There is a point when you’re cleaning out the drainage grate of an auto shop, on your hands and knees and up to your elbows in filth, when you realize that at 19 years old you ought to think carefully about your future. I worked on the cleanup crew for Expressway Dodge in Evansville, Indiana the summer after my freshman year at Indiana University. The drain was clogged after I attempted to clean a garbage can from the auto bay where we sprayed undercoat onto the bellies of new Dodge Rams, Intrepids, and Neons to protect them from rock chips and muffle road noise. This particular garbage can was used for empty containers of undercoat. Our spray nozzle didn’t completely finish a container before it tapped out, so the remaining few ounces of thick tar was tossed along with it, safety cap never reattached. Over the course of the summer, this residual goo trickled down into a three-inch thick layer on the bottom of the garbage can that, when I sprayed it with cold water trying to rinse it out, hardened into the consistency of licorice Twizzlers. The nightcrawler-sized chunks of tar that I managed to dislodge from the bottom of the can washed down the drain running the center of the shop and packed the foundation for an impromptu wading pool of ashy water and petroleum-based fluids that greeted me when I returned from lunch. The passel of mechanics gathered around the mess had a high time watching me reach through the swirling rainbows and soggy paper towels to fish out the blockage. The tide subsided eventually, and I squatted on the sidewalk behind the shop and wrung out my socks.
Mohammed, the Guy From College
The prospect of living under my parents’ roof in Poseyville, Indiana that summer after two semesters of sport drinking and fraternity pranks seemed unbearable. A tiny town of just 1200 people, Poseyville couldn’t match the new life I had reluctantly left behind at school. I decided to make the summer shorter by looking for a job in nearby Evansville, working as much as possible, and earning money to finance the next year of college hedonism. Expressway Dodge was the biggest Dodge dealer in 37 states, selling up to 400 vehicles a month during the busy season. They employed an army of salespeople, office managers, bookkeepers, and mechanics to move and service the product. Such an operation also required considerable maintenance to run smoothly. The cleanup crew’s primary job was to wash the sold cars before delivering them to customers. We were also the dealership’s gophers and janitors. We picked up trash and cleaned the grounds. We shuttled cars around the lot and lined up rows of display vehicles. We ran errands around town, picking up keys and trading temporary tags with other dealerships. Basically, we did the scut work beneath everyone else in the outfit.
I heard about the job from my dad, who is a friend of Bob, the owner of the dealership. The cleanup crew worked a grueling schedule; six days and up to 80 hours a week. It sounded perfect. At that rate the summer would be over in no time while I stacked up fat overtime bonuses. Bob said he would gladly hire me for the summer, though he expressed his amazement that I would want the job. I visited his office the week before I started and assured him that I didn’t mind a little sweat and grime because I needed the money. He laughed and said, “I’ll ask you about that again in three months.”
Later I met Jim, the manager of the cleanup department. He was skeptical. Here I was, a friend-of-the-family college boy, surely looking to skate through the summer by hanging out in the boss’s air-conditioned office while the rest of his boys melted outside on the asphalt. I didn’t help matters when he caught me leaning against a Coke machine on the first day of work, rubbing a cold can on the back of my neck. Later Jim confessed that he never thought I’d make it.
He was a wiry man in his forties, with tanned leather skin and slick black hair that he feathered into a mullet, complementing the full beard framing his jaw and a lower lip puffed out with Kodiak. He liked to brag about the lifestyle his hard work at the dealership afforded him. “I worked hard to get where I am today,” he said. “Built a fuckin’ swimming pool at my house with the money I made here, and if you don’t believe it, by God I’ll show you the check stubs.”
I drove 45 minutes from Poseyville to the east side of Evansville to report at seven AM the first day. Jim assigned me to trash duty. I wandered the edges of the parking lot, picking up scraps of paper and pieces of tinsel broken loose from the gaudy streamers that anchored the lot’s light poles. I met some other members of the cleanup crew: Jeremy, Jim’s lieutenant, who called everyone a “sumbitch” and liked to cross his arms and stroke his mustache while he gave orders; Tony, or “Toenails”, Jeremy’s cousin, the aging drifter with a withered leg; Brian, who had a tattoo of the Notre Dame leprechaun on his ankle but had never set foot in South Bend. I stayed quiet and did my work, trying to make a good impression. I introduced myself to Tony by saying, “Hi, I’m Matt.” He spent the rest of the day calling me Mohammed.
After clearing the lot, I met Rob, or “Erto” (shortened from Rob-erto), the ambitious one who dreamt of becoming a salesman for the dealership someday. He usually skipped out of trash duty and hung around the morning sales meeting, trying to pick up pointers on customer conversion techniques. He studied product manuals for all the vehicles so he could discern the subtle differences between a Grand Caravan and the standard Caravan with a Sport Package. Besides Jeremy and Scott, the other foreman, Rob had worked at Expressway the longest of anyone on the cleanup crew. It made sense that he was looking to move up the food chain. But he had extra incentive—he had fathered a daughter with his girlfriend at the age of 17. I talked to him about his future plans as we drove cars back and forth to the detail shop. “Man I don’t know if I even wanna marry her,” he said of his girlfriend. “We was just kids when we had the baby. I mean, when we first started dating we’d do it like four or five times a day. Now I don’t even wanna see her some days. But I got to take care of my kid.” He was talkative, personable, and knew more about cars than anyone at the shop—family situation aside, I thought for sure he’d make a good salesman.
