Working at the Car Wash

Photo Essay by Thomas Hyde

Before the Museum of Glass there was the Pink Elephant.

In 1951, when timber and fish ruled the Puget Sound economy, the Elephant Car Wash opened on Fourth Avenue. It was Seattle’s first “automatic” car wash. A second location opened on Battery Street in 1956. Today there are nine locations in the region; they are among the last remaining full-service car washes around.

The famous rotating sign at Battery and Denny with its 380 flashing light bulbs and seventy neon tubes is a beloved and enduring kitsch monument, as uniquely Seattle, the old Seattle, as the Space Needle itself.

But the iconic nature of the Elephant Car Washes is rooted in more than just the sign. The pink elephants flying over these establishments mark vibrant melting pots, nexuses of diversity in the workplace that are generally harder to find in the Northwest than in other parts of the country.

In my days hanging out and photographing at Elephant Car Washes in Tacoma, Seattle and Bellevue, I met many wonderful people, employees and customers alike. If you believe that there is unspoken mutual respect among Northwesterners, you will find proof of it here: the one-time Mexico City football star and his son; the boys from Ghana; the man everyone simply calls “Peru”; the guy who worked the cleanup of Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill; the Russian limo drivers; and the couple who met working at the car wash and were married last month — all are compelling actors, hitting their marks in a cultural play about the way we live and work, how we care for low-income workers and our cars in this still-maturing region of America.