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Car Wash

Notes From the Underground Economy

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A group of men sits huddled near a giant hot-air vent on Lower Michigan Avenue, dry, quiet, and almost protected from the icy wind blowing sheets of snow on the crowded streets above. Slowly, a red Chevrolet Beretta winds through the maze of Dumpsters and loading docks. It pulls into a parking spot near 200 N. Lower Michigan, and one of the men shouts out "Hey, here comes the Beretta. That's one of my regular customers."

Grabbing a bucket filled with hot water and rags, a man known as "Ferrel" walks over and politely asks the driver, "Wash and wax today, sir?"

"Just a wash," the man answers.

"You sure you don't want a wax too?" Ferrel asks. "It's been almost a week, and with all that salt on the streets, a good wax job will really protect you from the elements."

"Well, you always do a good job, so go ahead and wax it," the short, barrel-chested man answers, handing Ferrel a ten. As he does, the rest of the men grab their buckets, rags, and waxes. A week and a half ago many of these men were hauled off to shelters by the Department of Human Services and the police. Most of their belongings were thrown away. But now the "Lower Michigan Avenue Homeless Car Wash" is up and running again.

"We've got almost 16 guys working regular, washing, waxing, and detailing," says James Young, a short, stocky man dressed in an assortment of clothing. "I've been down here almost two years. It goes a long way in keeping us out of the shelters, which are dangerous, and getting us hot meals."

While Young talks another man, John Fox, arrives with two buckets of hot water and begins washing a blue Chevy Cavalier.

"We get most of our hot water from the washrooms at the Metra station, or sometimes from the buildings around here," Fox says as he begins to wipe the car down. "Usually the security guards and maintenance people are cool. They look the other way, except when the bosses are around, and most of the customers are really nice as well."

Fox begins to apply the soap, and as he leans over the windshield his six-foot-four-inch, 240-pound frame covers the midsize car like a blanket. "I've been down here for one month," he says. "Before that, I was out of town."

He looks down at his wet rag and smiles to himself. "Actually, I was incarcerated, but let me tell you something. This is giving us a chance to show ourselves. It keeps me from begging and gives me some pride, which, at this point in my life, is something I really need."

By now many cars have pulled into the row of metered spots, and several men are scattered throughout the parking area waiting for new customers.

"I'm almost out of soap," Young calls out. "Anyone got two bucks?" For a brief moment the constant flow of joking and jabbering stops and it's silent on Lower Michigan. Young reaches into his pockets. "I guess I got enough," he mumbles. "But don't go asking me for no soap when ya'll run out," he yells out. He pulls dimes and quarters out of his pocket until he has the right amount.

"We get most of our soap from the Dollar Store up there on Michigan," Young says. "Usually we start at about eight and work till about noon. Then after lunch it slows down pretty much. I'd say we all do about 25 to 30 cars a day, and at five dollars a wash, ten for wax, it turns out OK."

As Young heads up to street level, Ferrel, now wearing only a plaid shirt and stocking cap, eyes a brand-new BMW that he is regularly commissioned to wash and wax. Opening his black gym bag, he pulls out a can of wax, some buffing compound, liquid glass cleaner, dry rags, a natural sponge, and a battery-operated hand-held vacuum cleaner.

"I was one of the first ones to start doing this, and have been going at it for almost two years, so I've picked up a lot of tricks," he says. "First I wipe off the salt with this," he says, opening a jug of windshield washer fluid. "Then I wash it and dry it off with the rags that I got drying in front of the heating ducts. And I know how to stretch wax. I can do two cars with the wax that most people throw away."

Ferrel continues waxing the hood as he talks, using a round sponge and a damp rag to get a mirrorlike shine. "This here, this is the second coat of wax. See, I'm good at what I do. I used to live down here, but now I make enough to get my own place. But I still come down here six, sometimes seven days a week to work."

Another worker, wearing several long coats and a tattered stocking cap, walks up to Ferrel. They exchange greetings through a series of high fives. He kids Ferrel about the streaks, then grudgingly admits it's a job well done.

Across the street, Fox is finishing up on the Cavalier. Wiping off the excess water with a rag that has been drying near the heating vent, he looks down toward Lower Wacker. "When the police came by, they threw out a lot of my aspirin, Nyquil, things we need to keep us from getting sick, which was rough. But a lot of the cops are cool. A few of them even give us food and clothes. And as far as washing goes, a lawyer told us that when people pay the meter, they are renting the spot, and as long as we don't hassle them and are polite, what transpires in that space is up to them."

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