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The $105 Car Wash 

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It's a beautiful day--the beautiful day, the one that reminds us, when it finally arrives, why we put up with Chicago winters year after miserable year: sunny, breezy, 65 at O'Hare. Cooler near the lake of course, but Accu-Weather says the fog has lifted.

It's a perfect day for a car wash. And mine desperately needs washing. I've only cleaned it once since buying it last summer. That was a futile attempt to rid the fenders and doors of the markings left by its erstwhile owner, the Rosemont Police Department.

I've spared every expense on the big white beast, not even popping for CAR 54 plates, as my brother suggested. I did add a beaded seat cover, but that was a birthday gift from my wife, who was concerned I might fall through one of the rips in the upholstery. The only expenditures that might be construed as regular maintenance are my Dunkin' Donuts purchases, made in an effort to outfit the interior in the bag-strewn style to which I'm certain it was once accustomed.

This isn't the sort of vehicle that merits the soft-cloth treatment. It's discount wash all the way, and not the kind you get by washing it yourself. We're talking drive-thru without the trimmings--no side of wax, no splash of undercarriage rinse.

On Pulaski near Devon I see just the place: TurboWash, a two-lane facility that probably dates to the Miocene era of automatic car washes. I've passed it hundreds of times but have never stopped, even though it has an aura of neglect I find charming. Unlike the annex on the Amoco station two blocks south, there's no line. In fact it's deserted. I wonder if other people know something I dont, but I figure that even northwest-siders have become soft-cloth snobs by now.

The place is forested with signs: "Touchless Automatic--BLAST your car clean with 1,200 lbs. water pressure." "We use HOT water." "Danger High Voltage Beyond This Door." "Car wash attendant on duty 10-11 am and at various times throughout the day." "Warning--No limousines or tow trucks." "Open 24 hours 7 days."

I opt for the right lane. At the cash box, I see that the price has gone from two to three bucks. This is about three times what I expected to pay. The franchiser is Southern Pride, based in Burlington, North Carolina. I imagine it was founded by one of those southern stock-car-racing dynasties--people with last names like Yarborough and first names like Clyde--with start-up funds coming from winnings at the Firecracker 500 or the Tupelo 250. I assume the company went down in flames long ago.

After pumping in 12 quarters, you're supposed to "wait for a message." I brace for a Texas drawl with static. A few moments go by, no voice comes. I decide to move on.

Lining the car wheels up with rusted tracks, I take in more signs: 'Enter slowly--1 m.p.h.--do not steer." "Turn on windshield wipers." "Max. height: 6'10"." "Stop on red lite." "Exit on green lite." "Do not enter on green light until bay is cleared." I'm not exactly sure what the bay is, but there are no cars in sight. As we roll through the stoplight, I check to see if my eight-month-old son is as filled with anticipation as I am. He's asleep.

When we reach the bay area, I'm skeptical that TurboWash is working. A vertical metal shaft hanging from the ceiling about a third of the way into the tunnel, the bottom level with my windshield, resembles the dryer element at the end of most automatic car washes. At TurboWash, it appears to be a central figure in the wash drama.

There's a small facsimile of a STOP sign on the side of the shaft facing me, but no indication of where to stop. I stop where I am, but nothing happens. I ease forward. Suddenly, as we reach a vertical sign that says "Ol' Blue PR S_K," soap and water start sloshing over the windshield. It takes a few moments to realize that this is the PRESOAK cycle.

The TurboWash system seems to work after all. But I'm not sure how. It appears to operate on the same principle as the hands-free urinal flushers at Indiana Toll Road rest stops. Any moment I expect the shaft to spring into action, creaking and cranking and spraying 1,200 lbs. of HOT water all over my car. So I inch forward, pausing every few feet to coax it into action. When the shaft's a few feet from the windshield, I begin to have serious doubts that it's going to move.

I try to reason this out, but this is my second day of stopping smoking and my powers of reasoning are gone. If the system isn't working, I think, there's a possibility, even a likelihood, that the cash box would still eat my quarters. But it seems unlikely that the PR _S_K cycle would function unless the whole system were working. Why I have so much confidence in TurboWash I have no idea. The place may predate Sputnik, or it may have been the midwest's answer to Sputnik.

