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The World of the East End Car Wash

February 21, 2011
by the gentle author

Mohaimenul Islam, Car Washer

Car washes come and go in the East End, opening up in vacant railway arches or disused petrol stations, enjoying a brief flowering and then vanishing as unexpectedly as they appeared. When Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie and I drove around in her (unwashed) car last week, we found several favourites had gone whilst others had sprung up overnight. Yet within the mutable world of the car washes, business goes on relentlessly, because as quickly as vehicles are cleaned, the traffic and the weather and the mud restore the necessity for it to be done all over again. Teams of men work ceaselessly in shifts, twenty-four hours a day, at a job that requires astounding stamina and patience.

Let me admit, it gives me the shivers just to imagine the lot of a car washer, working outside through the damp and cold of a London Winter, so I was humbled by the goodwill that I encountered from these men, demonstrating resilience and tenacity in circumstances that few would envy. Arriving at T2 Car Wash under the railway arches at the Western extremity of Cable St, beneath the main line coming out of Fenchurch St Station, the car washers welcomed me into their cosy cubby hole off the main working area, a den where they enjoyed a bowl of porridge and watched satellite TV, toasting their toes by the heater during a rare break from the everlasting parade of taxis which pass through here night and day.

Yet once a vehicle pulled up, they were all over it with a preternatural dexterity and speed. Working in concert, they were spraying shampoo, mopping it with sponges – one in each hand – then rinsing it down and polishing it up with chamois leathers – again one  in each hand – until the customer received his charge back, gleaming and spotless. And then the car washers moved on to the next in line with undiminished enthusiasm. While one team attended to the exterior, others were hoovering and cleaning out the interior, and everyone worked round each other – like some elaborate dance in which the moves kept shifting as everyone accommodated to everyone else in the constant imperative to keep things moving. These men are expert at what they do and show grace, in demonstrating the warmth of mutual respect, and excelling in an endeavour which to others might be of little consequence.

All this spectacle takes place within a whitewashed arch lit by fluorescents, open to daylight at either end, where, in a glacial mist, every surface glistens with damp and the floor is awash with water and soap suds draining away through culverts. For the most part these men do not wear gloves, even working with wet sponges and wringing them out in cold water, but when I asked “Don’t you get cold?” – the answer was automatic – “We don’t feel the cold when we’re working, and when we’re not working we’re in by the heater.”

In each car wash, I sought human details – the Christmas baubles, or the plastic birds, or the bunting, or the odd chairs scattered around, or the newspaper cuttings stuck to the wall, indicating that the employees had taken possession of their space. Be aware, the car wash is an arena we entered as guests, because the car washers are rulers of their soapy domain and customers must understand the decorum and necessity which requires a retreat to the waiting room, or to use the facilities, or to stand outside, at a respectful distance from the centre of activity.

Alone in the den at the T2 Car Wash, a room excavated into the thickness of the old brick vault, where I was privileged to hover and warm myself, I realised that I had found the inner sanctum in which the car washers came to regroup, sitting upon the worn couch and old office chairs, wiling away the long dark nights and bolstering each other’s resolve to make it through another Winter. In the face of this arduous repetitive work, a group of Ghanaians and Romanians have banded together to make the best of it under an arch in Cable St.

You might say that washing cars is a pointless activity since the vehicles get dirty again at once, yet, as with many human occupations, the nobility lies not in the nature of the task or even in the reward, but in the manner of its execution. And there on the wall in the den, I saw the medal for car washing, awarded to the team for the ever-growing number of customers each month, objective evidence – if it were ever necessary – of the otherwise unacknowledged heroism of the proud car washers of the East End.


The den.

Rosoi Lucian

Working without gloves in February.

Kofi shows off the customer facilities.

Car washers never cease work, twenty-four hours a day.

Albani Cletesteanu

The champion car washers of Cable St.

Wet boots and socks.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

3 Responses leave one →
  1. betsy permalink
    February 21, 2011

    I am ever admiring of those who work so hard in this country, not claiming benefits, out there doing something, not any very English names, setting the best example. Thanks, guys!!!

  2. February 21, 2011

    Congratulations on doing such justice to one of the many overlooked corners of London life, and the people we so often just don’t think about.

    I just wonder – who does the cleaning at home?

  3. Trisha permalink
    February 22, 2011

    A delightful peep into a world we know is there but seldom stop long enough to appreciate the hard work and tenacity of the work involved. Excellent!!

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