If you're thinking that genie at your local car wash has had some work done, you're right.
When it was announced last spring that new local owners were taking over the Genie Car Wash franchise, the normal thing to do would have been to change the name to H2O Hand Car Wash and Detail, which would be operating the businesses, and bring down those old neon genie signs — hand-painted, rusted, faded relics that dated as far back as 1968.
But Austin is far from normal, don't you know, and quicker than you can rub a lamp, customers whose cars took their vehicular ablutions at Genie howled: Those signs aren't relics; they're icons.
In a town known for getting upset over all manner of offense, the driving passion this time was nostalgia for a car wash.
Now general contractor John Nelson is in the middle of a more than half-million-dollar remodel of the three Genie stores, and the task of hauling those, uh, venerable signs into the 21st century has fallen to Victor Dearmond's Sun Signs. Except for installing the neon, the sign at the Burnet Road store is basically done. Next up for a face-lift are the signs on South Lamar Boulevard and William Cannon Drive.
As is so often the case, you can blame your local newspaper for causing the ruckus. A story in the American-Statesman at the end of April said Pennsylvania-based Mace Security International Inc., a commercial services and supply company, was selling Genie for $9.2 million.
"It was crazy," said Buster Florence, who founded H2O in 2003. "It was bananas. We started getting e-mails and comments in the story online. So we rethought the situation and realized they have been Austin icons, and we wanted to keep the name and bring some new life into them. We took heed and listened to the community."
As it was told to Dearmond, "Most of them said, 'If you change the genie, I'm not coming there anymore. It's been there my whole life.'"
Florence said his office received about 300-350 e-mails alone. (Sadly, because some time has passed, he couldn't put his hands on them the other day.) There were phone calls, in-person protests, offers to buy the signs and folks stopping by for a snapshot of oooooooold Austin, a town that was so, so much cooler right before you got here.
And it's not just the signs that longtime locals get misty over. Florence said a woman came into the Burnet Road location and was worried about the steps for children to watch the cars go through the wash. "This lady said, 'Where are the steps? I used to come in here when I was 4 and 5 years old, and now I bring my kids," Florence said. (The company is replacing the old steps with new ones that have railings.)
Dearmond's guys have been gutting the signs, stripping the wiring out, replacing steel with aluminum and using a digital design rather than a hand-painted image. And while Florence is too tactful to repeat it, Dearmond says his understanding was that the new genies look a little more, eh, masculine.
"In their words, they wanted him to man up a little bit," Dearmond said.
"Basically, the eyes and nose and mouth are all new," said Leonardo Sonoqui, who spent about 10 hours coming up with the new facade. And that was after dozens of hours of researching genie images, including ones found in that 1996 cinematic landmark "Kazaam," starring Shaquille O'Neal. (Memorable quote: "But if you got the itches for a sack of riches don't matter how avaricious, I'm the man that can grant your wishes!")
Fun fact about Sonoqui: He also designed the big orange Gretsch guitar and amp outside South Austin Music, more or less right across from the South Lamar Genie.
Even for longtime employees, the uproar was something of a surprise. Philip Rickman, the general manager of the South Lamar Genie, who has been with the company for almost 16 years, knew customers were loyal — but this loyal?
"Over the years, I've gotten a lot of people in here once a week," Rickman said. "I knew them as well as the people in my own family. I knew there was a fair amount of people dedicated to the Genie Car Wash, but this seemed to go a little beyond that."
The work should be done in the next couple of months, and surely somebody will find something to complain about , this being Austin and all. But Dearmond knows there is no incantation he can utter that will provide for citywide peace and harmony. We Austinites are, verily, a famously quarrelsome bunch.
"I know I can't please everybody," Dearmond said. "I've given up on that."