How an “imaginary white boss” made my suburban detailing shop a success
I’ve told you how my family was known for having clean cars back when I was a kid in Cleveland. My father handed this obsession down to me before I made it into my teens. I could make scratches disappear, clean an engine top to bottom without getting anything electrical wet, put a mirror finish into aluminum parts and make the chrome ones dazzle you. So when I got out of high school and didn’t like the jobs that were out there for a young Black man without a college degree, it seemed obvious that I’d try my hand at doing it for a living.
My parents came up with a little bit of money, and I mean a little bit, to get me started. We’d moved to Columbus, Ohio by then, and they thought I should rent a little warehouse unit on the East Side to do my thing. Objectively it made sense because those were my people over there. I knew the cars, knew the expectations. But something about that sat wrong with me.
It might have been the cars involved. I drove a Rabbit GTI, my mom had a 944, my uncle had a 911 Targa that he was about to chop in on a slantnose Andial 930. We were German-car fanatics. And we were alone. Try to find German cars on the East Side of Columbus in 1984 — and let’s not even bother to consider the old Audi 100LS at the buy-here-pay-here lot with rust so bad you could see into the trunk as it drove by. Nah, I had to go to the suburbs if I was going to detail the cars of my dreams.
In particular, I had to go to Powell, Ohio. It wasn’t the most distinguished ‘burb in Columbus — that would have been Bexley if you were Jewish, Upper Arlington if you weren’t. And it wasn’t the rich new-money place either. That was Dublin, home of the newly-created PGA Memorial Tournament. But Powell had the iron, if you know what I mean. People with generational money and pole barns full of exotics. And it had a funky little downtown with a few warehouse units for rent. I had enough money for the first and last month. Starting on Day One I needed to be earning.
There was just one little problem. Say you own a new Ferrari 308 or Benz 500SEL. You paid real money for it, and it’s real important to you. Would you let some Black teenager come get it from your house and just… hold onto it for a couple of days? Just to clean it up a bit? Forget what you told your friends at work or at a party about being open-minded and color-blind. The stakes are high here. If you had the choice between having some local white kid do it, or having me do it, all six-two and 200 pounds of me… it’s Ray Parker, Jr’s question from “Ghostbusters”. Who you gonna call?
I knew I needed an answer to that question before I could make a single dollar in Powell. But I had an idea. Now, my name is Douglas. You see that right on top of the page here. But when I put the sign out in front of my shop, it said Andy’s Auto Detailing. And the shirts I wore all said the same thing.
Who was Andy? He didn’t exist. But I’d imagined who he was. White dude, forty something years old. Very conscientious. Was into social causes, so he’d hire a young Black fellow to help out. Maybe show him the ropes. But of course he wasn’t gonna go get every car. He’d have his boy do it.
That was me. I was the boy.
How’d I come up with “Andy”? It sounded about as white as you could get without making it “Thurston Howell III”. And it came first in the Yellow Pages. Kids, that was important back then.
Having grown up in Shaker Heights, I knew how to sound “white” when I needed to. So I started calling dealerships and offering them discounted detailing for showroom cars. “Got this kid, Douglas. You’ll like him. I’ll send him over.” Worked with the new-car shops and the secondhand Porsche retailers. Put in a lot of 80 hour weeks. Sometimes more. And I put the Corvettes and Ferraris out front of the shop, so people could see them.
Quiet is kept, I didn’t make my rent the first few months. But the man who owned the units saw the hours I was putting in, and he agreed to take whatever I had until I could pay him everything I owed. Which happened pretty soon after.
If you love cars, then you can imagine how I loved that job. How I loved leaving my little Rabbit in the driveways of million-dollar homes while I drove the 911s and 308s and 560SLs to my shop. It was like having a new car every day of the week. I didn’t misuse the trust of my clients. I had friends who wanted to use the cars, or who wanted to be taken out in the cars. Girlfriends, too. But I was a businessman and I took it seriously.
From time to time I’d have a problem with a customer. Something that was beyond cleaning, or maybe a ding in a door that their kid put there but which went unnoticed by them until after I returned their car. So when that happened I’d put on my “Andy” voice, call them up, and plead my case for myself using my alter ego.
“Douglas is a good kid. He means well. Let him make it right for you. I’ll take it out of his pay.” This notion, of two respectable Powell residents working together to sort out some unruly young brother… it never failed to satisfy the client. I didn’t always feel good about that, or about the people who needed to hear it. But then sometimes they’d give me a serious tip when I came to get the car back from them. You have to account for people being fundamentally decent, even when they’re a little set in their ways.
Sometimes people would stop by and ask to see Andy, so they could talk about cars with him. I had to explain that Andy wasn’t there, or that he was out with his kids, or that he was sick. If anybody suspected what was going on, they didn’t mention it to me. I had a pretty good thing going.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be forever. By 1989, the McMansions were sprouting up in Powell. The old guard was selling out, moving north into the country. The people who were replacing them didn’t have a lot of nice cars, because they were house-poor. Or if they had nice cars, they didn’t want someone else to clean them. Worse than that, however, was the fact that downtown Powell was suddenly a bit too valuable of place to have a bunch of warehouse units. My landlord told me he was going to sell out. A strip mall would replace his old steel building.
Truth be told, I was ready to hang it up myself. I had a girl who went to college two hours away, and I wanted to be closer to her. And while “Andy’s” kept me busy, it wasn’t making me rich. Not by a long shot. So I called all my customers and told them that I was out of the game. “If you really need something, call Douglas direct,” I told them. “It’s been a real pleasure serving the community.”
This won’t make any sense to anyone who never lived a lie for years at a time, but there are times I see Andy in my dreams. He hasn’t aged; to my tired fifty-six-year-old eyes he now seems young and vigorous, rather than old and respectable. He asks where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing. I tell him about the years of selling cars, the hard times, being sick. Losing family members and friends. Going hungry sometimes. It doesn’t cloud his countenance much. He tells me he that he has the answer to all of that. Says that we should bring the shop back. And since he’s not real, since he never left my imagination to see how the world has changed, I don’t have the heart to tell him that I wouldn’t need him any more. Or maybe I don’t have the heart to admit to myself that I still would.