Part One
By Wil Forbis

January 16, 2005

For close to five years during the booming decade known as the 1990's 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 the sake of future generations who could learn from my experience, but was often 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.

Car Wash art by Sean Corrigan
Click picture to enlarge

During the 90's 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.) 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
A quartet of brothers, these guys all shared the same mother, but Dennis and Clark had a different father from Bob and Royal (whose patriarch was full blooded Indian.) Every one of them was on work release[1] and at the time I arrived on the scene, Dennis, a chubby, genial fellow in his late twenties, was the manager. I can't remember the exact crime he'd committed that had landed him in prison but I believe it was something innocuous like grand theft auto. Brother Clarkwas another matter. A short, bullying fellow who was finishing up a nine year manslaughter charge for slitting someone's throat, he would often run from the front to the back of the lot ordering about harried employees. The third brother, Bob was a tall, lanky guy, not particularly bright but with an entertaining manner about him. Finally there was Royal who. well, I'll get to him in a sec.

[1] 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 go away 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 of which involved an exploding car and transvestite hooker. (Elements essential to any great tale.) Driving on 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 aflame. 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.

Intellectually, I recognized that inviting two ex-convicts, at least one a murderer, back to my apartment didn't sound like a great idea...

Shalom
Shalom was a short, tattooed rocker with long black hair who showed up the first winter I worked at the wash. He was the boyfriend of Stacey, a brunette who was our sales girl and whom I had a mild crush on since she was the only female there. Shalom was a somewhat standoffish but basically nice guy. He had a thrash band and I think we vaguely discussed me playing guitar for them. One night we went out and for beers and a game of pool and I remember it as the first night I ever enjoyed a song by The Doors. (I was pretty drunk.) However, one day I showed up and he was gone. It turned out the cops had busted him for something and discovered he had a warrant for selling sheets of acid back in Wyoming. Eventually I heard he got a five-year sentence and Stacy moved back there to wait out his term. (We can all take a guess how long she lasted.)

Bob #2 (wacko one)
Whoo-boy... I'm not sure where to even start with this guy. On the surface Bob seemed like a regular guy in his late 30's who resembled Chico Marx. But there was definitely something off about the guy. For one thing, he was a compulsive talker who would ramble on about every inanity under the sun causing the numerous black dudes to glaze over in an attempt to tune out his blathering. On one occasion he'd be mentioning the time he was at a party in West Seattle and one of the partygoers brought back an inebriated woman that everyone proceeded to have sex with. At another time Bob discussed the time he was jumped by four muggers in downtown Seattle, but managed to put one of the attackers in the hospital with him. On yet another occasion Bob went into detail about how his girlfriend liked to be tied up during sex. "She says it gives her a thrill and makes chills go down her spine." Thanks for the info, Bob.

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 could only demurely smile in return.

Bob was eventually fired after he drove a customer's Porsche into a wall at five miles per hour.

Richard
Black dude, looked a bit like a chubby Richard Pryor. He was only at the wash for about three months before he got a job on those Alaskan fishing boats. Richard had a scar running across his cheek from some point in the recent past where someone had attempted to rob him.

John
John was a friendly white dude in his early 60's. He'd worked in the railroad business most of his life and was doing time at the wash to tied him over until he was eligible for Social Security. But, like everyone else, he was a chronic alcoholic, leaving work each day to pick up a 40 ouncer of malt liquor to wind the day down. One morning he came in covered with bruises and said he'd warded off a mugger at the bus stop. I was pretty impressed until one of the black dudes said, "That old man probably just got drunk and fell down." (Which did indeed sound like a more reasonable explanation.) A few months later I recall John lying hung over on the break room couch, sneezing and causing a large glob of snot to land on the couch, causing much disgust on the part of the room.

Randall
A real fun guy, Randall looked a lot like J.J. from "Good Times." I remember once being in the breakroom watching one of those PBS debates moderated featuring William Buckley and Ira Glasser. The subject matter was "Women in the Armed Services" and was being ignored by everyone except me until Randall walked in. He was there for a minute or so and said, "What's this? Bitches in the military? You're watching bitches in the military when the game is on?"

Kevin
A short, bearded, redheaded guy, Kevin would have been an excellent extra in Lord of the Rings as one of the dwarves. He was at the wash for a year or so until he moved down to Portland to live with his fiancé'. Then a few months later I heard through the grapevine that he had burned down his girlfriend's house and was doing time for arson. Guess it didn't work out between those crazy kids. Years later, he returned, somewhat bashful about the whole event.

Mike and Greg
At some point they really ramped up the work release infusion at the Elephant and suddenly there was an additional ten or twelve guys doing the final phase of their prison stints. They were still housed in a lock up (I think it may have been the King County jail.) And would bus into the wash every day, work and then go back. This would go on for about six months or so by which point they would be free to go. Many of them, however, would stay on at the wash, getting low-rent single room apartments in West Seattle and trying to get their lives together. Some of these guys were incredibly kind, decent hearted people; so much so it was amazing they'd ended up in prison. Others were cold, calculating bastards. Which brings me to.

Mike was a bulky, red-headed, very intimidating white dude who stood around 6'4, and despite being in his forties, looked like he could still snap most people in half with 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 illuminated 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 house 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
If I had to pick out my all time favorite Elephant employee it would be Leonard. A black dude somewhere in his early 50's Leonard was a stand up guy that would defend you when you were being unjustly attacked and provided numerous entertaining conversations about music, movies, television, culture and race. It's still hard to talk about inter-race relationships in American society without people reading some hidden motive into it (e.g. the white dude who attempts to show how hip or egalitarian he is by saying "I've got plenty of black friends") but with Leonard I really felt that sort of cultural baggage was as mitigated as one could hope for. On a basic level we really connected.

