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Workers just trying to make a living speak the same language

They arrived early in weathered vans and pickups, their 40-gallon plastic water tanks sloshing as they pulled to a stop along debris-strewn Belrose Street.

A dozen homemade mobile units in all, they collectively created the valley’s longest car wash on this homely slash of asphalt that angles past a payday loan store and pawn shop and reaches right to the front door of a state Welfare Division office.

On a street traveled by so many people seeking state assistance, here is an example of the indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit Americans like to brag about.

I didn’t take a poll or request identification, but I bet not many of the mobile washers were American citizens or even legal immigrants. Most spoke only Spanish.

One who spoke English said a great deal in a single sentence, “Everyone needs to work.”

By 9:30 a.m., half the outfits were busy. In addition to the water tank, each unit had a small generator, power sprayer, canister vacuum, and enough cloths and spray cleaner to make a car lot sparkle. The outlay runs about $1,000, I was told, but when the economy was booming, a mobile wash, wax, and detailing might run $30 or $40 per car.

In good times, many of the washers had long client lists. They made house calls for local doctors, lawyers, and insurance brokers who wanted a custom detailing job. They had business licenses.

As the economy worsened, many clients dropped away. That leaves the mobile washers spending much of the day on Belrose, which runs in front of a converted Kmart that’s now an indoor swap meet called the Rancho Discount Mall.

Depending, literally, on what the Belrose traffic will bare, they charge as little as $10 for a meticulous wash and hand-rubbed finish. Beyond the excellent quality of the work, I wondered what brought people down to this neighborhood that has seen better decades. (As if on cue to illustrate the fact the neighborhood is crime-riddled, a Metro black-and-white flashed its lights and stopped a pedestrian as he emerged from a pawn shop.)

For resident Linda Herrera, it’s more than getting an immaculately clean car. She has her car washed three times a month, partly out of respect for the effort the mobile washers put in to eke out a living in a community with a 13 percent unemployment rate and the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

“This is their living, the way they feed their families,” Herrera said as a mobile washer detailed her late-model sedan. “They’re not out on the street corner holding up a sign and begging for money. These people aren’t trying to fool anybody. They’re not asking for anything except work. They’re doing what they can to take care of their families. I’d rather pay somebody and know the money went directly to them than pay a company.”

Herrera told me the story of the couple that lives next door to her. The husband and wife lost their jobs and found themselves with zero prospects.

Out of desperation they began collecting aluminum cans. Morning, noon and night they filled sack after sack until there was food on the table and the rent was paid. They even were able to buy an old van from the proceeds of their efforts. They use it to travel to other neighborhoods to collect even more cans, Herrera said.

“They’re not out there asking for a handout, these people,” Herrera said. “They’re not letting nothing get them down. Some of the people have a lot of pride.”

As the morning stretched toward noon, almost all the mobile washers had enjoyed a little business. I drove away with the worker’s words ringing in my ears.

“Everyone needs to work.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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