Raleighites: Mike Phillips and the Men at Work

by Liza Roberts

photographs by Travis Dove

Mike Phillips speaks at a decibel all his own. He booms and hollers and even shrieks, but with such visceral, upbeat enthusiasm – even joy – that you find yourself raising your own voice just to say hi back, and trying to match his megawatt smile.

He happily hollers at his workers, his customers, at strangers he’s just met; he even shouts a boisterous hello at the 79-year-old woman waiting for her car at his downtown car wash, Men at Work Car Care Center. They all smile back.

He sets the tone, and they pick it up because Phillips, 52, and his geyser of goodwill are impossible to resist. Known in the neighborhood and beyond as a redeemer, Phillips hires men who need a break, and he believes in them. Down on their luck; coming out of prison; rebuilding broken lives: With Mike Phillips, they get a chance at a new start.

His only rules are “no stealing, no stealing, no stealing, and work hard,” he says. “What I want to try to give them is a ray of hope.” He knows firsthand that they need it. “Man,” he says in the rolling, gravelly voice that projects across a room even in a somber moment. “It is so hard.”

In 1990, his drug conviction came with an epiphany: “Lord, if you get me out of this, I will turn it around,” he remembers promising. Six weeks of probation got him focused on staying out of prison. He prayed: “I will do good things. And Lord, I haven’t done it since. I took that mindset and took it to car washing.” And lifting up those around him.

“He gives guys a chance who couldn’t find a job anywhere else,” says Bill Chamberlain (above left), an old friend who was the second African American scholarship athlete to play basketball at UNC Chapel Hill. “You gotta love him; his energy is off the charts,” Chamberlain says, watching Phillips spar and joke with the workers who give Chamberlain’s car its monthly shine. “If you don’t have hustle, don’t expect a handout.”

“Bad Bob,” aka Bobby Green, 49, says Phillips gave him a job despite the decade Green spent behind bars and the extensive injuries he suffered from a recent, nearly deadly accident. “He’s given me another chance to come back into society.”

When men come to him asking for work, Phillips doesn’t ask himself if he actually needs their help. He hands them a broom or a sponge, and tells them to get busy. “I can give you a couple hours for a couple days,” he’ll tell them. Because “once you have a job, other companies will think you’re worth hiring.”

“Zippidy do-dah!” He erupts at the sight of Rebecca T. Tabon, 83, coming through his door, carrying a foil-wrapped loaf of “friendship bread.”

“He takes care of me,” says his former neighbor, who says she takes 10 days to make this recipe, and always brings him some.

The door at the car wash is constantly swinging open; half the time it seems friends like Tabon have come by just to say hello and soak up some of the sparky zest of Phillips and his bustling operation.

“What Mike Phillips does is unique,” says Mike Reed, who has known Phillips since their days together at St. Augustine’s College (St. Aug’s is now a university). “It’s extraordinary. I don’t have enough accolades for him.”

More than his friends agree. In his waiting room, Phillips proudly displays community service awards from The Raleigh/Apex branch of the NAACP, the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, and the Capital City Sertoma Club.

Late bloomer

A 16-year resident of Southeast Raleigh, Phillips, who has four children with Lorraine, his wife of 25 years, moved here from Philadelphia in 1979 to attend St. Augustine’s. Studies were not his thing; three F’s and an A didn’t keep him enrolled for long. After a brief stop at Shaw University and a stint back in Philadelphia, he returned to Raleigh and ran the detailing shop at Capital Ford before opening Men at Work on the corner of Blount and Cabarrus streets in 1988. When he was evicted to make way for condominiums in 2005, Phillips “went mobile,” washing cars on the street. It was a rough year. “If I ever got back on my feet,” he says, he promised himself he would “help as many folks as I could.”

In 2006, he seized on the chance to open a new shop on West Morgan Street, but another landlord change this year moved him to two new locations: One smaller operation in the warehouse district on South West Street, and this new main location on West South Street, in the long shadow of the Convention Center. It’s a corner that until recently was well known to the local police.

“It was raggedy as I don’t know what, but we took our time with it,” he says, gesturing around the freshly painted, bustling former gas station that is his new headquarters. “Guys were selling drugs on the corner. Now look how lovely it looks. That’s the Men at Work touch. We change lives. They love us over here.”

Phillips’ role as high-energy mentor doesn’t end with his working day. He has a son at home, Mike Jr., a senior at Broughton, who helps out at the shop some days, and Phillips is also in his 13th year as a youth football coach. He says he has energy for all of it because he typically feels like a man half his age – “until my back gets to hurt.” One recent afternoon, a hot-dogging leap from a parking lot wall to the car wash basketball hoop resulted in 12 stitches on his hand. He was back at work within an hour, dancing and boasting: “I didn’t cry! Cost me $150! A buck fifty! I didn’t cry!”

“He’s excellent,” says Wayne Pitter, 42, who has worked for Phillips for about three years after losing his job in construction when the economy soured. He credits Phillips with lacking prejudice of any kind. With Phillips, “you need to prove you’re working hard, you’re on time, and you’re present.” Pitter, born in Jamaica, cooks up jerk chicken and rice and beans for the crew when business is slow. That’s also when they play basketball, lift weights, or practice their golf swings. “I keep ’em busy,” Phillips says.

Some days, the crew washes as many as 50 cars at $25 each; others, as few as 10. With two full-time employees and “1,000 part times,” he’s well staffed. “Of course I got too many,” he says. “You can’t take money with you, so you should use it as a tool.” The big crew makes for a thorough cleaning. “We make sure we do a fantastic job so we can get you to come back.”

His enthusiasm is born of a dream come true: A second chance, a full and happy life, a purpose found. “God doesn’t give you a dream that with hard work, determination, and a little effort you can’t achieve,” he says. “I’m a believer that all things are possible. But you gotta sprinkle a little determination in there.”