The Evany Thomas Column

The Happier Place on Earth, Or

How the Car Wash has supplanted Disneyland as the best fun house mirror of American Life (h2so4 11)

Fuck Disneyland. When I pinch out a litter of kids, I'm taking them to the car wash. It's cheaper, less pervy, and it lacks those disconcerting seven-eighth scale buildings (all part of Walt's plan to make you feel slightly fatter and taller than you really are—the American dream, yes, but no dream of mine). Ever since Disneyland nixed the ticket system in favor of a boring "general admittance" policy, there's even less reason to head south. At least at the car wash a fill-up earns you a magic coin or a secret code, things which capture  that "E-Ticket to paradise" excitement now missing at the former happiest place on earth.

At the car wash, once you punch in your code or "insert your coin," the ride begins. Your car is sucked onto the track, and with a rush of powerlessness, you realize that you have lost all control over the vehicle. Next comes the delicious split-second of suspense: Did you roll up ALL the windows? IS the antenna lowered? And then the onslaught of water, colorful suds, and spinning, McFry Guy brushes. While it's not quite the thrill of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, it still manages to trigger a fight-or-flight buzz.

And since Mr. Toad no longer rides (he's been banished from the Land in favor of Pooh), there's currently no real competition for the car wash. If The Car Wash People were really savvy, they'd fill the niche before Pooh gets rolling. It'd simply be a matter of throwing a few characters in there amongst the wet felt flaps. Like, "Hey, wasn't that Captain Caveman?" At the very least, they could go the edutainment route and recreate, say, your digestive system (just paint the tunnel red, throw up some giant food props, and strategically place a few "Now exiting the esophagus!" signs).

Of course, car washes are already powerful places of learning. Everybody knows that those drive-thru car washes never actually wash your car--they just redistribute the dirt more evenly. If you actually want to clean your car, you have to do it yourself. This is the perfect opportunity to teach the kids the "if you want it done right, do it yourself" lesson!--though you'll soon find as well that the only lesson the home car wash teaches is the one about how "things are never as fabulous as they seem on TV." 

When you think "home car wash," you envision a puffy clouded, bare-footed summer day in the suburbs. Your toothsome date's holding a thumb over the hose, getting your cut-offs and thin tee hella soaked (giggle!), the retriever's barking and bounding happily, and classic rock is blaring from the car's bitchin' stereo. In reality, it's an overcast day, you've got one crumbling dishwashing sponge (where do they even get those hippo-fat sponges?) and a too-short hose. You're shivering, pruney, and miserable.

Once you have the kids reeling from that distinct disappointment, they're nice and primed for one of life's most important lessons: "you get what you pay for." Just take them on over to one of those pricey hand-wash places. It may cost your kids more than a week's worth of Happy Meals, but the car winds up spotless, and they get to explore the complicated role of the voyeur. Just sit back, relax, and watch the action unfold before you (just like one of those "how dolls' heads are made" videos on Sesame Street!).

Leaving the engine running, you hop out and the vacuum team hurdles in and sucks up all the dirt at a furious, time-lapse pace. When they're done, the car heads off all on its lonesome through the drive thru, and you go to the "observation deck," a window that gives you an inside view of the car wash. Like a parent viewing a newborn, you look dotingly on as your car lurches down the track and gets sprayed and scrubbed. Finally, your car is spat out into the inviting, capable hands of another team of beaver-busy attendants, this time armed with towels and pink fluid. As they wax and buff, you sun yourself on the benches provided, sipping the "free now, pay later" coffee and chewing on discontinued candy from the gift shoppe. Finally, the last towel is snapped on your car's gleaming bumper. And then, like a bid placed at a high-end auction, they give the signal: your chariot awaits, whistle-clean and ready to lay down some scratch. 

Ah, the satisfaction of a job well done by someone else--worth it at almost any price. You see what I mean, kids?

It may not be an "Adventure Thru Inner Space" life lesson. But since Disney axed that ride in 1986, it's all we have.