I want to be an engineer or a businessman," he says as he stands just inside the rear of the garage, a rag covering one hand and a plastic bottle of window cleaner in the other, waiting for the next car to come out of the wash. He shakes his head. "This job is okay for making a little extra money, but I wouldn't want to work here too long. I don't work here that much now because usually I'm into my school work."
While Ward is banking on his intellectual prowness to earn a good living, his coworker and younger brother Michael has more faith in his manual skills. Michael, 14, an eighth grader at Taft Junior High School who has worker part time after school at the car wash for about a month earning $3.10 an hour, says, "I'm not intelligent enough to get one of those computer jobs. Nobody told me that, I just know." Ward was expelled from Shaw last year for disruptive conduct. "The way these teachers teach, they don't teach you anymore. They say, 'I've got mine, you got yours to get . . . But I can box. I can box. And I can cut hair. I might be a construction worker or a diesel auto mechanic."
Despite their distaste for the work, both brothers have fun on the job. Michael notes that "Sugar Ray Leonard comes through here every once in a while." But the short, stocky young man, who usually wears a black beret and works the "back seat detail," climbing in and out of cars to clean back windows, says "You've got to have patience to work here, 'cause people will tell you to get this spot, get that spot, do this, do that -- man you've got to take a lot of bull sometimes.
"If I can hang with this, I know I can hang with any other job I get," he says. In the meantime, he's learned the finer points of washing cars: he would like to see nothing but "Cadillacs and Lincolns" coming off the track because "you can get in and out (of the back seat) easy."
Pointing to a Japanese-made compact, he complains, "A car like that will kill you. It'll tire you out quick."
The veteran Showers disagrees. "Man, the small cars are the easiest -- they don't take long to dry off. The El Dorados, the Cadillacs, the Lincolns are the hardest because it takes longer to work on them."
Michael looks at Showers incredulously, mumbles, "Man, you're crazy," and climbs into the back seat of the compact.
Showers left the car wash in 1977 to work for a construction company and earned about $10 an hour for almost one year. Then he was laid off and had to return. A moody, brusque man, Showers quit a second time over a dispute with the boss and the "bossman's brother" about liquor. He came back within a few weeks, but a year later he was fired.
"Tony comes back here and tells me to take the rest of the day off. I ask him, 'Why?' He tells me I been drinking. I said, 'I ain't been drinking. He says, 'Yes you have.' So I cussed him out and his brother, too," Showers said, wiping his brow and taking a swig from a can of Old English 800. Lou told me, 'You'd better get out of here before I sic my dog on you.' I told him, 'Yeah, I'll cut his neck and yours, too.' So he fired me." About three months later, their differences reconciled, Showers was back with the towel in hand.
The car wash crew has always been predominantly black. One of the few whites at Montana Double Car Wash is also its longest lasting member. Donald Humphrey, 51, has been on the job 20 years. A native of Williamsport, Va., Humphrey migrated to the District looking for a job after he was laid off a steel mill crew.
"This was the first job I got," he said, "so this is where I stayed." Chewing Copenhagen tobacco, a black baseball cap shielding his eyes from the sun, and a yellow rubber apron and black boots protecting him from the water, Humphrey washes floor mats and sprays cars with a fierce water hose before they enter the wash. The wind blows a soft mist back onto his face and sprinkles several customers before they can take cover inside the garage hallway, where they peer through a glass window to inspect the efficiency of the automated brushes.
I like working outside," says Humphrey, who remembers earning 90 cents an hour when he started; he says he now makes $4. Humphrey, a father of seven who lives with his wife and four youngest children in Riverdale, Md., has handled every job at the car wash at one time or another.
As he washes the floor mats on a 4-foot-high iron grate, Humphrey runs it down: "I've washed down . . ." He washes down the front end of an orange Camaro. "I've run the vacuum . . . ." He lifts the mats from the grate, tunrs and throws them onto the front seat, then slams the car door shut. "I've washed windows . . . . I've fixed the machines . . . ." As the Camaro activates the automated drencher, Humphrey starts spraying the next car, which Showers has moved up the line. "I've done it all," he says.
Double Car Wash is a place where a man can walk off the street, pick up a towel, dry off a couple hundred just-washed cars and earn a little cash to tide him over. How many men has Humphrey see come and go?
"Oh, I don't know, there've been so many," he says, chuckling.
"I imagine so; I really couldn't tell you how many. There've been so many of them -- all different kinds. Young, old, foreigners, black, white, all different kinds."