So these girls set out to raise money washing cars in the parking lot of a gas station. And they're out there on Saturdays with their towels and their buckets and everything goes good. Then some columnist at The News & Observer finds out the girls are wearing bathing suits, and not just bathing suits but bikinis, and not at some backroads filling station, but at the Citgo Fiddlestix multi-pump food mart complex right there on U.S. 64, past which maybe half the population of Raleigh drives every day. The columnist jumps on this like a duck on a June bug and writes a piece about how these girls are two pasties shy of a job at the local strip joint.
And these girls are like ohmygod.
Which I know because I'm out there on a Saturday morning in early August, watching the last car wash of the summer. There are four girls working, and they're all 17 years old, and their names are Lindsay, Andrea, Kristy and Tracy, except "Kristy" and "Tracy" asked me not to use their real names, and it's important to pronounce Andrea Continental-style, with accents on the first and second syllable.
Lindsay and Andrea are wearing blue-print bikinis with string-ties around the neck and scant bottoms. Tracy and Kristy wear bikini tops and short-shorts. Tracy's top is a pinkish-salmony color; Kristy's is tank-toppish with a dark pattern. They all wear pony-tails and flip-flops and have good tans and pretty highlights in their hair. There are no thongs or macrame tops, and everybody's bikini line is neat and tidy. They're raising money to go to Cancun after graduation next year; in three car washes, they've made close to $1,800.
Some of the girls' mamas are out there, too. There's Gloria and Donna and Sandra, except "Sandra" asked me not to use her real name. And there's one pseudonymous daddy, "Roy." And we're all--the grown-ups-- hanging out in this patch of monkey grass between the store and the parking lot where the girls are working.
We all have to kind of yell at each over the roar of U.S. 64, where traffic is notoriously brutal even on a Saturday morning, what with it being a major artery between downtown Raleigh and all points east. The car wash elicits a cheerful salute of horns and whoops from eastbound traffic, but the resultant onlooker delays are negligible. The real impact, spectator-wise, is on business at the Citgo. Even here it's nothing unmanageable, just a certain bunching up in the pump lines and a sense that customers who've paid for their gas and their pecan Danish and their coffee are taking more than the requisite time leaving the parking lot. There's one poignant moment when these three guys are standing around a brand-new gleaming-white F150 Triton V-8 Ford pickup that's been jacked up about 10 feet off the pavement and fitted out with monster tires. And two of the guys are like, get it washed, man, and the owner just shakes his head sadly and says he just had it washed and the other two guys shake their heads too. Because in this world there's girls in bikinis and there's virgin paint jobs, and life isn't fair.
So anyway, me and the parents are sitting on milk crates in the monkey grass, and it's only 10:45 in the morning and gray and muggy, but with that sort of silvery glare in the sky that lets you know when the clouds burn off, it's going to be hotter than a tick's tin lunch box. But that's nothing compared to the heat these mamas and daddies have felt ever since The N&O column ran saying their daughters were out there "trading on their T&A," and it was a sorry set of parents to let it happen.
We sit and talk. The line for the car wash is heavily infiltrated with friends. Sometimes customers from the Citgo will walk up and say how much they admire and support the girls and how certain people at certain newspapers sure knew how to spoil things. The parents keep pointing out that nobody from the paper ever came out and saw what was going on. I ask them, was it true what they wrote about that guy who offered the girls $100 to spit-shine his chrome? "No-oooh," says Donna. "You know what that was? That was this guy with a big work truck, one of those Snap-On trucks, and it was a lot of work and he gave a big donation. Nobody spit-shined anything. That lady made that up!" And then, in this voice that's quiet and grim and a shade conspiratorial: "She's a feminist."
Donna wears large dark sunglasses behind which she looks a little tired of the whole thing. Donna is quoted in The N&O saying she admired the girls for working hard. Which, she tells me, is all they're doing, and they're good girls and sweet and smart. Besides which, every car wash has been chaperoned, and there has been not one minute of monkey business.
And you believe it, too, because Roy is keeping an eagle eye out for low life, and when this one guy in a van tries to take pictures out his tinted windows, Roy shoos him off and won't even take a donation. Roy looks like one of the prison guards in Cool Hand Luke. And when Andrea's suit rides up her bottom, one of the mamas hollers at her to pull her britches down.
"People say these girls are selling sex but they're not," Donna says. "They're wearing bathing suits, but they're not selling their bodies. You see more than this in Victoria's Secret."
So here we are on a hot morning in a parking lot between Raleigh and Knightdale. We're here, not to push the point too hard, between gender angst and the undiluted appeal of the female body. It is a place of many truths. It's true there's no monkey business at the car wash, but it's also true that more than one customer takes snapshots out their passenger window and that, Roy or no Roy, there is a certain amount of clandestine ogling. It's true that everyone in line is polite, but it's also true that, in the three hours I'm there, I'm the only female customer. It's true that this is good clean fun; it's also true that the erotic appeal of the car wash is well-chronicled in 20th-century American culture. It's true these girls are not selling sex; it's also true that they are using sex to sell their car wash, the same way sex sells soft drinks and electric razors and breath mints and every last pair of wrinkle-free cotton-crotch panties advertised in Hecht's full-page, half-price ads in The N&O.
Myself--at 17--I would sooner've drowned myself in Crabtree Creek than put on a bikini and stand around next to a highway. Not because it would've been sleazy--kids at my high school threw car washes in their bathing suits all the time--but because I was such a string-bean that walking across the high school parking lot in jeans and a sweatshirt was like being dipped in acid.
Still, sitting here now, watching these girls smack each other with wet sponges and toss their heads when someone out on the highway honks--sitting here now I think how even for the geekiest of us, it was a time of testing things out. It's like you're just this side of grown-up, and you've got your whole self yet to figure out, so you try things. And you've got these parents and teachers and relatives whose job it is to rein you in and who make endless predictions about your future as a human being, but at least when you mess up they maintain a certain faith in you. Give you the benefit of the doubt.
Then along comes this woman from the newspaper who doesn't know the first thing about you, who never so much as met you, and she as much as says you're trash. She says your mama's trash.
It's enough to raise a little wave of righteous indignation, and the girls ride it. All morning long, they wash cars with an extra spring in their flip-flops. They call The N&O columnist "that lady," as in How can that lady come to all those conclusions when she's never talked to me or anything?; or What that lady needs to know is I go to church and I have a high GPA; or That lady made it sound like we were sluts.
In the end, though, indignation gives way to hilarity. The day is warm and the donation jar is filling up and senior year's getting ready to start. And next year, there's graduation and the trip to Cancun and college. Some guys from school pull up to get their car washed, and they all talk and joke around and gossip. "Hey!" one of the girls hollers with a big grin, "did ya'll know I was gonna be a stripper when I grow up?", or "I bet you never even knew what a bad girl I was!"
Inside the Citgo office, there's an anonymous message from some woman saying how she and her whole church are going to boycott the Citgo Fiddlestix if they let these pornographic car washes go on. The woman says she doesn't mean to be ugly, but people are driving by with children in their car. She says her son has driven by, and he says the girls are layin' all over the cars and their bodies are wet and their bottoms are up in the air.
Back outside, I tell one of the customers about the message and he clucks his tongue. "I've known most of those girls all their lives," he says. "Their bottoms are right where they've always been."