Tuesday I talked to Mayor Mike Rawlings about the car wash on MLK Boulevard that I have written a lot about lately -- well, a lot about over the last eight years, as a matter of fact. It's the one the city recently threatened to take by eminent domain.
We did settle one point. The mayor said he had not seen the city's letter to car wash owner Dale Davenport when his spokesman, Sam Merten, talked me a couple weeks ago and suggested the letter was not an eminent domain threat. Since then both he and Merten have reviewed the entire package sent to Davenport and they agree it was an eminent domain threat.
Mayor Rawlings said the sending of an eminent domain threat was a mistake, a failure in communications at City Hall. I will get into that in more detail in a column in next week's paper.
But let's deal with another issue first. I found that both the mayor and his spokesman were still somewhat dubious about the true nature of the car wash as a business. They wondered why it was so busy all the time, and they wondered who Dale Davenport really was. How did this white guy from East Texas end up running a car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, and why was he so determined to stay?
It is a recurring question, one I have heard from City Hall for eight years. In it I hear echoes of last year's South Dallas Shamrock gas station story, when community activists in South Dallas tried to force a Korean store owner to sell his business and get out of the neighborhood. The question is always this: Why do non-black business people come into the old center of the black community in Dallas to do business? Why do they seem to do so well? What's up with that? The unspoken subtext is that they must be drug dealers, pimps or operators of betting rings -- something sinister that amounts to preying on the community.
I spoke to Davenport that evening, after my meeting with the mayor, and I asked him to answer those questions. I told him people think he's a drug dealer. So who is he really? What's his real game? How did he come to South Dallas? I told him that the mayor is still skeptical that his business could be a profit center based merely on car washing.
We spoke by phone. He was standing on the lot at the car wash at the time. Once you prime Davenport, it's not hard to keep him talking:
"I am standing here looking at seven bays that are covered up with cars," he said, "three cars behind each bay. Do they think that I'm not making any money down here?
"When I was 16 years old I bought a car wash in Naples, Texas, a little three-bay car wash. My dad was an electrician for the steel mill, and we got that car wash up and running. We fixed that car wash, and that was my project, that's how I made gas money for my dates and stuff, OK? I was 16 at the time.
"The car wash did real well. I promoted it. We had local church car washes and everything else. The car wash did good, and then I bought another one in the town of Hughes Springs, right next to the Dairy Queen. It did well, paid for itself in about two years.
"And then I went on to college and all that, and then this thing [on MLK in Dallas] came up. We were able to buy this one. The thing had been for sale for two years and nobody bought it. We invested our money, got it up and going.
"About the first day or two I was down there somebody robbed me while I was working on a vacuum cleaner. Here I am, you know, bought this car wash, made this big investment here in Dallas. To us it was a lot of money at the time.
"I gotta go back down there tomorrow, and I'm worried about somebody robbing me. But I gritted my teeth, and we got it up and going and running.
"I was thinking if I can't even get on the lot how am I going to survive down there. I found that there's a lot of good people there. I have enjoyed the people of South Dallas. There's a lot of really cool people down there, and there's a lot of bad people down there. The people have been very, very nice, very respectful to us."
I asked Davenport why his car wash is always so busy.
"We keep our prices reasonable. We use a lot of soap, good pressure. We give people a good wash. I give 1,200, 1,300 pounds of pressure, you know. Our vacuum cleaners work. You put your money in, I've got Sensitron [coin boxes] in there that are electronic so the quarters don't hang up like they will at some car washes.
"You walk inside my equipment room, it's a pretty darned good equipment room. It's one of the best. I've got very good equipment in there, the biggest pumps, the biggest motors. We're proud of the fact that everything works.
"That's something that they really didn't have in South Dallas. It's a large lot. It's well-lit. It's clean. It's busy because it works.
"We keep it clean, keep it spotless. We keep that car wash immaculate. There was a time when we first bought it, I'd see kids walk across the lot, and they'd just throw a can down. I'd go pick it up. Now, when somebody throws trash down, somebody around them will pick it up and put it in the trash can. There's that little bit of pride.
"I work down there every day, every night without a gun. Now, if it gets to be a rough crowd or something, that's a different story. I'm packing, and I'm ready to go, because I want to come home. But, you know, I tell you what, those people down there have been very good to me."
I asked Davenport to give me a thumbnail sketch of himself as a businessman.
"I am on the board of two banks. I mean, I've got a finance degree, 30 rent houses, a successful land development business. I do a lot of septic tank work. I am on the board of the Cass County National Bank and Morse County National Bank.
"The bank that loaned me the money for the first car wash that I had in Naples, Texas, is the bank that I sit on the board of, and I am the youngest board member. And I'm proud of the fact that they asked me to come back home, sit on their board, one of five board members, and to offer me stock to buy in that bank."
He said, "It all started with my little car wash in East Texas when I was 16 years old."
So now, Dear Reader, I will ask you a question. Does this sound to you like a sinister man of mystery?