The Full Expressway Experience
We spent most of our time in the back corner of the service garage. The process of cleaning cars was a science at Expressway. First we sprayed the wheel wells, doorjambs, and engine compartment with degreaser that cut through the road dirt and brake dust. After that we rinsed and then soaped the entire car top to bottom. The big Ram trucks and full-size utility vans were the most fun because one of us had to climb on top and avoid sliding off while we wiped down the roof. Once the lather had been washed off, we dried every surface with a synthetic chamois cloth. After a thorough vacuuming, we wiped down the interior panels with Dow Scrubbing Bubbles (the bubbles clean just as well as Armor All, but are cheaper and don’t leave a sticky residue). We buffed the windows with industrial strength window cleaner and paper towels, strictly Bounty brand because other brands had a prickly underside that left streaks. At that point a game of paper-rock-scissors usually ensued to determine who had to climb in the back of the car to clean the inside windows, a job sure to leave us dripping with sweat from the brutal southern Indiana heat. The final touch was a coat of wax, but only to the upper panels because it saved us time. No customer ever checked the bottom half of his car for a shine, at least not on the first day. A gleaming hood was good enough for the full Expressway Dodge experience.
Depending on how persuasive the salesman was, some customers purchased the Triple Protection Package. The TPP included a shoulder-cramping paint-sealant wax that spread like frozen cream cheese, Scotch Guard fabric protectant that took 30 minutes to dry, and our favorite, undercoat. Applying undercoat was my only chance that summer to play the part of a real grease monkey. I got to put a car up on the lift and fire up the air compressor to spray goop on its undercarriage. But it was only fun the first time. We had to don a heavy apron, mask, and goggles before spraying the undercoat. It was nasty stuff that could only be removed from skin with a noxious, burning solvent. Even with the protective gear we always managed to get flecks of tar on our faces, in and around our eyes.
The real secret of the TPP was that on those sweltering July days when the sales staff moved a lot of cars, everyone got a Single Protection Package. We applied the undercoat because that was the only thing the customer could see. We skipped the paint sealer and misted the interior with Scotch Guard to make it smell right. The salesmen liked to promise the customers that they could take their new car home on the spot, and we decided that depriving the customer of a service they’d never miss was less of a risk than invoking the salesman’s wrath by making a customer come back the next day.
Bob and his sales managers were sticklers for precision. Another regular chore of the cleanup crew was to “straighten the lot”. Under the theory that precisely aligned rows of cars made customers convulse with Dodge lust, we performed this task at least three times a day. One of us stood at the end of a row of cars and eyeballed the bumpers, while a partner hopped into each one and inched them back and forth into a perfect vector. To help us survive the hottest days, we started each car in the row and let the air conditioner run for a few minutes before setting to work. Sometimes Eddie, the senior sales manager, really felt like being a bastard (especially when it would make a show in front of a customer) and snapped a chalk line under a row of Caravans to check our work.
The salesmen and other office folk alternately treated us like their best friends or trained orangutans, depending on what kind of favor they needed. I escaped much of the shabby treatment after word spread that I was a friend of the boss. I worked as hard as the rest of the team, but I still felt guilty for being treated differently. We developed quite a brotherhood for the six- to eight-week periods any particular bunch worked together on the cleanup crew. It was about the best job an unskilled laborer could get in the area, especially during the summer when college students like me came home to compete for positions. It beat shift work or scraping by at a fast food restaurant, plus Jim let us work as many hours as we could physically tolerate. Guys like Jeremy and Tony were at the pinnacle of their careers at Expressway—they weren’t just moonlighting as wash boys and going back to college at the end of the summer. I quickly learned to respect anyone willing to pick up trash, squeegee floors, and work in standing water for 80 hours a week.
I earned some of the cushier jobs assigned to the crew, the best of which was Saturday Parking Lot Attendant. Saturdays brought a carnival atmosphere to the dealership. Each weekend we prepared for the flood of customers, mostly casual tire-kickers, but revered nonetheless. I offered to valet their cars as an extra helping of service. I loved Saturdays. I got to wear khaki shorts and a collared shirt with the Expressway Dodge logo on it instead of my usual moldy car washing rags. Better yet, I got to hang out in the air-conditioned show room and snack on free popcorn while the rest of my crew scuttled around the lot.