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.

Ron
Nice enough, short muscular black dude in his early forties. I have two main memories of him. Once he brought in one of these Black Power/Islamic newspapers that had an article stating that AIDS was caused by estrogen being pumped out of car exhaust in an attempt to feminize all black men. To Ron's credit, he didn't believe the story, pronouncing, "That's what they call, you know. propaganda!" Secondly, Ron got on a health kick brought in one of those JuiceMan juicer devices and would sit around making us all wheat grass/carrot cocktails that were just fucking awful.

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.

Herbie
Truly one of the craziest employees. Herbie was a fat but tall black dude. Due to what I think was a combination of a speech impediment, a strong accent and missing teeth, it was impossible to understand 90% of what came out of his mouth. The one story I do remember hearing (and understanding) was about how he'd escaped a murder charge as a young man in Florida. As Herbie told it, some white dude had called his mother a "nigger," so he'd tracked the guy down and blasted his chest open with a shotgun. Cops immediately picked Herbie up and took him before a judge. The judge, taking a strangely sympathetic liking to Herbie demanded he leave the state and never come back. It sounds like horseshit, and the numerous black dudes gathered in the breakroom when Herbie told the story rolled their eyes back at the telling, but it makes a great yarn.

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, 40 year old variety.

Big Red
There are two types of muscular dudes: overexercised Arnold clones, and guys who just look like they were born with a lot of beef and built it up through a lifetime of ass kicking. Red was of the latter category. He might have had a bit of a belly of his fifty-something frame, but I would have wagered that he could take out most men half his age. Like pretty much everyone there except me (and wacko Bob) he'd done various stints in prison. ("Stay out of the joint, Forbis," he once advised me. "You're a good dude.)

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 they were broken. I was sitting next to a father whose teenage son was having a bullet removed from his chest 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.

Wilbur
After Dennis ran off with the cash receipts, The wash was managerless for a while though John did a brief stint to tide things over. Finally, they brought in Wilbur, a twenty-year old kid who liked country music (he immediately hung a George Jones poster in the office) and Copenhagen chewing tobacco (which I bummed off him from time to time.) Wilbur was small, probably under 5'7 but in pretty good shape for his diminutive frame** He had what they now call "emotional intelligence"; he knew when to be a hardass and when to let things go. He clearly wanted to gear me up to be an assistant manager (at this time I had a pretty well rounded skill set of wash task - upholstery shampoos, interior details, hand waxes etc) but due to my propensity for showing up late all the time, it was an idea that never really took off.

* 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 homo, 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.

Or maybe I am a homo.

That one black dude
Can't remember his name or anything about him other than the fact that one night he got high on crack, broke into the office and emptied the safe. He showed up a few days later and was warded off by Chris who was waving a lead pipe.

Chris
White dude. He was Wilbur's assistant manager for a while until he got high on crack, broke into the office and emptied out the safe.

Bill
Bill was the only guy I came really close to coming to blows with at the car wash. A black guy, he looked like a small Quincy Jones. He was blatantly racist, once bilking Bob #2 out of a dollar and when I challenged him about it, replied, "If that dumb motherfucker wants to give me a dollar I'm going to take it." A few months later over we got into an argument over something and he threatened to stab me in the neck with a pen while calling me a "white motherfucker." I was so bemused with the idea of a pen stabbing that I found the threat more humorous than anything else and just stared him in the eye. Leonard walked up and said, "Fo-bis? You fucking Fo-bis? Watchu doing that for*?" and Bill had to grudgeingly back off, though I have little doubt I could have easily kicked his ass.

* See my point above about how it wasn't cool to fuck with me.

Julius
Another black dude, but very intellectual, well spoken and college educated*. Two stories arose from Julius's tenure at the wash. On one occasion, a customer drove his truck onto the lot, parked, and starting walking toward their office. What the patron hadn't done was set the parking break, so their steering wheel locked hard to the right and their truck rolled backwards right onto 4th avenue and began doing backward 360's in the middle of the street.  It was clear that the car would eventually crash so Julius ran out and, like a bronco buster taming an excited horse, managed to leap into the cab and bring the truck to a halt with nary a scratch to its silver frame.

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.

Paul
Next to Leonard, Paul was probably my best friend at the wash. An excitable white dude in his late twenties, Paul liked to gab and would offer endless rumination on his experiences with the ladies. One day, he invited my down to a particular bar that he hung out at near the Boeing factory. That night I caught the bus down into the middle of nowehere only to walk into this crazed quasi honky-tonk restaurant/bar* with numerous over 40 type people line dancing. Not my scene at all. Paul started pointing out all the women he'd been with, all of whom were "over-ripened," to say the least. I began to realize that Paul was sort of willing gigolo for twice divorcées who were intent on drinking away what was left of their looks. (I don't want to sound like I'm knocking the guy - I've sunk to some considerable lows myself, but I don't go around pointing them out.) At one point, Paul was fired for calling Wilbur an asshole, but about six months later, he came back, tail between his legs, and got his job back.

* Years later one New Year's Eve morning I ended up at the same restaurant. It was, like, the only place open in Seattle.

Mike #2
Mike was a tall, chubby fellow who looked like a younger version of Curly from the Three Stooges. (Curly was the bald one, right?) At the back of the base of his hairless skull, Mike had a small scar where someone had shot him point blank during a drug deal.

Randy
A short, stocky mustached guy in his middle forties, Randy was an exceptionally nice guy. He'd actually had some sort of real career in life but due to the harsh turns life can take, ended up at the wash for a brief period as a salesman. He was hooked up with a loyal, but rather unattractive girlfriend and once or twice brought her son into work with him.

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.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Car Wash Confidential.

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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 - acidlogic@hotmail.com

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.

 




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