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Vol. 14, no. 3
June / July 2011

 

Workin' at the Car Wash 

Story by Sheila Sarhangi

Photo by Matt Mallams

 

Yukio “Yuki” Yoshikawa sits cross-legged,
dangling a ring with twenty keys on his index finger. He’s 85, wears glasses and has a tire pressure gauge in his breast pocket. He looks at the ceiling trying to recall when McKinley Car Wash moved from the lot next door to where it is today. “June 1964,” he says emphatically after a moment. The man has a good memory.

 

Outside the cars are lined up in the driveway off Kapi‘olani Blvd. On an average Saturday, six hundred to seven hundred cars will be bathed and beautified. But a typical buckets-and-suds operation this is not. McKinley Car Wash is a Honolulu institution. Almost every lifelong O‘ahu resident has brought their car here at least once; to date, Yoshikawa says that several million (some have estimated in the area of 11 million) cars have gotten the spa treatment here. Aspects of the carwash occupy an almost mythical place in local lore, from the row of seventy multicolored orchids in the parking area to the dizzying selection of deodorizers (the pineapplescented pink flamingo is a local favorite). Most of the workers are first-generation immigrants from Micronesia just getting their start in a new country; everyone on staff is either family or friend, and there’s a waiting list for the jobs.

 

McKinley Car Wash started in 1946, when Yuki’s older brother Tsuneo opened a repair shop. (Tsuneo, the “quieter brother,” still works here.) A year later, hoping to bring in more revenue, he acquired an adjacent gas station and added fill-ups to their list of services. There were plenty of gas stations back then, and the competition was fierce. In 1952 their younger brother Sueo (there were four boys in the family) had the idea to offer free car washes with every purchase of ten gallons of gas. The incentive worked, and the boys started making a profit.

 

Today a basic wash is about ten bucks, cheaper if you fill up on fuel. They’ll even check your oil, fill your tires and vacuum pounds of beach sand out of your floor mats. Yuki, who works fifteen-hour days six days a week, says their focus remains on service. “It’s pretty simple: Satisfied customers come back,” he attests. “My wife tells me to stop working so much, but I want to be sure our quality will not go down. I’ll be here until I can’t anymore.”

 

1139 Kapi‘olani Blvd.

(808)596-2609  

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