I was working the “four-to-midnight” shift out of Chicago’s old Main Post Office at Canal Street and Jackson Boulevard. Delivering special delivery mails to the neighborhoods around Chicago’s Loop district. A big “C” surrounding the downtown business area. Roughly from 35th Street on the south to Armitage Avenue on the north, and from the lake on the east to Pulaski on the west.

In those days, before the big influx of new, high priced condominium development in the near-Loop areas, those neighborhoods were pretty run down, and pretty rough. West Madison Street; Bronzeville; Humboldt Park; Wicker Park; Pilsen; Chinatown; Cabrini-Greene. And although we only had a few incidents, we Special Delivery Messengers were all very aware of our conspicuousness. Especially a young white guy like me. We were in uniform, and carrying valuables. And we were delivering alone and at night. For awhile I grew a raggedy beard, just to hide a face that was as threatening as Andy Taylor’s son Opie.

The work, though somewhat dangerous, was otherwise easy. I would deliver maybe thirty pieces of mail a night while putting on about forty-five miles of driving in a small jeep through the city streets. As the messenger with the least seniority, I didn’t have my own “district”. Instead, I covered a different neighborhood each night of the week on the “regular” messenger’s off day. During the eight years that I worked Special Delivery, I got to know the entire central part of Chicago better than most cops. I learned the streets and alleys and shortcuts. I discovered the best places to eat, to shop, to relax, and to avoid. I watched the city change as the seasons changed, and saw its people at their worst, and at their best.

I enjoyed the responsibility, the freedom of movement, the opportunity to explore, and the challenge of using the city’s maze of streets in the most efficient way possible. The inherent danger made the job a little more exciting.

But the most dangerous predicament I ever got in during that period was not on the job. It was on the way home from the job.

Easter morning, 1980.
12:43 AM.
32nd Street & Kedzie Avenue.

I had gotten off work at midnight, and had taken the Stevenson Expressway to the Kedzie exit, turning south toward my home in Evergreen Park.

Just as I exited the expressway, I noticed a car wash.

My 1978 Ford Fairmont “woody” station wagon was pretty filthy from the accumulation of the winter’s snow and salt and slush.

And I would be going to my parents’ house in Glen Ellyn for a large family Easter celebration later that day.

So I pulled in to the near-deserted car wash on the edge of one of the city’s rougher neighborhoods for a quick much-needed and long-overdue scrub down.

The car wash fronted Kedzie Avenue, a major four-lane thoroughfare in that part of town. The expressway was to it’s north, some warehouses to the west, some small local businesses to the south, and some old city three-flats to the east. There was no sign of activity except for an occasional CTA bus.

I pulled “Farah” (my Fairmont’s nickname) into a self-service stall. As I drove in, I noticed a large, late model Cadillac in the stall adjacent to mine to the north, and I could overhear some conversation going on above the sounds of the stall’s car wash spray. But otherwise, the car wash seemed empty.

I turned the car off, went to the change machine, and got two dollars worth of quarters. The car wash options at that time were fifty cents for two minutes of soap spray, and fifty cents for two minutes of rinse.

The money–taking part of the machine had a flat tray on which to put the two quarters needed. The tray had two recessed holes in which to lay the two quarters. Then the tray was pushed into the machine, the quarters would drop in, and the spray would start.

I put my first two quarters on the tray, and pushed it in. Then I frantically started around the car. The “spray wand on steroids” in one hand. An old beach towel in the other. Spraying and rubbing, I raced the two-minute clock, soaking the car and my mailman-uniformed self with the sudsy soap. Trying to blast and scrub away the many thick layers of city scum, much as one might try to use a power sprayer to take rings off a tree.

Before I could even work myself from the hood to the back-end of the car, the fifteen second warning beeper started it’s beeping, and the wand pathetically dribbled it’s final few drops of soap onto Farah’s still dirty rear-end.

So, I swung the hose over Farah’s roof, and went back to the car wash coin box, and repeated the race on the far side of the Fairmont.

Again, the beeper sounded, and again, the spray degenerated into a disgraceful soapy dripping of Farah’s scrubbed down hood.

Cold, soaked to the bone, and already tired from a long night at work at the end of a six-day workweek, I was by this time ready to call it quits and just drive the car home still covered with a layer of soap film.

But I decided to finish the job I had started, and dropped two of my remaining four quarters into the coin tray.

I tried to push the tray into the machine, but couldn’t. It wouldn’t go all the way in. I looked and saw that I had accidentally put both quarters into just one of the holes. No problem. The manufacturer had thoughtfully provided for idiots like me. Each coin hole also had a smaller “finger hole” in it – the idea being, that the idiot puts his or her finger under the tray and into the hole, and pushes the coin up out of the tray.

