When I was a kid in England, my favourite day of the year always seemed to take forever to arrive. No, it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas, it wasn’t Easter or the FA Cup Final, it was the last day of the school year before seven weeks of sun-soaked freedom and unsupervised juvenile bliss. The last day of school was always a half day as well, so by 2pm we were free and the feeling was fantastic. Both my parents worked full time, so on that very first afternoon of liberty I would set off with my friends in search of thrills and adventure without any rules other than, “Stay out of trouble and be home before dark”, which I interpreted as, “Don’t get caught doing whatever it is you do and make sure you sleep in the house.”
During one of those long hot summers when we were about 14, my friend John and I noticed that the local petrol station had upgraded its mechanical car wash from manual to fully automatic. Previously an operator behind a screen was required to pull the necessary levers and press the right buttons to manipulate the brushes, but now the driver simply purchased a token, drove the car into the car wash and put the token in the slot next to the driver’s window.
One day as we walked past we saw a confused woman get out of her car and look around trying to figure out how the new system worked. We helped her out and showed her where the token slot was and she gave us a small tip for our trouble. We saw an opportunity.
The inside of the car wash was not visible from the petrol station, so one of us acted as ‘Safety Officer’ (or ‘S. O.’ – complete with reflective jacket) and positioned himself next to the token slot and the other positioned himself behind the screen in front of the old manual controls to act as ‘Wash Technician’ (or ‘W. T.’). The S. O. would greet the drivers with a salute and an outstretched hand as they pulled up to the slot and they would automatically hand him the token. He would then introduce himself as the Safety Officer and ask “Sir” or “Madam” to please stand-by while he inspected the car for “loose fittings”, and then to wait for the “all clear” from him before driving away after the brushes stopped. They always agreed.
The S.O. would then walk slowly round the car doing a very careful “safety inspection”, including checking mirrors were not loose and retracting the antenna on the driver’s behalf if necessary. He would then go back to the driver’s window, tell the driver the car was “now safe” and remind him or her not to move until he gave the all clear. The S. O. would then shout, “All clear for start-up”, as loud as he could to the W. T. before inserting the token in the slot and retiring to a safe distance. Of course everything from then on was completely automatic, but the W. T. would make a big show of moving the redundant levers around and pressing the disconnected buttons while the S. O. very visibly kept a careful eye on the process.
When the machine finished, the S. O. would tap on the driver’s window and wait for him to open it. He would then tell the driver that the process was complete, everything was satisfactory and no damage had been done to the car. The secret was to smile and stop talking at this precise moment. The drivers would then invariably do one of two things; they would either reach into their pocket and offer a tip (which was always reluctantly accepted of course) or they would ask if it was safe to drive away. I am pleased to say that more than half of the drivers gave a tip and we made a lot of money that summer. In fact it was so lucrative we went back every weekend (the busiest time for a car wash) for a few weeks after we went back to school. Then some disgruntled return customers started asking the owner to explain why there was no safety officer on duty on weekdays. No what?