Sunday, June 7, 2009

How carwash cafes are destroying society

© Sam Tinson Photography

At first there were just a few. They appeared magically overnight, tempting us with their banana cake and offers of free cappuccinos with every wash and wax. Then, once our defences were down, came the full invasion force. They came in droves, chain upon chain of them, with their cheery bubble logos and their magazines and their platoons of uniformed minions armed with chamois leathers and scratch-free smiles. By the time we realised the danger it was too late. The banana cake was too good, the sheer variety of exterior polishes too tempting. Some, God help us, even had plasma screen TVs. Resistance was futile.

I’m talking of course about ‘carwash cafes’, that unholy union of business and pleasure that has invaded our suburbs and cities, turning our Sunday afternoons into a surreal melange of cappuccinos and clear-coat waxes, and turning us into a nation of caffiene-addled freaks in spotless motors.

Like all crimes against culture (Communism, income tax, Pop Idol) it seemed like a good idea at first. Stringent water restrictions made cleaning the car at home nigh-on impossible, so it made sense to be able to sit down with a decent coffee while someone else did it for you. But it soon became cloyingly addictive. There is something darkly satisfying about watching paid help scrape crud off your tires while you suck down double mochaccinos on a big comfy wicker sofa. Or perhaps that’s just me.

I started off on the standard wash but soon I was on to the harder stuff. Wheel detailing, interior vacuums, full exterior hot waxes, I did it all. I tried to cut down, but the pushers were too pursuasive. If I attempted to refuse they’d get aggressive. What do you mean you don’t want a steam clean? Those seats are disgusting! I’ll do you a special deal... My habit was costing me hundreds of dollars, but I just couldn’t say no.

So slavishly did I bow down to the scent of soap suds and espresso that I didn’t stop to consider the effect my addiction was having on my car. It used to be a cosy den of happy disarray, filled with the accumulated detritus of my personal life. The tide of rubbish and assorted junk that swilled about the foot wells told of past journeys and passengers, destinations visited and day trips long forgotten. The back seats were home to a small library of reading material in the form of old newspapers and magazines, tourist pamphlets, and directions scribbled by strangers to places I will never visit again. The cubby holes and cupholders were treasure troves of useful objects; a root through them could turn up paperclips or pens, chap sticks, chewing gum (some of it unused), headache pills and several dollars in small change. Now all that was gone, cleared away by the insidious, all-consuming vacuum cleaners of the carwash cafe. And all because I couldn’t say no to a free skinny latte.

In the end it was my friend Jim who helped me kick the habit. Or rather it was his family car, an ancient Subaru wagon that he steadfastly, heroically refuses to clean. Jim has several small children, which is why the old Subi’s interior resembles a Brasilian landfill in the aftermath of a mid-strength typhoon. Family legend has it that the bodywork is held together with nothing but Save The Rainforest bumper stickers and an organic paste made of apple juice and squashed sultanas. I’ve actually seen Jim conduct a head-count when he drops the kids off at school, just to make sure he doesn’t accidently leave one on the back seat under a pile of baby wipes. The question of taking this mobile food fight to a valet would never even occur to him. To Jim the mess is the car, as essential to its continued function as the fuel tank and the engine (its cleanest part).

Suddenly the sterile, clutter-free cockpit of my own car seemed depressingly clean by comparison. It smelled of cheap airfreshener and plastic; I missed its old familiar musk. There was nothing to play with in traffic jams, no paper on which to write apologetic notes to parking inspectors, no surprise CDs in the door pockets, nothing aside from the number plate to differentiate my car from the thousands of others just like it. A car, I realised, is like a pair of jeans; the filthier it gets the better it fits. Day-to-day wear and tear imbues a car with character, until eventually the off-the-peg item you bought becomes individualised, a unique reflection of its owner. Cleaning out your car is akin to ironing creases into your favourite 501s – it strips it of personality and makes you look like a charmless square.

Now when the carwash cafe beckons I drive on by. The smell of steamed milk and chrome cleaner does nothing for me anymore. And every time I see a spotlessly clean car, its driver wild-eyed and twitching, I look at my lovely, filthy dashboard with relief. Sure it’s a mess. But it’s my mess.

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