One man’s trash 

Detroit is a quirky town. Something about the juxtapositions of decay and rebirth seem to breed savagely creative, eccentric characters; people whom a lesser person might callously deem “weirdos.” But they’re our weirdos, and bless every last one of them. In a city with so many delightful oddities and sudden detours down Surreal Lane, we’re fortunate to have the Car Wash Café to serve as the headquarters for it all — a place that’s, in essence, Quirk Central.

To try to capture this place in words is almost a futile effort, and pictures fare only slightly better. To appreciate the glorious weirdness that is the Car Wash Café, you have to see it with your own eyes.

You may have driven past the place — at the corner of Meldrum Street and Jefferson Avenue, about a mile west of the bridge to Belle Isle — and wondered about the ramshackle classic cars littered under a mural that instructs you to “Enjoy Detroit.” The Car Wash Café is indeed a car wash — occasionally. It’s also an ice cream parlor (again, occasionally), a live music venue and a junk museum to end all junk museums. But to call the collection junk is almost an insult; it’s more like an art museum for the aberrant.

The yard, where the bands play, is filled with boats that don’t look seaworthy; a bridge formed of crates, signs and two-by-fours; and half of a classic car peering out from beneath a wobbly looking stage. A suspicious-looking set of bleachers in the back is overgrown with weeds, flanked by a pair of faded, painted cactuses and crooked blocks letters that spell “Holly Hood.” Some of the items on display inside include a Chinese dragon head, an antique sewing machine, car fenders filled with potted plants, forgotten toys of the ’80s, a Macintosh Classic, high school trophies, broken musical instruments, a disco ball, a dentist’s chair, a ’70s stove, a fire hydrant, a battered lawn jockey grasping a plastic flower ... and a Carmen Electra LP. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

This veritable junkyard wonderland is curated by Larry Meeks, who owns the Harbortown Garage around the corner, where he spends his days as a mechanic and jack of all trades. He bought the building — formerly a transmission shop — four years ago, intending to turn it into a storage facility for his shop. He ended up storing more than just cars.

“The kind of stuff I stored, urban artifacts, it’s stuff I picked up all over the city,” Meeks says. “Then I put that ice cream café in there, but I never really considered it open. It kind of opened itself. People just kept coming in and I couldn’t turn them away. It just kind of materialized on its own.”

On the day of the big bash that officially opens the café for the summer — June 25 — Detroit is right in the middle of an insufferable heat wave. It’s hotter than the second ring of hell — maybe even the third. Still, the attendees faithfully trickle in, seeking shade under makeshift tents, or cool relief from the keg of beer in the corner — donations are gladly accepted. Artists Chris Turner and Camilo Pardo are milling about, searching for just the right place to hang their artwork (the visual setting is “busy,” to put it lightly). Meeks has planned a tribute to Big Jesse Williams, the late Detroit blues artist. A beautifully simple memorial to the man, including his photo and a hat, is propped up in a corner. Today there actually are no car washes or ice cream available, but no matter. The spot where the hand washes normally take place is filled with fixings for the barbecue, which Meeks is about to fire up. The first band, Raw Experience, is ripping through a scorching set of blues, the only thing hotter than the mugginess that hangs in the air. A boat that Meeks painted with an aquatic-themed mural — The Mermaid — is bumped up against an abandoned building, weeds blooming through the broken windows. Guests lounge in the yard next to rows of old car batteries, or wander the strange museum inside. The portable toilet’s door won’t close, and the indoor bathroom is flooded. The surreal-o-meter is flashing bright red.

“This place is like a fragment of one of my dreams,” says Sandy Hopkins, who helped coordinate the opening bash.

“It’s like a black David Lynch film,” Turner muses.

“It’s far-out funky,” says Rhonda Harvey of Detroit. “There should be more places like this.”

Meeks emerges from the bathroom, having drenched his face and neck with water from the sink. He sits at an ice cream cart filled with hotdogs and water bottles, and slices out chunks of fresh pineapple.

“This is all things that I accumulated for little projects that I never got around to,” he says, gesturing with a handful of pineapple.

Meeks hopes to expand the café, taking over the adjoining abandoned lots, and turn the area into a mini-entertainment district, calling the venture River Ranch.

“They don’t need more apartment buildings in Detroit, they need more places where people can get together and enjoy themselves,” Meeks says. “That’s how you get people to the city.”

 

Located at the corner of Meldrum Street and Jefferson Avenue, Detroit. Open (most) Saturdays from noon to midnight, offering (occasional) hand car washes in the afternoon and live entertainment in the evening.

Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to sklein@metrotimes.com

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