Working at the car wash
The owner of the car wash installed a police scanner that he used to monitor La Migra—the Immigration Man.
At night I’d dream I was wiping down cars, one after another, until I woke up, tired from the evening’s virtual labor.
Working at the car wash
We played the immigration game
By Hannah Day
Most days on this busy corner in Southern California were hot, dry, and buzzing with activity. But today was quiet, cloudy, and wet. I was a 17-year-old, 110-pound decent-looking girl. I drew the usual curious glances from onlookers as I rode up on my funky old hard-tail chopper with exhaust pipes like megaphones that made a tremendous and powerful sound. I parked my bike, shook off the rain, and walked over to the only two white men in the place. I wanted a job at their car wash.
The men were carbon copies of each other. They were short, small-framed, and tow-headed. They both donned 1970s-era wire-rimmed cop shades and tiny blond mustaches. Their long key chains dangled from the waist of their identical blue shop pants. Their appearance was tidy. Against their better judgment, they hired me to work at the end of the line. For the next year, after each vehicle rolled out of the car wash tunnel, I’d wipe off the water. I wiped down Mercedes, Jaguars, Corvettes, and the like, walking down one side of each car while my counterpart walked down the other side. We held damp, blue terry cloth towels, one in each hand and moved with ease across freshly washed painted surfaces. Our sweeping motions were a slow dance with the cars until we met at the middle of the back bumper, stood up straight, waved our towels high in the air, signaling the car’s owner to come drive it away.
On a good day, we’d wipe down a thousand cars. Even at 17, my body ached at the end of the day. I was sunburned and sore. I can only imagine how my middle-aged Mexican compadres felt after years of this kind of labor. Most customers tipped me well, probably feeling sorry for the poor, simple gal I must have appeared to them. Each evening I’d go back to my one-room apartment, lie on my back, and count the dollars and change on my belly until I fell asleep. At night I’d dream I was wiping down cars, one after another, until I woke up, tired from the evening’s virtual labor.
The car wash staff was all male Hispanic illegal aliens—save only me, the blond boys who ran the place and one of their sisters, who worked as the cashier. Many days we were forced to play the immigration game, though it was no laughing matter for my friends. It was the early 1980s and the average man’s technology was limited. The owner of the car wash installed a police scanner that he used to monitor La Migra—the Immigration Man. The cashier would alert the owner to tell him when she heard them in our area. If they caught our staff we would have to close the car wash for the day. We couldn’t manage with just the four legal citizens working.
Sometimes when La Migra came calling, the men would quickly climb up a ladder inside a cinderblock building that housed the soap and chemicals. They’d close the wooden door between the interior of the building and the roof. Our men would hide quietly above the immigration men’s heads. When the green vans drove away, the illegals would humbly descend the ladder and go back to their posts. This worked well for quite some time until one day a young, cocky Mexican boy started chuckling in the hiding place and blew it for the whole group. La Migra busted them all, cornered on the rooftop, with no place to run. They sent our crew back home to Mexico. Some, the less fortunate, were shipped to Guatemala and El Salvador. Their journey back would be longer and much more costly.
Once the roof gig was up, our immigrant workers had to devise other creative ways to avoid La Migra. Juan drove the cars out of the end of the tunnel and parked them a few yards away so we could wipe them down. One day, as Juan got into a customer’s car, he saw the immigration van pull into the adjacent driveway. With nowhere to go, he just kept on driving, past me, out the driveway, down the road about five miles to his house across town. When he got home, he called Blondie to come pick up the customer’s car. The manager was proud of his staff’s resourcefulness and ingenuity. He was grateful that Juan would be available to work the next day. The lady who owned the car was a little less happy. She asked, “Where’s my car?”
“Gee, ma’am, it must have been real dirty. They must’ve run it through again.” She became nearly hysterical until we eventually delivered her ride. Sure, it was clean, but after thirty minutes she couldn’t figure out why no one had bothered to wash the windows. We all had a good laugh.
Sometimes, when the green van arrived, the men would run as fast as they could to hide behind nearby businesses, or sprint into the fields, through industrial complexes, and beyond. We’d listen to the chase on the scanner.
“There goes Cuco,” the manager said. “He just jumped the creek.” We’d cheer them on and hope for the best. Later, Cuco would return, wild-eyed and panting, with a big, bright, ear-to-ear smile. The manager would pat him on the back with pride saying, “Way to go, buddy…way to go…now let’s get back to work.” §
Hannah Day writes from her home in South County. This is her first published article.