I was at the service station a while back. It was a rare sunny day and the place was bustling. Folks were busy buying doughnuts to consume and gum that promised extra long freshness that would chase away the odour left behind by the doughnuts. Then a customer barged through the doors looking agitated.
"You have to do something about this," he told the attendant. "Look what that thing did!"
"That thing" was the station's automatic car wash. "What it did" was smear a grey stripe along the side of the guy's Lexus. It looked like someone had dipped a paint brush in a can marked "crap" and applied a nice thick stroke.
Now, the word "wash" conjures up images of something dirty being made clean. Through the application of soap and warm water, dirt is removed. If, however, you place the word "car" in front of wash it takes on a whole new meaning. Mister Lexus was grappling with this reality. He had driven his car into a car wash and expected it to come out, if not totally clean, at least less dirty. This had not occurred.
"That wasn't there when I went into that thing," he said, his voice growing shrill. "Look! Look! It sprayed dirt all over the side of my car."
The attendant gave him a patented gas station shrug. How do you fix car wash error? Have the guy drive through again and get a matching grey stripe on the other side of his car? Finally, after much shouting and shrugging, Mister Lexus got a refund; but he was now going to have to go to another car wash or go home, put on his Daisy Duke cut-offs and tube top, crank up the Lynyrd Skynyrd and wash it himself by hand.
This little bit of street theatre hit me. Charles Foster Kane grew weepy over a - spoiler alert - sled. I get sentimental over car washing.
When the summer months arrive, they conjure up images of happy scenes shot at high speed in soft focus on grainy 1970s film stock. My brother and I, a bucket, a bottle of Turtle Wax and a garden hose with my father, sponge in one hand, cigarette in the other, killing a few hours in the driveway.
You don't see that too much any more. Instead, we have the automatic car wash. In the winter, these are a necessity. Vehicles are so caked with salt and dirt they require regular washing. The clean is short-lived - generally one gets three blocks and is creamed by a wave of clean-obliterating slush. Yet, even when you eliminate Mother Nature's vagaries, the modern-day car wash still leaves much to be desired. The only thing getting thoroughly cleaned is your wallet. It starts at the fuel pump where you are enticed with some special offer: "Buy $307 worth of gas and receive $1 off your car wash."
If you don't want a wash, the pump becomes passive aggressive. "Would you like a car wash?" No. "Are you sure you don't want a car wash?" Yes. "Really?" Yes. "Okay, it's your car - I'm just saying."
Once you've been strong-armed by a touch screen, you get to "customize" your wash. The options start off normal - "Basic Wash" - but grow increasingly risqué. First, it's "The Works" but then it feels like you're ordering weird acts at a massage parlour: "Bottom Blast," "Crystal Polish," "Undercarriage Flushing."
Then you drive to the entrance, put your car in neutral and have it pulled through the wash as mechanical pumps shoot white frothy foam at you. It's surreal.
The "touchless" car wash promises not to harm your car's exterior but they are anxiety-producing. You're on a clock and, when it's over, you have to drive your car through a dryer while a timer clicks down. I always end up with a very dry front and a damp rear.
The best bet for those who don't want to pay $50 at a posh "hand-wash" are the self-serve joints you find in the suburbs. For a fistful of loonies, you get to play with soap-spraying nozzles and big fuzzy brushes. If you have kids and drive a junk-encrusted minivan, your best bet is to hire the same crews that clean up crime scenes. It's the only way your automobile will ever come close to that new-car clean.
It's the Californians who get the car wash right. Last time, I was in San Jose, I went to Classic Carwash on the Almaden Expressway. It's a car-wash Nirvana. For starters, the place is built like a steamboat. The service is fast and friendly. Your car leaves clean. Classic Carwash has a gift shop offering items ranging from spooky china to Californian wine. The best part? They have a pond filled with catfish. You buy some pellets and, as you wait for your car, you can feed fish. That, my friends, is a car wash. But that's California.
So, this summer I'm swearing off the car wash. You'll find me in the driveway with my kids, a bucket and a hose; sponge in one hand, lemonade in the other, Turtle Wax at my side. And so we buff on, cloth against the clear coat, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy