Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dishwasher Pete

I read an article about Dishwasher Pete (Jensen), an itinerant whose goal is to wash dishes in all 50 states. He was a regular on This American Life and once even fooled David Letterman by having somebody else stand in for him as a guest on Late Night. He has his own fan-zine called, appropriately enough, Dish-washer, but from what I can find on the web he hasn't published it in a while. If you want to take your chances, you can send a $1 to:

PO Box 8213
Portland, OR 97207
Here's a link to a letter Pete wrote to a dishwasher friend about working at a Portland restaurant.

There is, like everything else, whether it be backpacking or action-figure collecting, an entire subculture devoted to the lowly art of dishwashing. I wish I'd stumbled on these people long ago. I could have kept on dishwashing instead of going to college and all that other self-important crap. I did the math once and figured out I've probably worked as a dishwasher for three full-time years at four different jobs.

It all began with Friday nights at Sahara, a fish fry my mother ran successfully for over 20 years in the basement of a biker bar in Loves Park, IL. Many happy memories of scrubbing pots and pans in the wee hours while Harleys roared outside, heard through the whir of an exhaust fan. Then, after high school, I worked the summer of 1991 as a dishwasher for Canteen, where, again, my mother was my boss. This was my first exposure to a dishwashing machine, a Hobart, that was great at grinding up forks into creative origami shapes. In college I worked in the student cafeteria in Neptune Hall at NIU. The machine there filled up a room. Stuff that needed to be washed was fed on a conveyor belt. The soaps and rinse chemicals came in gallon jugs that had to be changed periodically. I worked there on and off from 1994-96.

My last dishwashing job was at Pizza Hut in DeKalb, IL, in the summer of 1996. I originally worked as a delivery driver until my car started acting up and the regular dishwasher quit. I lasted three months using this crappy dishwashing machine that could only hold one tray at a time and was only good for washing cups and silverware. Any bit of clinging residue successfully resisted this pitiful machine.

That was the last time I washed dishes professionally. Sometimes, like now, being unemployed, I romanticize about the easy life I had. And it is. Despite the grime, steam and general hard labor of the job, it is fairly simple and usually, unless you've got some hard-ass supervisor, can be accompanied by a radio. If I wasn't married, 32, in graduate school and about to be a father, I'd consider a career change.