Where are the natives the nativest? That question, in not quite that form, has been on my mind ever since I got to Southern California in mid-January. It’s easy enough to find examples of all the familiar stereotypes here, if only because attitudes, like automobiles, do not rust in this climate.
But what I’ve been looking for is the place where Southern Californians seem most instinctively at home. Is it Doheny Beach, where a young girl skims and swirls in a pool of saltwater left behind by the tide? Is it the courtyard of the Norton Simon Museum, where an elderly couple sits watching the water irises? Is it the drive-through line at the In-N-Out, where a pair of cops in their cruiser feel as burgerish as the rest of us?
The answer, I’ve decided, is the carwash, especially on a Sunday afternoon. But saying “the carwash” in Southern California is a little like saying “the pub” in England: It raises important questions of class, identity and belonging.
You can, of course, find carwashes here that resemble those in the rest of the country: quarter-fed do-it-yourself high-pressure-spray washes. But what I mean is the 100 percent hand-wash joint on the corner, the one with a line backing onto the street on weekends.
For weeks, I drove past our local carwash without turning in, certain, as only a New Yorker can be, that I would be ignorant of some secret protocol and make a fool of myself. But the secret of Southern California is that, except in a few circles, there are no secret protocols.
The only trick question the attendant asked me when I turned my car over to him was what kind of air freshener I wanted. The answer, of course, was none. He handed me a ticket to take to the cashier, and a team of men armed with vacuum hoses fell upon my vehicle.
This moment of surrender is a more powerful version of what happens when you give your car over to valet parking in, say, Brentwood or Santa Monica. I think, in fact, that it may be one of the most profound psychological moments in a Southern Californian’s week.
A car is many mythic kinds of creature in this auto-mad part of the world, but it is also a burden, a load that is very hard to lay down. To drive into a carwash and surrender your car is an almost celestial release. It is the mechanical form of an out-of-body experience. You are with your car and without it.
At my carwash – this is how I think of it now – the real point is to accentuate that feeling, while scrubbing the freeway grime off the side panels and brushing the painted ladies, a suddenly plenteous butterfly, off the grille. I stand at the long viewing window, waiting for my car to come around the corner and onto the track that guides it through the wash.
A few people sit in booths, eating burritos or hot dogs from the carwash cafe, while they watch their cars go past. Two men scrub the windshield with long-handled brushes. Another team soaps down the tires and rocker panels. Then comes a rinse, and the wax spray begins. It looks as if the cars are being frosted in birthday cake colors, green and pink and blue.
The walls near the front of the carwash are crowded with small automotive adornments for sale: steering wheel covers and license-plate frames and, unaccountably, an enormous selection of greeting cards. Here, too, is the cashier and a door leading out to a tented terrace with benches and tables and chairs.
Nearly everyone who comes to the carwash knows that timing is everything. You watch your car go down the automated interior wash-and-spray track for a minute or two. Then you pay your bill and take a seat outside.
On a Sunday afternoon, the terrace is crowded. One man reads The New York Times. A pair of young women in white dresses look as if they’ve come to the carwash directly from church. Most people simply spend the time watching the work at hand. No one looks impatient.
It’s a beautiful day. The mountains gleam in the distance, and a ceramic fountain — a peasant boy and girl flirting near a well — gurgles nearby. Soon a man drives my car out of the building and over to the men who will finish the job by hand.
He drives with the driver’s door open. His left foot hangs outside the car. It looks like a matter of convenience, but it’s really another way of signifying the special state of being my car is in. The casualness – that dangling left foot – is a way of saying that my car has never belonged as wholly to me as it does to him at this moment. This, too, is somehow gratifying.In the lot, perhaps two dozen cars are being spritzed and hand-rubbed by some two dozen men. An arm goes up out there in the lot. A red rag twirls in the air. My car is ready.