Car wash anxiety bubbles up for drivers

For a “car chick” I’m embarrassed to say that I have a slight fear of automatic car washes. It’s not the car wash itself, really. It’s more a phobia of being the fool of the day who jumps the tracks and causes the machine to malfunction.

You know who I’m talking about: he or she is usually driving the car ahead of you … you’ve been waiting in line so long you’ve memorized the license plate number and the dealer stickers, forward and backward. You can see that this person is entering too much to the left. The red lights start flashing, the alarm sounds and a cheeky attendant comes to the rescue.

You honk at the driver, roll your eyes and say things under your breath for which your mother would wash out your mouth with soap. No one wants to be that person.

Take it from my sister. Her misadventure in a car wash is an award winner. She can laugh at herself now, but I’m sure when she missed the track, got her bumper caught on the machine and had to call a tow truck to free her car from the contraption, she felt nothing but humiliation. “Oh well, those things happen …” I said, trying to be supportive.

Actually, I don’t know what I would have done in her shoes and I pray I never have to find out, which is why I would rather go to a coin-operated wash and soap down the car myself. But I caved … my car was so dirty I could no longer identify its true color.

I decided to take advantage of an afternoon off and splurged for the Deluxe Wash: undercoating spray stuff, protectant, wax, the whole shebang. While I was waiting in line to buy the ticket, I saw something that only added to my anxiety. One of the clerks was clearly amused with what was unfolding on the screen of a closed-circuit TV. “Try to stay within the grids this time!” he said into the intercom, suppressing a laugh.

Oh maaaaaaan!

My heart sank. I realized then that the little soap opera he was watching was coming from a camera in the wash bay. “How much can you see?” I asked, a little distressed at the thought of my prewash panic attacks being caught on tape for the entertainment of a pimply faced convenience-store clerk.

“Why, what have you done in the car wash that I shouldn’t see?” “Nothing, of course … Maybe a little singing in the shower?” I quipped.

I retreated to my mud-splattered car and waited behind the layers of dirt tinting the windows. A half-dozen cars were already lined up waiting to wash their beaters when I pulled up. If you don’t mind the wait, last in line is the best place to be at a car wash. It means that even if you are the idiot who misses the grid and has to take the “walk of shame,” there are no angry drivers behind cursing the day you got your license.

So much for being last. One car, then another, lined up behind me and I contemplated how badly I really needed the car washed after all. But before I had a chance to follow the lead of the car ahead of me that pulled out of line, it was my turn. I punched in my 47-digit number code and entered the wash bay, slowly, carefully, and aiming the wheels in the right direction of the grid before the soap and water drowned my view through the windshield.

Please don’t let me miss the track … please don’t let me miss the track …

Whew! I made it.

I settled in, breathed a sigh of relief and looked up to my right … there was the camera. I clicked on the radio and, miracle of miracles, you’ll never guess what was playing on the radio … “that craaaaaaazy ’70s disco hit, ‘Car Wash!’ ”

Singing in the shower? I suspect the convenience-store clerk got the show of the day.

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