On Saturdays we also served free burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, and bratwursts to the customers. On Friday afternoon before the cookout, I drove a used minivan or station wagon to Sam’s Club and bought the supplies. I trolled the warehouse aisles of Sam’s, past gallon jars of mayonnaise stacked six high, dragging a flatbed cart piled with cases of frozen hamburger patties and bushels of potato chips. I had the grocery list memorized: two dozen packages of Kaiser rolls, three sets of shrink-wrapped condiments (ketchup, mustard, and relish in one convenient package), eight bags of frozen chicken breasts, 16 cases of soda, etc, etc. “Gotta feed the inmates somehow!” I cracked whenever I caught a bewildered housewife eyeing my stash. I wheeled the cart to the cash register with a flourish and folded the yard-long receipt while the baggers struggled to load the van. The cookout was such a hit that we started to notice familiar faces eating our food each week but always leaving in the same rusted pickup. The dealership eventually stopped giving away food because so many freeloaders showed up each weekend.
Occasionally sales slowed down, and we took advantage of the free time by washing our own cars. I was the proud owner of a used, red Ford Mustang that my dad bought at the end of the school year to replace the 12-year old Camaro I had been driving. Being around cars all summer made me pay special attention to my own ride. I washed and waxed it every chance I got. Rob taught me arcane cleaning tricks to help its resale value, like shining the rubber seals in the doorjambs, or how to take off pieces of the dashboard to clean the instrument gauges. He had just bought a new Nissan Altima (to the glowering disapproval of Jeremy and Jim) and we helped clean each other’s cars. We often stayed after closing so we could fill our trunks with cleaning supplies from the company stockroom.
I also participated in the shop’s black market in car stereo components. All of the mechanics had obnoxiously loud stereos in their cars, with chest rattling subwoofers and ridiculously complex CD players. I had already upgraded the stereo in the Mustang with an amplifier and new speakers, but one of the mechanics convinced me to pay him $100 for a pair of used subwoofers. “Dude, these things’ll sound so much better’n them sons-a-bitches you have now,” he said. “You’ll come kiss my ass for givin’ you such a deal.”
I was pretty proud of my purchase until Scott, holding one of the speakers in his left hand while smoking a cigarette his with his right, informed me that I had been duped. Both cones were blown; in my excitement I failed to see the cracks underneath the brackets he later pointed out to me with his cigarette hand. Afraid to approach the mechanic and accuse him of cheating me, I made my first ever trip to a pawn shop.
My chores grew increasingly bizarre when the summer headed into the severe weather season. Evansville sits in a valley between the Ohio and Wabash rivers. The suffocating humidity trapped in the river basin over the summer clashes with approaching cold fronts and produces spectacular flash thunderstorms. People there remember storms by date, like the June 8th Storm when I was a kid that trapped my mom and me in a utility closet at a dry cleaner. When one of these gully-washers flared up at Expressway, we raced around the lot hauling in the six-foot balloons strung on each light pole and popped them with pocket knives. Why destroying them was better than letting them fly away, we never knew.
During special promotional weeks, the dealership displayed giant inflatable movie monsters on the roof: a 10-foot high Godzilla for “Monster Savings Week”, a massive gorilla for “King Kong Deals”. At the first crack of lightning, one of us had to scale a rickety ladder up the side of the building to the roof so we could pull a zipper on the back of the beast to deflate it. The first time I did this, Brian stabilized the ladder for me and said, “You better watch it when you grab that son of a bitch, or it’ll drag you over the ledge.” I scampered up the ladder and hopped onto the roof as the rain started coming down in sheets. I tiptoed across the slick tarpaper surface and caught a rope anchoring King Kong’s left shoulder. The storm kicked up a gust of wind. My footing slipped and I thought for sure I was going to be dragged to my death by a giant inflatable gorilla. But my sneakers caught on a seam in the roof and I hauled King Kong close enough to yank the zipper. I reeled in his limp, vinyl carcass and rolled it up like a parachute. I left it in a heap in the corner of the roof and descended the ladder. Brian helped me down and we took cover inside the showroom. I mopped my face with a napkin from the popcorn machine while the salesmen snickered. “Hell of a storm isn’t it guys?” one of them said.
Saving the monsters made more sense than the other balloon slaughter though, because the big ones cost more than the workman’s compensation the dealership would have to pay me for breaking my neck on the rain-slick roof. Sending me up there was just a sound business decision.
As July melted into August I grew weary of the long hours and the filth and the funk and the grime of maintaining a car lot. I developed athlete’s foot from standing in an inch of water hours at a time so I started bringing extra pairs of socks. I slipped into the break room whenever I had the chance and treated my feet with a concoction of foot powder and ointments. This sock-changing regimen kept the fungus from spreading too quickly. But to this day the slightest bit of moisture brings me to fits of itching the exact same spots between the exact same toes. I smelled so bad when I came home every night that my mom ordered me to shower before I could eat dinner. By the time I finished bathing though, I rarely had the energy to eat before I passed out in bed.
One night near the end of the summer, Rob got a panicked call from his girlfriend. She had been pinched for shoplifting a pair of Air Jordans at the Shoe Carnival, and security was holding her and their daughter at the in-store brig. Apparently, the Shoe Carnival had enough problems with theft that they maintained their own holding cell. She was supposed to pick up Rob from work that night, so I had to drive him to the store where he could plead with the police. I sat in my car at a respectful distance, watching the little girl clutch her mother’s leg while Rob and her mother argued about how they were going to scrape up bail money. I pretended not to listen, and thought about how Erto was probably never going to get that salesman gig.