"That Car Wash movie was just a lot of romance," says Mario Xavier, the smooth-dressing young manager of the K&K Hand Car Wash on North Clybourn. "All we do is work around here. The business has lost its personality and isn't very entertaining anymore."
The K&K, which operates in a dull yellow, almost adobe-style structure built in the early 1950s, is one of the oldest surviving businesses on what is now called the Clybourn Corridor. But traffic at the K&K has slowed in recent years, and with the building up for sale, this bargain car wash's bubble is about to burst.
"What's happening in this neighborhood is all an illusion," Xavier says, glaring, arms folded, at the new 1800 N. Clybourn retail complex. "People say this area is coming back. But it never went anywhere. All that's happening is the black folks, the rubbish people, are being kicked out. The developers call that an upgrade. But in 20 years these white people will decide they want to live somewhere else. And then what happens to the neighborhood?"
At the K&K cars get a complete 25-minute wash, dry, and vacuum for $6 (vans for $8). At the brand spanking new White Glove Car Wash to the north, a machine wash with drying and vacuuming runs $6.95; a few blocks away, at Well Clean near North and Halsted, a hand wash is $16.50.
The K&K used to be a 24-hour-a-day operation; now it's open from 7 to 7. Lately, Xavier says, the police have been hassling some of the K&K guys, accusing them of sleeping on the premises. But an inspection of the dank interior reveals nothing like a bed, only piles of towels, an old washer and dryer, and a lonely cashier's cage surrounding a metal desk piled with old newspapers.
Xavier, who goes by "Doctor," says the clientele is mostly men between 25 and 45, a combination of north-side whites and south-side blacks. Almost all the customers are regulars. Cars pull around back and enter through the alley off the el tracks.
On weekdays neighborhood denizens stop in to sit on a row of tattered chairs near the front of the place. They shoot the breeze and see who is getting their wheels cleaned. Weekends bring a little more activity, but nothing like the 100 cars a day that eased through the place a decade ago.
Mid-aftemoon on a recent weekday, only three cars have pulled in for the K&K treatment, producing total receipts of about $20 including tips. But suddenly there comes a rush of business. Freddie "Fred is dead" Bush gets to work with a garden hose on a maroon Volvo wagon. Then he brings on the specialty suds, a soft combination of Palmolive and Joy soaps. Joan Costin, whose daughter muddied the family ride at a recent Who concert, likes what she sees. "These guys are the best," she says. "The fancy car washes are outrageous."
Freddie does a two-handed dry wipe with the help of colleague Tony "don't call me no nicknames" McCullough. Tony says the only fun around the K&K these days is when it's hot and the crew turn the hoses on each other to stay cool.
Next in line is Edward Frelix. He has driven his gold Chrysler Fifth Avenue sedan to the K&K from the southwest suburbs to get a wash on his day off.
"This place won me over a few years ago when I drove in here and they had a one-armed dude who washed my car as good as any two-handed guy I ever saw," Frelix said. He smiles with satisfaction as Freddie and Tony make his prized ride shine. "When I drive out of here," he says, "I want people to say there's a nice looking car with a handsome dude driving."
Frelix is followed by Bill Pfeiffer, a crisis intervention counselor who charges into the long garage in a restored 1980 Datsun 280 ZX. Pfeiffer owns three classic cars, and he cleans them all at the K&K. He joins the action, grabbing a towel to rub down his blue baby. "It'll be a sad day on Clybourn Avenue when this place is gone," he says.
Perhaps nobody is feeling sadder than Johnny King, the 67-year-old entrepreneur who built the block and mortar building from the ground 38 years ago. It's been years since he sold his share in the car wash, but he drops in often to use the pay phone on the wall and to say hello to his friends.
The 100-by-125-foot building is on the market for $600,000, offered by New Clybourn Realty, whose office is next door to the car wash. "That's a lot of dollars for a beat-up old building," King says. "But the land alone around here is worth a fortune. It seems like yesterday I was turning down offers to buy lots on this street for $8,000 a pop."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.