Column: 'Abandoned' lot holds cherished memories

There’s a car parked atop the asphalt bump I saw Dad create 50 years ago to repair a hole in the driveway of his car wash. He built the car wash here at 324 Bridge St. in Salem with his own hands, cinder block by cinder block, and named it Jodeen Car Wash, after me (Jody) and my sister (Maureen).

My father operated his car wash from the 60s to the 80s. It supported our family and schooling through the college years. I never thought he’d ever leave the place, he loved it so much. He put his sweat and guts and love into its operation. Near the end, he said he’d had enough and wanted out, but was waiting for a decision on the connector road proposed from Salem through Peabody, hopefully taking the building by eminent domain. When the waiting never ended, he sold it to North Shore Ambulance, and a few years later, they departed and his building got demolished, leaving a vacant stretch of overgrowth, a patch of land that looked like it had never been occupied.

I spent years of my youth working at the car wash. It was a structure I assumed would stand forever. So it was a shock when I drove past 324 Bridge St. and all I saw was absence. Desertion. I pulled my car over and got out to look at the scene. A guy across the street gave me a stare, like I was up to no good, so I told him about the old car wash and he left me alone. I stepped gingerly through the overgrowth and stumbled on remnants of concrete block. I reached down and turned them over in my hands. Most were chipped and powdery, but I found a couple that seemed sturdy enough. These were pieces of my father. I brought them home, washed them with soap and water, and after placing them in a zip-lock bag, stored them in my collectables closet.

In its heyday, Jodeen was the busiest and best car wash around. In the 70s, when automation was minimal, my father employed up to 20 workers, sometimes more in dirty winters and on busy weekends, when people had time to get their cars cleaned. They lined up from the car wash entrance to the Log Cabin restaurant, a quarter mile away.

The employees were assigned to different parts of the operation. The starting line guys would vacuum the inside flooring and remove mats and scrub and rinse them down. We’d hear the dirt particles being suctioned away, and see the caked mud being washed away. Then they’d scour and steam the wheels and rocker panels and bumpers, and finally attach the car to the running chain with a rope-bound hook. If a customer left a car in park or engaged the emergency brake, the rope would snap and need repair.

I wondered out loud why we didn’t use metal chains rather than rope. “A chain wouldn’t break,” I said.

“That’s right,” my father said. “The car would break!”

If the line of waiting cars was especially long, workers jumped inside them before they made it to the starting line. We’d take our window wash bottles and towels and cleanse the smoke-coated windows and stained vinyl surfaces. I sometimes wondered if one of these cars might take off before reaching the starting line, without paying. But none ever did, not on my watch.

Upon entering the wash bay area, cars were sprayed with reclaimed water collected and recycled from previous washes. It was a softer and superior cleanser than hard city water. The wash bay workers, with their yellow aprons and rubber suits and gloves, covered the exterior of the cars with detergent and the dirt and grime disappeared under their broad brush strokes. In the winter, this was the place to be – the warmed water secreted heat into the wet concrete bay area, keeping our bodies and hands comfortable all day.

After the soaped up cars received a final rinse, they proceeded through the deafening blower-dryer to the finishing line, where they were dried and polished with recycled cloth towels. Finally, the customers paid (cash only) and were assisted into their pristine automobiles.

My father ran an efficient operation that made cars clean and provided jobs to the high school kids in Salem. At one time he had nearly the entire Salem High football team in his employ.

This day, as I walk the lot of 324 Bridge St., former home of Jodeen Car Wash, I think how it might look to strangers. They’d probably assume it had always been deserted, a place for garden snakes and squirrels and overgrown blades of grass and ragweed (which got me sneezing every fall), a dumping ground for broken glass and beer bottles thrown by passers-by, for banana peels and apple cores left by ill-mannered walkers. How wrong they’d be.

Joe O’Day is a resident of Salem.

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