Department of Bad Trips

“Madison Car Wash”

by Katie Hackmeister


Once upon a time, in the winter of 2005, I followed my dreams. I left Chicago where I had attended college and moved to Los Angeles. I imagined my success in “the business” and the professional opportunities awaiting me. I imagined the amazing people I would meet in L.A. I failed to imagine the integration of myself into the Los Angeles culture, specifically the car culture.

You have to own a car in Los Angeles. The city isn’t condensed as most major American cities. Los Angeles is spread out among many square miles and connected by a series of confusing freeways. Traveling sans car is possible but inconvenient. There are sporadically placed subways and slow-moving busses. Most importantly, bus schedules wouldn’t fit in with the rich expectations of my new life. Public transit is for people who weren’t trying to be someone or something. They were just being, for God’s sake. That wouldn’t do with my year plan of finishing school and landing a six figure job of writing for the best show on television (at the time, Arrested Development). Before I even had an apartment, I signed a two year lease for a 2005 Saturn Ion. Losers take the bus; winners drive a plastic car.

I loathe car maintenance. To be fair to cars, I loathed maintenance of any material possession at that time in my life. Quite simply, I believed I had no time. My lofty aspirations were being crushed by reality. I worked as an intern for forty hours a week and on the weekends, I served tourists giant bowls of pasta in the Grove. I was broke. What little money I did have was being spent on pitchers of PBR in Farmer’s Market and gin at Bergins. I was 22. The reality of the situation, that television writing was incredibly hard to break into, was breaking my spirit and I was crushed by what I thought were unattainable goals. Fuck oil changes. I spent my free-time drinking and writing while drinking. There was no time for detailing and not removing the spilled oatmeal in my trunk. I was either too drunk or too hung over to deal with day to day maintenance on my apartment or my little black sedan.

This affected my relationships with people. Not my defeatist attitude; I peppered that up with black humor and a dogged determination. I drove that Saturn to dozens of interviews all around the Los Angeles area. I was offered most of the jobs and most of them I turned down. I decided that working in an office atmosphere would lead me astray from my passion for writing — especially since they offered little to no pay. I made these decisions in my car, as the dirt and debris piled up on and around me. Sometimes, I would just drive to drive. Drive and think. I would drive to Santa Monica during the day to stare at the ocean and think about the endless possibilities that life offers. I would drive to Mulholland Drive at night to look at the city and wonder what set me apart from the teeming masses that were trying to accomplish what I was attempting to do — to “make it”. I would careen around corners on Canyon Drive day or night whenever that task seemed insurmountable. That filthy little car helped me make a lot of decisions and I paid it back by not taking care of it. People are judged by their appearances, especially in Los Angeles. But I didn’t give a fuck.

One day, my friend Timere came into work and she was delighted.  Jubilantly, Timere informed a few others and me that she spotted coupons to her favorite car wash on the windshields on parked cars. I found this confusing. I didn’t understand how someone could have a carwash, let alone a favorite carwash. But Timere happily removed them from windshields for herself.  It was like she won the lottery. Although, if a car was especially dirty, she left the coupon since she figured they needed it most. Later that night, I offered to give Timere a ride.

As Timere and I rode the elevator of the parking garage, I realized I had forgotten what floor I was on. Muttering floor numbers to myself, I lead an unsuspecting Timere to my ride. Finally, I found it. I accomplished this by pressing the alarm button on my keychain repeatedly. Following the honking horn and blinking headlights, I claimed success.

“You have a nice car, Katie,” she said as I unlocked the door

“Really?” I replied. I opened the door and heard a soft suction sound. A sticky film covered the entire exterior. That’s what happens to months of grime baking in the Southern California sunlight. Various plant life, dust and dirt covered my black car making the finish appear gun-metal gray.

Timere opened her door. A sound resembling a sticker being peeled from a piece of paper echoed through the garage. Timere politely ignored this. My car was that weird kid in grade school that everyone teased but his few friends politely ignored his peculiarities. I jumped into the driver’s seat. The shocks shook underneath the force of my body weight. Timere cautiously stepped into the passenger seat. Empty packs of cigarettes were crushed beneath her feet. She eased into the seat carefully.

“This is a lease so I gotta make sure I take care of it,” I told her, smoldering cigarette in hand. I ashed on the dashboard. Then I accidentally jammed my lit cigarette into the ceiling, exactly  into the same place I had always accidentally jammed my lit cigarette into the ceiling. I started the car and music blared out of the speaker, threatening to blow them. I launched my purse into the backseat, where it landed safely on torn maps and various papers yellowed by the sun. I peered myopically through the windshield.  The odd film that coated the entire surface made the slightly concave windshield horribly convex. I flipped on the windshield wipers. As always, that decision made the windshield situation worse. The screeching of the wipers battled with the too loud music to be the most annoying sound in the car. I fiddled with the radio and began searching through a pile of scratched CDs. Meanwhile, Timere quietly looked around the inside of the car.

Satisfied, I popped a CD into the stereo and threw the car in reverse, barely looking back to see if there was anyone or anything behind me, like a runaway baby carriage. Tourists scattered like roaches. Scarcely missing a parked car behind me, I threw the car into drive and took off.  Timere’s neck slightly snapped back from the abrupt change in direction.

