Durham County

From crime to grime: Durham maids hit the streets in style

When is a retired police car no longer a police car?

Ask Carpe Diem Cleaning, a 20-year-old small business in East Durham, whose fleet of company vehicles includes nearly a dozen former patrol cars.

“They’re like rolling billboards,” said assistant manager Andi Delgado.

“They’re built like tanks,” said Madeline Peacock, general manager for Carpe Diem.

The cars, decade-old Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, have moved on from fighting crime to fighting grime.

“They’re American-made, so parts are affordable,” said Wendy Clark, founder and owner of Carpe Diem, a home cleaning service that makes house calls around the Triangle.

“Cleaning is dirty work, so if we can provide a little bit of humor and a little bit of joy, that’s me,” Clark said.

The Interceptors have been stripped of their light bars, department insignias and bullet-proof backseat barriers, but still look enough like police cars to earn a double-take. Clark said that once, while driving one of the Interceptors in downtown Durham, she saw another vehicle make a hard stop at a yellow traffic signal.

“(The driver) saw us and slammed on the brakes,” Clark said.

You can still see a small, faded alias of “2751” on the rear bumper of one of the cars, and a searchlight pokes out of its driver’s side door like a third eyeball.

A bull bar, used for nudging other vehicles, still guards the front grille. A stump of wires hangs from beneath the dashboard like a loose root, a vestige of the car’s communication systems.

“We’ve got a lot of clients who say, ‘You use the old, refurbished police cars,” Orsini said. “They know us by it.”

Gumption, no gimmick

One of those clients is Durham resident Greta Boers, who said she has been using Carpe Diem Cleaning since 2014.

“It may have been seeing the (used police) cars that made me think of them when I was looking for a cleaning service,” Boers said. “My neighborhood is heavily into the ‘reduce, re-use, re-cycle’ side of the social and political spectrum.”

For Clark, having a fleet of used cars grow into a de-facto brand signature was more about gumption than gimmick.

“It was an economical way to build up a fleet,” Clark said. “It really broke that fear of cars.”

Clark’s education in used car ownership began when she was a teenager, growing up in a home broken by alcoholism. Clark, her three older sisters and her mother all found themselves at the mercy of a family car they knew nothing about, enduring roadside breakdowns in and around their hometown of Buffalo, New York.

“Cars are really the point of pain for fatherlessness,” Wendy Clark said.

Trying to manage daily life with an unreliable vehicle only added to the family’s emotional and financial strains. At 17 years of age, Clark took matters into her own hands by working part-time at a drugstore, saving her money for an escape.

“I didn’t enjoy living at home and was desperate for a different situation,” Clark said.

‘Road less traveled’

Clark bought herself a plane ticket and spent her senior year of high school with relatives in Sweden. She graduated with honors and returned to the United States intent on starting her own small business.

“My year in Sweden truly impacted my confidence level to take the road less traveled.”

Clark divided her time between scrubbing floors as a one-woman cleaning service and attending college on a partial scholarship. After one semester at UNC, she dropped out.

“Carpe Diem began to grow, and I realized that there wasn’t a degree that would get me closer to my dream of helping people, so I didn’t go back,” Clark said.

Clark first tried managing transportation to and from client’s homes by reimbursing employees who used their own vehicles.

“Finding an employee pool that had their own transportation became non-existent,” Clark said. “It was the barrier to growth.”

A purchase of several Ford station wagons with manual transmissions was a non-starter with Clark’s largely immigrant staff.

“I had the assumption that everyone outside the U.S. drove a stick-shift,” Clark said.

Police auction

Inspired in part by a municipal focus group on economic development, Clark attended a police car auction sponsored by the Durham Police Department. She left the owner of two used police cars.

“When I first started Carpe Diem,” Clark said, “a client in Chapel Hill told me that one of the reasons they hired me was that, ‘I don’t have all those fancy cars.’ That stuck with me.”

Clark would go on to purchase more cars at police department auctions all around North Carolina.

“They’re safe, solid cars,” Clark said.

Clark’s branch manager, Orsini, who started with Carpe Diem four years ago as a house cleaner, still fill in for cleaners on occasion. She was driving car 2451 along East Durham’s Liberty Street when an active duty Durham PD police car rolled past - a late-model Dodge Charger.

“Maybe one day we’ll get those cars,” Orsini said.

While the cars have represented a learning curve for Clark, she chalks it up to being entrepreneurial with life.

“I hate cleaning, but I found out I could make money at it,” Clark said.

Steve Bydal: stevebydal@gmail.com