I press on. I'm actually driving slower than one mile an hour, if that's possible. I pull as close to the metal shaft as I dare and rest my foot on the brake. Suddenly something happens. Through the flapping wipers and windshield grime, I sense that the shaft has finally started moving.

Bless those crackerjack designers at Southern Pride, and shame on me for ever doubting them.

Then I see cracks forming in my windshield.

Damn those crackers.

Terror sets in. I imagine bony hands popping through the windshield and grabbing for my throat. The windshield could shatter any moment. I put the car into reverse. It tends to lurch when you change gears, so more glass crunches before we can effect our exit. My son is still asleep.

Once my horror subsides, "sheepish" does not begin to describe how ridiculous I feel. I also feel indignant, a vending-machine rip-off victim to the millionth power. It's one thing to lose your money to a machine, quite another to have it pop you in the chops.

No one answers my knock at the DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE door. Evidently 3 PM isn't one of the various times of day when an attendant is on duty. And though there are plenty of signs, there's no phone number posted.

I stand around for a while, waiting for the attendant who I'm sure shows up at various times throughout the year. Checking the lane I didn't choose I see that the shaft is supposed to be at the side of the tunnel, not the center.

Customers begin arriving. The first one chooses the left tunnel. The second and third line up at the right. I tell them my tale and get their names in case I need witnesses. After seeing my windshield, they opt to wash their cars elsewhere.

I head home slowly, aware that contact with a pothole could put my windshield in the front seat. I stop at a police station to fill out an accident report. The desk clerk asks for the name of the other party. I tell her it's TurboWash. She is not amused. She says I don't need a police report, I need to call my insurance company. I do that, but I know my deductible exceeds the cost of a new windshield. What I don't know is whether the cost of a new windshield exceeds the value of the car.

There's no phone listing for TurboWash, and that evening a friend accompanies me to the scene. In the sobering glow of halogen lights, we find a trash can blocking the right lane. Apparently the attendant has made an appearance. We scour the lot but still can't find a phone number. I provide a reenactment worthy of Fox TV. An inspection of the shaft reveals that it seems to be stuck. My friend insists that even if I initiated contact, the owner of TurboWash should replace my windshield. All he had to do was put up an OUT OF ORDER sign.

The next morning, with winter on its way back, I stop at TurboWash during the attendant-on-duty hour. Trash cans now block both lanes. A man answering my knock at the DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE door says he's the maintenance man, not the owner. He tells me the name of the owner, whose first name is Nick. He says Nick should be there in a while.

I tell him about my broken windshield. He says Nick told him there had been trouble yesterday, that someone had called the police out there. I tell him I wasn't the one who did that. When I explain what happened, he reacts with what seems to be a blend of skepticism and contempt. "That's why we got directions," he says. He points to a sign and reads aloud: "Do not enter on green light until bay is cleared." The bay, he says, obviously wasn't cleared.

I don't see any gain in debating him about what is and isn't obvious. My son's getting restless, so I decide not to wait for Nick. He won't give me Nick's number but says if I give him mine Nick will call me.

Amazingly he does, later that afternoon. His timing isn't so good. I'm trying to get my son dressed, and we're late for an appointment.

Nick says he feels bad about what happened, but there's nothing he can do. I say I doubt he feels as bad as I do, and there certainly is something he can do. Nick suggests calling my insurance company, I suggest calling his. He says he's got a big deductible, I tell him I do too.

We go back and forth, making our points and waxing wise-guy with aldermanic sophistication. This is clearly a case for People Court, but even without Judge Wapner we remain amazingly civil. I figure Nick is surprised and relieved that I'm not yelling. I'm surprised he bothered to call, and relieved that I don't have to spend days searching for him.

Nick says the shaft was stuck and I must have run into it. He wonders why I didn't stop when I saw the sign. I tell him I did stop, lots of times, but being a TurboWash neophyte, I didn't know where to stop. I didn't realize the sign was a warning. Nick says he wondered about that himself, but the company assured him the STOP sign was warning enough. I ask for information on the company, suggesting it might be liable. He thinks the company is out of business.