Timere searched through her bag as I squealed down the parking structure, bottoming out at each floor. The undercarriage of the car scrapped loudly against the concrete floor. Level 6 — scrap! Level 5 — scrap! Level 4 — scrap!  Ashes from my cigarette swirled around like a small yet organized tornado. Level 3 — scrap! Level 2 — scrap! I rambled on about work until I saw Timere’s outstretched hand.

“Here,” she said, looking grimly forward. A small yellow card that said MADISON CAR WASH lay in her palm. “If you don’t wash your car tomorrow, Katie, we’re no longer friends.” Level 1 — scrap.

A few days later, I nervously pulled into Madison Car Wash. I hadn’t been inside a car wash since I was a child. I grew up in Missouri. My grandfather driving us through the car wash at the Mobile station was the highlight of a weekend. Those were the perks of being a kid. Not having to worry about the next step in life. You enjoyed life. You enjoyed just being.

I had asked and received specific instructions from Timere on how car washes work. This informative pow-wow took place as customers frantically tried to wave us down for extra marinara sauce and Diet Coke refills. They did not realize the importance of the discussion. Diagrams were created on cocktail napkins. She laid it out to me step by step, like I was preparing for a big interview. I was prepared and anxious. I believe the best way to relate what happened next should be in true Los Angeles form. I give you:

Katie vs. Madison Car Wash: A Short Film


Katie, early twenties, confused

2005 Saturn Ion, filthy

Car Wash Employee, mid twenties, tired

8 Year Old Katie, innocent

Pop, early seventies, grandfatherly

Gaggle of Shammy Men, just being



KATIE and 2005 SATURN ION sit outside of a car wash. CAR WASH EMPLOYEE enters. He approaches the driver side window and smiles politely. Katie lowers her window.

Katie: Hi!

Car Wash Employee: Hi!

Katie: Here you go.

Katie hands him cash and the coupon.

Car Wash Employee: Thanks.

Car Wash Employee looks and sees 2005 Saturn Ion. He is stunned. A sharp intake of breath gives away his fears.

Car Wash Employee: Wow…your car is really dirty. Really. Dirty.

Katie: Yeah.

Katie chews on her hair.

Katie (Cont’d): I’m lazy.

Car Wash Employee: I can see. This may take more than the $5 wash.

Katie: Whatever.

Katie raises her window. She spits out her hair and abrasively pulls forward to the car wash. Above her, a sign reads, PUT CAR IN NEUTRAL. TAKE FOOT OFF BRAKE. Katie breaks into a cold sweat. She begins to inch forward, brake, inch forward, brake, inch, brake, inch, brake, inch, brake, inch, brake, until Car Wash Employee knocks on her window. She lowers her window.

Katie: Yes?

Car Wash Employee: (exasperated) Pull up.

Katie: Oh. Okay. This good?

Car Wash Employee: No. Farther.

Katie: How about now?

Car Wash Employee: Little bit more.

Katie: And now?

Car Wash Employee: (resigned) Perfect. Put the car in neutral.

Car Wash Employee points at clearly written directions on giant sign: PUT CAR IN NEUTRAL.  Katie looks up and smiles.

Katie: (smug) It is.

Katie raises her window as she stares straight ahead, smiling. Car Wash Employee taps on window. Katie raises an eyebrow and lowers her window.

Katie: Yes?

Car Wash Employee: Your foot is on the brake.

Car Wash Employee points at second half of clearly written directions on giant sign: TAKE FOOT OFF BRAKE. Katie stops smiling.

Katie: (humbled) Oh. Sorry.

Car Wash Employee: Yeah.

Katie rolls up her window. Car Wash Employee exits.


Katie and 2005 Saturn Ion are suddenly pulled forward. The doors of the car wash close around them, cutting out the daylight. Powerful water jets spray 2005 Saturn Ion. The sound is deafening. Katie softly whimpers. Suddenly, soap and giant brushes appear, scrubbing the car fiercely. Katie, safely contained inside, gasps.



8 YEAR OLD KATIE and her grandfather, POP, are seated in the front seat. Giant brushes scrub the 1983 Lincoln Continental Towncar. 8 Year Old Katie claps.

8 YEAR OLD KATIE: (smiling) Wheee!


Katie and 2005 Saturn Ion are in the final stage of the car wash. Katie grips the steering wheel, bracing for what’s next. Powerful blowers blast on, drying our heroes at an incredible rate. Katie jumps.



Katie and 2005 Saturn Ion are pulled out into the sunlight. Katie sighs relief. Suddenly, a GAGGLE OF SHAMMY MEN enters. They rub 2005 Saturn ION to a West Coast shine. 2005 Saturn Ion purrs contentedly. Katie is soothed by their efficiency and soft cloths. 2005 Saturn ION has never looked better. Car Wash Employee taps on the window again. Katie lowers the window.

KATIE: (exhales) Thanks! I thought that was never going to end- what’s this?

Car Wash Employee hands Katie a small piece of paper. Without a word, he exits. Katie looks at her hand. A small yellow MADISON CAR WASH coupon rests in her palm.


After a year and a half in Los Angeles, I moved back to Chicago. I take the bus. And I like just being.

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