No problem. Worked like a charm. Except….

Except that the car wash owner had evidently had numerous felons break into the coin machine to steal the quarters. So he ingeniously riveted a heavy steel brace around the coin machine to prevent this vandalism.

And part of that heavy steel riveted brace included a support beam that ran parallel to and about an inch under the coin tray.

Not far enough away to prevent somebody from putting a finger under the tray to push a quarter out.

But just near enough so that once the fingertip is inserted through that small hole, the finger cannot be pulled out.

The tip of my second finger was trapped inside that small hole. I was giving the car wash machine “The Bird”. And I was trapped.

I tried pulling the fingertip straight down, but there wasn’t enough clearance.

I tried squeezing the fingertip on the top, but it had swelled up too much..

I tried pushing the fingertip down, but just succeeded in making it swell up more.

I tried soaping the fingertip, using what had soaked my hair, with no luck.

I tried waiting for the blood to drain out, but the tip had been “tourniquet-ted”.

My only hope seemed to be “rescued”.

But by whom? And how?

In that neighborhood, and at that time of the night, I wasn’t sure even I wanted to be noticed. Much less draw attention to myself, defenselessly trapped in a carwash machine. I thought of honking the horn, but I was on the wrong side of the car.

I thought of opening the car door and slamming it shut, but that didn’t seem like the type of sound that would attract anything but an annoyed neighbor.

I thought of yelling “Fire!”, but considering that I was in a car wash, I figured I’d be judged some kind of practical joker.

I even thought of perhaps dropping my trousers, in hopes of getting the attention of a passing bus driver who would report a pervert exposing himself in the car wash to the police.

I finally ending up just yelling “Help!”

Well, not actually “yelling”. I didn’t have enough fear in my voice to yell convincingly.

Not yet, anyway.

I just kind of said “Help” loudly. But not too loudly. I didn’t want to attract too much attention.

Actually, once I finally decided to loudly proclaim “Help!”, I drew a potential rescue almost immediately.

By my third plea for help, one large man peered in the front of my stall from his adjoining stall, and an equally large man looked in from the back of my stall. I felt like a canary being examined by cats of either side of his cage.

I quickly explained my situation, trying to sound as tough as I could under the circumstances, and asked if they could get the police for me.

They looked at each other, and disappeared back into their stall, and I heard some conversation. Then one of them re-appeared and told me that they would go and call the police as soon as soon as they finished cleaning their car. (This was long before cell phones came into use.) I think they were deciding if I was just some dumb white guy, or actually a part of some kind of police sting .

Well, that put a lid on my yelling. I could no longer call for help. If I did I would be insulting my neighbors’ honor. And I did not want them to feel insulted.

So I spent the next half-hour contemplating my future.

I imagined my wife and children, at my wake. “Yeah, it’s true” they would have to say, “the police found him naked. Body dangling down next to our soap covered station wagon. Finger stuck in a carwash machine.” Over and over as each viewer came to my coffin, paying his respects and trying to suppress a giggle.

My ultimate rescue was actually the result of another late night car washer.

A young Hispanic kid came over, asking if I had spare any change for his car wash. I told him all I had left was four quarters (including the one still in the tray and the one that caused my present predicament), but that I would be glad to give him all four if he would go and get the police. The kid took the four quarters and quickly left. And I figured that my body would probably now be found both naked and bruised – beaten by some thief, frustrated at my lack of money.

But within five minutes, I heard a large number of sirens.

(Coincidentally, I heard the sound of the Cadillac leavin g soon after I heard the sirens.)

And the entire fire department arrived. Pumper, hook-and-ladder, ambulance, and chief’s car. And a couple dozen interested neighborhood spectators. Several CTA buses stopped and allowed their passengers an opportunity to view as well. I didn’t notice any newspaper reporters yet, but assumed that it would only be a matter of time before they arrived.

The actual rescue operation was mercifully short and painless. The fire chief sized up the situation, and walked back to one of the fire trucks. He came back with two firemen in full gear. One had a large heavy sledgehammer. The other had a massive cold steel chisel. I closed my eyes as they took couple swings on a couple rivets, and the brace fell off. And my fingertip, swelled and tender, pulled right out.

The ambulance driver checked me for damage. (Nope, no bleeding.)

Then the fire chief came over.

I asked him if I needed to make a report or something. Did he at least need my name and address for damage report for the car wash owner?

He just looked at me and sadly shook his head, and said, “No, son, you can go. But I’d advise you to be more careful where you wash your car from now on, even if you are a mailman. We’ve found bodies around here more than once this past winter.”

So, gratefully taking his advice, I got into my clean but still soapy station wagon, and drove meekly straight home to get some sleep.

And it wasn’t until after Easter morning Mass that I finally rinsed Farah off.