Tony Fitzpatrick: The Car Wash Arias, 1979

A-Convocation-of-Scavengers-(The-Locust-Lunch-Drawing-#29)_Detail A Convocation of Scavengers (The Locust Lunch Drawing #29) Detail © Tony Fitzpatrick

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “The Mysteries of Rush Street; Winks, Nods, and the Grimy Business of Dreams,” by Tony Fitzpatrick, due late 2018. We’re thrilled to present his work, and eagerly await the publication of the complete set.

When I was a teenager I worked briefly at a car wash, and it was hard work; when it was busy, it was ass-breaking work. I worked with a lot of black guys who were old pros at this. These guys were quick and perfect and earned the lion’s share of the tips, wiping down a car in about 90 seconds after it went through the rollers and the drapes. A couple of them were musicians—
one of them wound up in Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials. The other guys were career hustlers
who had more than one job, and these guys loved automobiles.

Very often when an Electra 225 came through—or in their parlance, “a Deuce and a Quarter”—they’d swoon. A Deuce and a Quarter WAS the shit. Or a Coupe De Ville. One guy, C.T. as he went by, told me, “Tony, there is three French words every man of color knows, young brother— ‘Coupe de Ville’”. . . and he would crack up laughing.

“Tony, there is three French words every man of color knows, young brother— ‘Coupe de Ville’”

A Convocation of Scavengers (The Locust Lunch Drawing #29) © Tony Fitzpatrick

C.T. was an older guy with a phenomenal singing voice and a ferocious alcohol problem. Of course, at the time, so did I. He worked days at the car wash and nights at a restaurant on Rush Street, where he washed dishes and sometimes parked cars. He hated the way the Italian guys would throw their keys at him, barely noticing him, and hours later hand him a soggy dollar bill after he’d retrieved their Monte Carlo or El Dorado or some other Guinea sled. They’d stand around with their shirts open to their navels, shooting their cuffs. They reminded C.T. of nothing so much as big, oily bugs, like locusts. With their tinted aviator shades and shiny silk shirts? That’s what they looked like, he smiled. Big shiny bugs.

C.T. liked the car wash better. People saw him. He wasn’t invisible. People heard him, too. He would sing a capella over the sounds of the rollers in an angelic falsetto—Sam Cooke, 
Jackie Wilson—his rendering of “Lonely Teardrops” could make you cry.

He’d also sing Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye songs, and one time he sang a Crystal Gayle song that in his voice was so lovely, you forgot it was middle-of-the-road country music: “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue. . . .”

We all tried to figure out what the hell he liked about that song, and he would tell us he liked the way the song was “built.” I still don’t know what that really means. I’ve always thought that because he sang it about an octave higher in pitch, it was a tune that rewarded someone with a pitch-perfect upper register, like he had.

Most of the time C.T. was a joy to be around. On occasion, he’d get lit at lunch. One too many shots of 151 and the clouds would roll in. C.T. was from New Orleans; he’d fled from there years ago behind some trouble that he never really elaborated on. My hillbilly friend Billy Hewitt warned me against bringing up the subject, saying, “Don’t put C.T. in the mind of any bad memories, Hoss; when he gets sad and gets his drink on. . . .” Billy just shook his head, adding, “C.T. don’t play.”

“C.T. don’t play.”

C.T. just knew he could not return to New Orleans. From time to time he’d let everyone know that as a young man he’d stacked some time at Angola prison—especially me and Billy Hewitt.
And that while he was there he’d gone to barber school, and he’d whip out his straight razor and turn its ugly, lean blade so that the light could show you the perfect white line of sharpness on its edge. He would get this low voice on and say, “Hang around my house, Jim . . . you’re gonna get a shave—closest one you ever had.”

Even the young guys avoided C.T. when he was in his cups. They told me it was not uncommon for black men of C.T.’s generation to carry a razor. This way if the cops picked him up he could say he was a barber. They told me they themselves carried box cutters and other work tools like razors.

Naively, I asked “What for?” and Ray, a younger guy, said, “For people who look like you, my man. Not all of you is so friendly. . . .” 

With that the guys laughed, and I realized something: In Lombard and Villa Park—pretty much lily-white suburbs then—these guys were afraid of us.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Every once in a while one of the guys would get a DWB—a “Driving While Black” ticket. It was never for speeding; all of these guys lived on the South Side and knew the tender mercies of DuPage County cops all too well. The tickets were always for chicken-shit stuff like an expired tag or a busted tail light. Stuff white motorists would have skated by on with a warning at best.

It opened my eyes a lot, and it explained the deep rage of C.T. after he’d had a few belts.

It opened my eyes a lot, and it explained the deep rage of C.T. after he’d had a few belts.

Still, he was mostly good company; a funny guy with lots of stories about New Orleans, stories about being in a band that played out at the racetrack, which back in the early ’60s was a very prestigious gig.

He told me he once opened for Earl King—and had the temerity to end his set with “Trick Bag,” Mr. King’s signature hit. “It was a fool thing,” C.T. recalled, “but Earl glared at me and I smiled and winked at him, and he just busted up laughin’, shakin’ his head. He told me, “’Son, it amazes me that you still on this side of the dirt!’”

C.T. was the one who made me curious about New Orleans. I, even then, thought it was a magical place—like the inside of a snow globe. And even though I’d never been there, I could see it in my head, hear it in my Dad’s Louie Armstrong, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt records.

On Fridays, the musician guys would change into their stage clothes before driving back to the city. This was always the best day to avoid C.T. He’d take swigs of his Hennessy that looked like bites, and glower at them in their wide bells and platform shoes and silky Nik Nik shirts. He’d mutter that they looked like sissies . . . and then it would get quiet. Ray would walk over and ask him, “You got something to say, old man?” and C.T. stared right back with the thousand-yard stare and his voice would go up in pitch: “You lookin’ for a shave, . . . son?”

I wanted to be anywhere else in the world right then; it felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the room.

Ray’s eyelid would tremble and he’d say, “Knock it off, C.T.; . . . you scarin’ the white boy!” and then they would fall out laughing.


More than once they got me with this act, but at times, after drinking lunch, C.T. was genuinely scary. One time a young Italian asshole tossed the keys to his Benz to C.T. and called him “Smokey,” as in “I want it waxed, too, Smokey; . . . Simonized.”

C.T. proceeded to carve up the guy’s back seat with cuts so fine the guy didn’t notice them until the next day. The following day he came back, and the dealership next door had to find him new leather upholstery. He came over to us and said, “I left my car outside Giannotti’s and some prick slashed my backseat; can you believe that shit?”

C.T. said, “It could have been worse. . . .”

The guy got pissed. “What the fuck are you talking about? This is going to cost 500 bucks, you fuck!”

C.T. snapped right back: “They could have set it on fire . . . burned the whole car; you know what I mean, Jim? Least-a-ways now you don’t have to deal with all that . . . smoke.”

For a moment they locked eyes, and they both nodded.

Just long enough for both of them to know.

© Tony Fitzpatrick, 2017

Tony Fitzpatrick

Tony Fitzpatrick was born in Chicago in 1958, He is still there. Check out his website for artwork, events, podcasts and more.