Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dishwasher - Pete Jordan

A few years ago (in 2006) I hated my job so much that I typed something into Google like, "My job sucks." It brought up a few results, and the one I ended up clicking on was an account of a guy taking a bunch of dishwashing jobs, even though he seemingly hated them. It struck me as hilarious that someone would willingly subject themselves to low wages and back-aching conditions just to enjoy the minimum responsibility possible.

A couple years ago (in 2007), I was at a bookstore in Nantucket where Doctor Faustus caught my eye. I read the first chapter and decided I needed to own it. At the same time, my younger brother had found a book himself--Dishwasher. Remembering the online writings I had found, I put two and two together and decided that it must be the same guy. Apparently he had gotten a book deal. It was published in 2007 after all. I told my brother to get it, and he did. He enjoyed it, and now I had a chance to read it, and I am here to report that it is quite enjoyable, and thought-provoking in ways one might not expect.

If there is any problem with this book, it is that dishwashing really is the primary subject. People might think this makes for a boring book. But it is not--it may not be one of the best books I have read in the last year, but it is certainly way above average. So there is not really any problem with it, but people may initially balk at the idea of reading about dishwashing. It could make for boring subject matter, but Pete Jordan is idiosyncratic and ethical enough to wrap his story in a rather engaging context--that is, his quest to wash dishes in all 50 of the United States. Does he accomplish his mission? Will Sufjan accomplish his?

Having worked in a restaurant (as a waiter, not a "pearl diver," which probably robbed me of a little extra enjoyment out of the book) I can understand that jobs in the food service industry are prime fodder for literature. There is just something about feeding people, and the personalities that get involved in that pursuit, that combines to make for memorable episodes. Pete meets many people along the way as he attempts to fulfill his quest through the years of 1989 - 2001, but most of them are seemingly fans of his zine "Dishwasher," which released 16 issues. To have gained such a popular following with his zine is a huge achievement, but Pete does not consider himself a writer. He considers himself a dishwasher who happens to write.

In an age where all the dream jobs seem to be stacked in competition, and life resorts towards constant disappointment and disillusion, Pete's story is a breath of fresh air. It is easy to get a dishwashing job anywhere--though few of them end up being ideal. In his best gig, he works in an Alaskan fishing town over the summer, works 120 hours a week (padding his hours which doesn't faze his boss), receives health insurance, and makes around $1,000 a week. In the early 90's or whenever this took place, that's not bad at all. Sure it's an insane amount of hours, but his room & board is also covered, and is a 30-second walk to his workplace--the dishpit. He seems to gravitate toward Portland, OR many, many times. He finds many readers of his zine there, and meets his future wife who happens to work at a store where it is sold. He goes to New Orleans and tries to disprove the common perception that only black people are allowed to wash dishes there while white people must be the waiters. He dishes on an oil rig, which is close to breaking his fundamental rule that every dish job must include the ability to leave at a moment's notice. The number of times he gets hired and the number of times he quits is insane. He generally gets every free meal he possibly can out of each of his gigs, and beyond that he keeps a generic macaroni & cheese box cut-out art piece which includes all the different brands that he has tried. He dishes at two different communes in Missouri, also intriguing scenarios. He provides accounts of former dishwashers turned famous personalities--Malcolm X, George Orwell, Jay Leno, Sidney Poitier, Larry Flynt, Richard Gere, Ronald Reagan, Bruce Lee (sic), Little Richard, Alex Chilton, and several others I am forgetting. He is not blind to the objective appeal of the position--he is well-aware as he reveals here:

"I guess he was worried that dishwashing would be considered too low class. After all, in an opinion survey of 1,166 adults who were asked to rate the status of 740 occupations, dishwasher ranked #735. Only envelope stuffer, prostitute, street corner drug dealer, fortune teller and --#740--panhandler rated lower. What appealed to me about the job--that low status--was the very thing that embarrassed my dad." (75)

He also finds out the answer to Charles Bukowski's question, "What woman chooses to live with a dishwasher?" He also makes an appearance on David Letterman--sort of. Overall, this was a breezy book that provided a good share of laughs and always intriguing accounts of real life. I read it in a few days and didn't like putting it down very much. It's also a good example of zine culture, which sadly may die out as things like this very blog tend to overrun that noble and old-fashioned pursuit. Writing a blog post is so much easier than printing out a new zine and shopping it around to independent bookstores and selling it for 50 cents. I suppose it's all a matter of how much stock you put in real printed material.

Well now Dishwasher Pete lives in Amsterdam and is apparently writing a book about bicycling around that crazy city. I'm sure that will be enjoyable as well. As a final word, I can only say that if you hate your job, this is a good book to read--and probably a good book to read on lunch breaks, as I did.


Kim Gail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

as a former dishwasher myself, I give a rousing hats off to a man that can successfully find a romantic interest that pays more than 5 seconds of further attention upon finding out about his profession. I'll keep an eye out for this one