The hard sell

Mr. Bow Tie's shine that guides

Mr. Bow Tie is a go-to man. - Detroitblogger John
Detroitblogger John
Mr. Bow Tie is a go-to man.

Days like these are long and tough.

Mr. Bow Tie stands by the curb along West Seven Mile at Greenfield, wearing bright red pants, a red vest and a crisp white shirt. And, of course, a bow tie.

You can't miss him because he shouts at passing traffic through a megaphone. Or he dances on the grass, whirling a sign in his hands, volunteering his skills. Sometimes he blurs by on his bicycle, pulling a wagon festooned with two banners advertising his work.

He's offering a single service — cleaning dirty headlights. Nothing else. Regardless of how the rest of the car looks.

"Once people understand I'm the go-to man for this service, I believe it's going to take off," says Malcolm Carey, the 43-year-old behind the Mr. Bow Tie persona. "I've got total faith in that."

Seven days a week, for hours at a time, he stands along the road and shouts the same polite, formal sales pitch at traffic:

"I am Mr. Bow Tie of Mr. Bow Tie's headlight restoration. I specialize in making those yellow, faded, ugly headlights look new again. If you know someone with yellow, faded, ugly headlights, tell them to come see me, Mr. Bow Tie, right here, right now. Thank you."

The cars whip by. A bus driver passing close to the curb gives him a thumbs-up. Someone honks, and a driver waves. But so far today, nobody's stopping to get their headlights restored.

The problem is most people don't think headlights need cleaning, or they don't have the time it takes or the $25 it costs.

A car pulls into the Burger King parking lot behind him. A man and a woman get out. Carey springs over.

"What's up, my brother?" he says, animatedly. "I do headlight restoration. Can I clean your headlights?" The man agrees. Then Carey tells him it's a 27-minute process. He knows this because he always times himself. The yes becomes a no.

"We're not even gonna be here that long," the man tells Carey, walking away as he talks. "I thought you was going to be, like, fast quick in a hurry. We's about to order and go."

Some days go this way, Carey says. Long hours and few takers. "But then you have those days that makes up for it, when everything pops."

Mr. Bow Tie is among countless people in the city trying to make a living by offering some unique service or quirky talent to the public on the streets. It takes confidence and persistence and determination. And it's a hard way to earn money.

Carey heads back to the curb, summons his enthusiasm, and begins talking into the megaphone again. "I am Mr. Bow Tie ..."

He was 12 when he fell in love with auto detailing, the thorough cleaning and polishing of a car inside and out. He was breaking bottles in an alley and a collision shop owner called him over and offered to pay him to instead sweep his shop's floors.

Soon after, the owner had just finished a paint job on a car and wasn't looking, and a curious Carey grabbed a buffer, went to work on the car and ruined the paint job. The owner went nuts. "But after he got finished cussing me out he showed me how to do it correctly," he says. Detailing became his career. He still does it on the side.

The Mr. Bow Tie persona developed at the car wash where he last worked. He began dressing up to stand out on the line. "Everything there is about tips, so I'm trying to distinguish myself from all the other car washers in there who are walking around with baggy pants, dirt on all of them. But me, I got clean shoes, a clean outfit, I present a more neater appearance, so they prefer me working on the cars."

His headlight restoration business was born after trouble at work. Carey had so specialized his detailing craft that he eventually confined himself to working only on cars with black paint. The owner wasn't amused by this new policy.

"One day he had a red truck come in, and I refused to do it because he already knew I only do black, so we had a disagreement and he fired me on the spot," Carey says. "But that firing helped me out because then I had the opportunity to pursue my headlights."

A few minutes pass. A truck pulls up. "How's the headlights on your car, bro?" he asks a man who steps out from the driver's side. "They need to be freshened up?"

"You can," the man replies, "but I ain't got no extra bread right now." Another no.

Carey's face shows discouragement. "Of course, I'm not immune to that," he says about his spirits getting down. "When you figure out the secret to that, let me know."

In his first month on the job, Carey did all his cleanings for free, hoping word-of-mouth would lead to paying customers. Slowly, it did.

Some days he still resorts to it. "Normally what happens is, once I get one car, then they'll start coming over," he says. "I get that curiosity factor going. One customer has me on his car, and then they all start coming over."

This is one of those days. Carey starts approaching people in an Auto Zone parking lot, offering to clean headlights for free. First one says no. Then another. But two men pull up in a beat-up pickup truck, and after hearing it's no charge, the driver agrees.

Finally, a yes.

It's an elaborate task. He sands both headlights four times with four different sandpaper grades, then applies a fuzzy buffing pad that's soaked in polish and attached to a cordless drill. Solvents are used to clean away the oils, then a cloth is used to shine it all up. Throughout the long job, he gives an eloquent presentation detailing each step.

He takes photos of his work, transfers them through a cable to a printer he's got hooked up to a battery, and gives each customer a print showing the before-and-after difference of each headlight. After affixing his business sticker to the back, the job is done. Twenty-seven minutes.

"Hey, that's sweet," says the customer, eyebrows arched at the sight of the photo. "It's a big difference." It was free, but they give him $5 anyway.

Suddenly, Carey's marketing theory proves right. As he's working, some people in the lot crane their necks, a few walk over to watch. Two young girls pull up in their red Grand Am, and they want the service. Things are officially picking up.

As he sands the first headlight, he looks at them and asks, with sincere curiosity, "What made you decide to give me a chance?" It's the tone of a man who's had a hard day.

"You looked like you knew what you were doing," one of them says. "We're just giving somebody a chance, somebody in the community that's doing something."

It goes like that sometimes. People see a regular guy from their neighborhood earnestly trying to make it the honest way, working hard every day in the same spot, down on his knees, and a few will support him almost on principle, even if they don't have much money, even if they don't really need their headlights polished. There's just enough of them out here to carry his business until people agree with him that shiny headlights make any car look sharper.

"I just hope it survives," he says, "that I can keep doing what I'm doing. Sometimes the money don't flow, you know. Some days we eat good, other days we eat famine."

When he's done and the girls drive off, he's back to standing in the cold, without a jacket, waving his sign and shouting in his megaphone, hoping someone else sees him and gives him a chance.

And tomorrow he starts all over again.

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