Frank Wilhelm had never before seen a woman in charge of a car wash.
Though we like to think of Ann Arbor as a Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, Observer reader and emeritus U-M prof Wilhelm thought it was unusual enough that he stopped to ask the woman who seemed to be in command of a sudsy crew at the Main Street Auto Wash whether she was the owner, and if so, how that came to pass.
Of course, there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t own a car wash–“It’s not the higher end of the business food chain,” as Wilhelm put it when passing on the story–but Jessie Mellish confirms that it’s rare. Mellish, twenty-five, says she inherited the car wash when her father died suddenly last July, and she believes she’s one of only two or three female car wash owners in Michigan. (Her brother Matt is a co-owner, but he lives and works in Detroit.)
It’s rough, dirty work. “Things always break in car washes. I’ve learned how to fix everything. C’mon, I’ll show you!” says Mellish, who wears, not surprisingly, torn jeans (tight, sassy sub-variety) and sneakers to work and also, less predictably, full eye makeup, black nail polish, and a Mudflap Girl belt buckle. Her long black hair is pulled into a high ponytail. “I’d like to wear it down, but I have to bend over machinery a lot,” she says, pointing to a roller on the line. “This front part gets loose, wiggles, and makes the chain twist, which makes the rollers pop up when they’re not supposed to. So you have to hit Stop and unjam it. Every month or two I have to grease all these gears. I ruined a perfectly good shirt the other day.”
Occasionally, when she runs into a problem she can’t fix, she calls “a company called PECO that sells car wash equipment. But when they fix something, I watch them very carefully, so I can do it myself the next time.”
Custom detailing (intensive interior cleaning) is a large part of the business. People get cars detailed for all kinds of reasons, Mellish says. “Some people trash their cars, some people are neat freaks.” And then there’s the perennial auto detailer’s friend: dog pee.
“Where is the dog pee? On the seat? On the floor?” she says to a customer dropping off his car.
“It’s on the back of the seat, where it folds down. Is that better?”
“It’s the worst!” Mellish says, with professional dispatch. “But we’ll get it out.”