Working at the Car Wash
Clean Cars and Clean Lives
By Matt Dibble
On a Saturday morning, in the part of downtown known as Old Oakland, the all-American ritual of the car wash fundraiser is just getting under way. But today, instead of giggling high school girls and football jocks wielding hoses and suds, there is John, in recovery from a 30-year heroin habit, and Joe, with handgun tattoos adorning his forearms. A large man with shoulder-length dark curls and a promotional sign is standing in the intersection of Washington and Eighth streets yelling “car wash!” and bantering with passing drivers. Though business has been slow so far, he is confident they will reach their goal: a trip to Great America in the South Bay.
The men are residents of CityTeam Ministries, a recovery program housed at 722 Washington St., a building that has served as a ministry since 1897. The Peniel Mission, as it was once known, was home to Christian women who trolled the nearby docks looking for godless sailors to save. Today, the program’s staff includes 16 recovering addicts and alcoholics, and it provides beds and meals for an additional 65 homeless men each night. CityTeam, which is completely funded through private donations, also offers free monthlong recovery programs to as many as 10 men at a time.
Cheers erupt as the first car—a silver Lexus—pulls up to the curb for its bath. Within seconds, buckets and hoses are deployed. The CityTeam wash is very thorough, with two or three men to a car. Team member Levi is crouching down, carefully scrubbing each spot of grime with a washcloth. Nearby stands John, an imposing figure in a buzzcut and tats, who normally pulls security detail at the mission. Today he handles the hose like a fireman, though several times it “slips” and the spray hits Levi. “Oops! That was a total mistake.” Another team member is having some fun with a customer, peering through the windshield and brandishing the spray nozzle like a gun.
Before long cars are lining up, and the team kicks it into high gear. As two customers relax in folding chairs in the sidewalk “waiting area” a team member offers them a selection of reading material. Shouts of “another satisfied customer!” are the cue for Joe to come by and collect money. Sporting a Hawaiian fish-print shirt and flip-flops, Joe has the look of a Jimmy Buffet-type who has seen the seamier side of Margaritaville. Originally from Pismo Beach, Joe once worked in the yacht business. “My problem was cocaine. Down there, you had to know someone—but when I came up here, they were selling it on the street corner. It was just too easy.”
Doug Higham, the CityTeam program director, is sipping coffee and observing the scene with amusement. “The guys take this very seriously. They enjoy the responsibility.” Bald and goateed with his eyes masked by badass shades, he still looks the part of the gangbanger he once was. Glancing at his watch he says with pride, “In one week, it’ll be my four-year anniversary of being clean.” Doug is also proud of being the first program director to have graduated from the program. “I dropped out of high school in ninth grade, but I got my Ph.D. in addiction. Isn’t it a trip that all that experience can now be used to help other people?” He hit rock bottom after his wife threw him out of their four-bedroom house. Though not from a religious background (“Obi-Wan Kenobi was my higher power.”), it was the bible that finally turned his life around. Clearly respected by his staff, Doug has become a strong role model.
“This is not easy. It’s a lot easier to be the warrior and the badass than to show kindness and love.”
A road trip for the group, including food, entrance fees and transportation, costs about $1,200. Last spring, the washers successfully raised enough for a trip to Six Flags. By noon, with a line of dusty vehicles still stretching down the block, the team appears to be well on its way to the goal, as the satisfied customers roll off into the Oakland sunshine.
Visit www.cityteam.org/oakland to learn more about CityTeam or to make a donation to the program.