'If you sit for half an hour, you're bound to see someone.'
By 10 on a Wednesday morning, the Handy J Hand Wash is in full swing. Latino men rub and scrub a procession of Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes. The skies are cloudy, but that hasn't slowed business.
This car wash is decrepit-looking. It does not have a gift shop or air-conditioned waiting room. But it does have a reputation, says owner Jeff Paul, as he circulates among customers to smile and shake hands.
The wall behind the cash register is covered with pictures of celebrities who frequent the Handy J. People such as Susan Dey of "L.A. Law," Arte Johnson and singer Jeffrey Osborne. (Word has it that the really big names won't allow their pictures on the wall.)
"If you sit here for half an hour, you're bound to see someone," says Paul, 30, who sports a stylish jacket and haircut.
Stars on Wheels
Sure enough, former game show host Bill Cullen arrives to have his Cadillac washed for $6.50.
"They take very good care of the cars here," says Cullen, a regular for eight years, pointing to his car. "That's a '79 Seville with 24,000 miles, and it looks like the day it left the factory."
But what about the celebrities, Bill? The reputation?
"I don't want to sound snobbish," Cullen says, "but the people you meet here are very interesting. They're all either car nuts or in the industry. The cars are either expensive or extremely well-kept."
The Handy J looks like any car wash, except that all the swirling brushes and automatic sprayers have been ripped out. As automobiles are towed through the "car wash tunnel," men do the work of machines.
"This is one of the few places you can take a nice car and get it hand-washed," said race car driver Danny Sullivan, 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner and a steady customer at Handy J. "I've got a Mercedes, and it has always been hand-washed."
There are other hand washes around the Valley, but Handy J claims to be the first. Whether or not that is true, the Sherman Oaks business is probably the Valley's best-known car wash--and not just for the quality of its work.
In September, 1986, Cosmopolitan magazine listed Handy J as one of Los Angeles' hottest pick-up spots. On warm Saturdays, the place is jammed with eligible young men and women having their cars cleaned to a shine.
"I know of couples who have married after meeting here," Paul said. But he didn't want to give any names.
And on weekdays, especially toward the end of the week, the trendy crowd and celebrities make their visits to Handy J. Paul--who has owned the place with his brother, Neil, since 1980--doesn't like to make a big deal of this. But, he is quick to mention that the "Cheers" cast frequents his other Handy J, in Culver City. And, he says, there are advantages to catering to such customers. He speaks of getting good prices at local art galleries and second-row seats to Sinatra.
"I think the nicest feeling about it is that I can go to a restaurant and be recognized by everybody," Paul said. "No one's going to ask me for my autograph, but they know who I am."
It is odd that the Handy J itself is far less glamorous than the customers and cars that it services. The place is near a body shop and a store that sells wicker furniture. While Handy J is freshly painted purple and pink, it still appears dingy. A small, dusty patio with wooden benches serves as a waiting area. Many customers prefer to stand in the parking lot next door, where their cars are hand-dried.
Customers coming into the place are greeted by Manny, a small, smiling man as old-looking as the building itself.
"Everybody knows Manny," Manny says. "I always give a smile to the customers. Sometimes the customer has a problem, and I have a solution, and they say 'Thank you, Manny.' "
Manny is one of the reasons Jana Merhej comes to Handy J. A regular for several years, Merhej drives out of her way from Woodland Hills with her daughter, Nicole. Merhej said she doesn't care about celebrities; she likes the job that Handy J does on her car.
Sullivan doesn't think much of the celebrity status at Handy J either. Cars are what it's all about.
"Everybody is car crazy out here," the Kentucky native said. "Back East, the weather is rougher, and people can't be bothered with washing their cars every day. Out here, you always have the sunshine."
Despite all the talk of shining sun and cars, there is an unmistakable hauteur to this car wash. People come well-dressed, often in leather jackets or expensive tennis outfits. At the cash register, one may purchase a turquoise, art-deco Handy J sweat shirt for $20.
And when Kimon Bellas drove up in his Toyota Tercel, he got one look at the clientele and figured he'd made a mistake.
"I see quite a lot of nice cars," Bellas said. "I didn't know it was so fancy."