To Wash or Not to Wash

Observations of Tidy and Slobby Cohabitating

There are those who believe an automobile should be groomed and cleaned and those who view dirty as its normal state of being. A tiny but unceasing tension exists when these two opposing types are married. My husband is of the washing persuasion. Crumbs on a seat depress him, objects not battened down are both hazards and annoyances, and a windshield should be utterly unblemished. The ideal trunk, in his view, is a carpeted empty space, as anonymous as a brand-new rental car, its capacity a comforting statement of potential rather than actual use.

And because the exterior body of the vehicle should be a discernible color, a drive through the carwash is an exhilarating experience for him. “I went through the carwash,” he’ll say, with the brisk air of a person who has accomplished something. On a really good day, he will add, “I gave it a thorough vacuum.” He comes by this honestly. I have seen his 80-year-old mother with an extension cord attached to her Hoover industriously vacuuming the interior of her already immaculate Volkswagen.

In addition to it being a means of transport, I view my car as storage space: The trunk is an excellent catchall for random wardrobe alternatives (who knows what the day will bring?), empty grocery sacks, books to be donated, miscellaneous teacher paraphernalia, and all the stuff that’s too much trouble to schlep up the stairs but you might still need anyway.

Come to think of it, when I first came to California, the ’73 Buick that conveyed me was also my sole real estate, offering the only doors I could shut to enclose my damaged-in-transit self. Its trunk served as a convenient portable closet for many weeks, its interior was where I often ate (and occasionally slept), and it occurs to me now that my perception of how to use these spaces has never really changed.

I still consume many snacks and takeout meals in my car and cannot understand how anyone avoids this, and it doesn’t bother me if my upholstery smells like a chile verde burrito. To be honest, the act, or rather the state, of driving makes me hungry by definition-it’s that passive, unearned mobility, that blank and idle interval from origin to destination, which is precisely when one needs to nosh. (And apologies to any clean-car freaks, but if God didn’t want us to drink coffee in our cars, why are there cup holders?)

As for the exterior, I live on a ranch and drive on dirt roads. That brown patina of dirt is an unavoidable fact of rural life, maybe even a mark of distinction. You better step back and get a good look immediately after you’ve hosed it off in town, because by the time you reach the house, the dust has begun its recoating. Remember Sisyphus? I say, “What’s the point?” Conserve the water.

Lately, our vehicles have begun to develop an ecosystem that features some rather persistent rodents, another interesting corollary to country life. We have tried Tabasco sauce on the wiring, mousetraps, and, what has oddly proved most effective, leaving the hoods open at night so our parked cars give the appearance each morning of a pair of yawning crocodiles. “It’s counterintuitive,” explained my husband. By leaving the guts of the engine open to the air, we are denying the mice that warm and secret area for gnawing and nesting.

And this helps, although we still find little stashes that defy our quirky notices of eviction. One resourceful rodent created a particularly plush pad in my car using rainbow-colored strands of yarn I recognized from a sweater of mine that had been unraveled and reincarnated as decor. It was like an upscale condo in a neighborhood with a good deli and an all-night diner. I note, however, that my husband’s food-free car is invaded as eagerly as my dirty one. Clearly, there is no justice.

But I suppose a sense of order and cleanliness is its own reward, and it’s a choice reflected not just in our cars but in the way we maintain (or neglect) our desk surfaces, apparel, calendars, files, even bicycles. Every piece of paper that comes into the house, suggests my husband, should trigger an immediate decision-either respond to it and move it out (the ideal outcome), or respond and file it promptly in its appropriate location. His basic premise is one should know where things are-it makes life less stressful.

And he’s absolutely right. I waste an awful lot of time looking for stuff I vaguely remember as having been in my possession. All my drawers and baskets and various collection points are a chaotic jumble born of laziness, sentiment, and abstract good intentions. I even have a coupon for a free car wash somewhere, but I’ll be darned if I can remember where I put it.


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