Nick says the mistake I made was that I didn't stop. I say the mistake I made was that I did stop--I should have driven right past TurboWash. Then I tell Nick things are going nowhere and I have to go somewhere. I ask for a phone number and am surprised when he gives me one.

The next morning I call the lawyer friend who comes closest to being "my attorney." Although his forte is the First Amendment, his paying clients (of which I am not one) have included a private towing firm--which to my way of thinking makes him an expert on liability as well as libel. He says it's a virtual certainty Nick will have to pay and offers to guide me through the small-claims filing process, the first step of which is to write Nick a letter requesting reimbursement.

Before I get started, Nick calls and says he's still feeling terrible. I figure he also spoke to his lawyer. He says he wants to be "halfway decent" and offers to pay half the cost of a new windshield, which sounds fine to me. But there's a catch: Nick thinks the repair should cost $125, and I paid $210. He tells me I should have gone to a place on the 4300 block of Armitage where "Spanish guys" do the work. I tell him I didn't have time to solicit bids.

Nick offers to pay half, which in his mind is $60. I say I'd be happier with half of what I paid, but I don't push it. I've never been much of a negotiator, and Nick implies that TurboWash hasnt been much of a money-maker. I'm astonished I'm being offered anything.

Business over, we chew the fat a bit. Nick says he understands how I could have hit the shaft, it being my first time and all. I mention the obscured view through a filthy windshield with the wipers going He says I must have been very observant to turn on the wipers. He says he has to pay for new signs to insure it doesn't happen again. I suggest OUT OF ORDER or NOT IN SERVICE as alternatives to STOP.

One thing we agree on completely: It's far preferable to be mature adults and work this out by ourselves than to get involved with lawyers and lawsuits.

Even before I hang up, I realize I've struck a terrible deal. Looking at the address Nick gave me, I see that he's the proprietor of a Lincoln Park service station and car wash that appears to be thriving. Friends tell me I'm a sucker. It may be my imagination, but my son seems to be less in awe of me.

It's two weeks before I get around to sending Nick the receipt for my windshield and a note, which includes the following appeal: "Considering that you didn't make your offer until after I had taken my car elsewhere for repair, and considering further your apparent willingness to accept half the reponsibility, and considering most of all that YOU seem to be an honorable and reasonable person, I hope you might consider covering half of what I paid for the repair--$105. Failing that, I trust you will add to your reimbursement the $3 I paid for the car wash that I never got."

A few days later, my self-addressed stamped envelope comes back. There's no note inside, just a check for $63. It's drawn on the account for a service station on North Avenue near the Kennedy. Apparently Nick has yet another enterprise. On the back of the check is a legend imprinted with a rubber stamp: "The undersigned, by virtue of this endorsement, does hereby accept this draft in full settlement of his/her claims for damages pertaing [sic] to accident of..."

No way. I may have been swayed by Nick's nice-guy act, but no way I'll sign off on some half-baked contract-in-a-pocket legal jive cooked up by some lawyer pal of his who probably gets paid in TurboCredits.

I send Nick a note rejecting his offer. If I don't get a better one, I threaten to act like a real American: I'll sue. And I feel much better now that I don't feel like a sucker. I just feel like a jerk.

I feel like a bigger jerk when Nick calls back a week later wondering what the hell happened to our deal. He doesn't understand my reasoning. We retrace our steps through the entire dance to the same unsatisfactory conclusion, with neither of us willing to follow the other's lead.

The next day I'm actually considering Nick's suggestion--that I simply white out the offending legalese and cash the check--when he calls to offer an 11th-hour TurboCompromise: he'll send another check, to bring the total up to $105, but only on the condition that I sign the release on both checks. I agree, trying not to sound jubilant.

But these negotiations have worn me down. I decide to sell the big white beast to a guy named Lou from Downers Grove. While kicking the tires and eyeing the rust, Lou asks if I've "put anything new" on it. Beaming, I tell him it's got a brand-new windshield.

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