You’ve probably washed dishes before, but never, like, professionally washed dishes, to the level of cleanliness I’m dealing with. I’m talking spotless, no grit, mirror-shine clean. The kind of clean you’d think just came off the damn production line; the kind of clean that somehow restores your faith in the power of people to maintain some respectable level of control over their environment, that reminds you why you go to restaurants in the first place. The kind of clean that lets you slip into a hotel bed and not fitfully struggle with the memory of the hundreds or thousands of prior occupants who fornicated and maybe even defecated between those layers of high thread-count sheets.
I’ve been working at this particular washing station now for three weeks, an endless production line of plate-scraping and dish-scrubbing. The first few days when I got into this dish gig a few months back were nauseating, the half-finished, seemingly-regurgitated remains of braised endives moistly piled atop a layer of grease-stained napkins greeting me with each new shipment of dirty dishes was unbearable, unfathomable.
I couldn’t help myself those early days; I puked and quit my way out of the first three hovels that would hire me. I had this odd notion that if I took a dishwashing job at the fanciest hotels and restaurants possible, the plates would be cleaner, more thoroughly-licked clean. It’s boggling, the degree to which I miscalculated. By this point in my story, I imagine the rich to be the most forensically repugnant group of people imaginable. It’s almost as if they chew their food for the flavor, and then, once satiated, expel the masticated mass back onto their plates. Where they get their sustenance between heavy slugs of high-priced cocktails I’ll never know. There seems to be not a single reasonably-sized soul among them; from my perch at the far rear of the kitchen, viewing through a sliver of a window buried five counters deep, I can view either worrisomely obese monstrosities or anorexic-thin public service announcements on the dangers of bulimia.
Am I being too negative? Well, fuck, I’m sorry. But I scrub filthy plates clean for a living, so forgive me for wallowing in pessimism.
It’s no one’s fault but my own, I’ll allow. I don’t even know what type of career I presume myself to be aiming for, by this point. My resume consists entirely of a once-yearly volunteer position at the local soup kitchen which was the result of a long-running relationship with a girl who finally came to her senses regarding our long-term prospects and left me this past holiday for a reassuringly-reasonable guy named Douglas who works for a bank and, god bless him, tucks his tshirts into his jeans on the weekends. Hard to blame her. I wasn’t even particularly productive at those soup kitchens.
So I’m otherwise hopeless, too unimpressed with myself to put together a typical resume—for it would be blank—and otherwise incapable of surmising reasons why any reasonable and forthright businessperson would want to hire me in the first place. It became a reasonable strategy to show up, ask to talk to the manager, flash my government health card to show I was actually a citizen, and ask for a job someplace where no one needed to see my face. Initially the strategy was to aim for room service, but it turns out that requires some modicum of work experience and job skills and since my only skill seems to be…. Well… well I guess I’m still searching for that. Since my only job skill is a buried treasure waiting to be found, it made sense to take the easiest job I could, the job no one else wanted, the job that has long stood as the baseline expectation of any job-hunter in the modern world. I became a dishwasher.
What’s been so surprising is that being a dishwashing is a hard fucking job to pull off. You can’t slack for a moment, because if you do there’s some other joker, someone exactly like you, who’s literally banging at the front door asking for work. My initial strategy of picking high-end restaurants in the aim of scraping tidier plates backfired fulsomely, as the silver-rimmed saucers of the rich and famous have revealed themselves to be an ocean of grotesquerie, and the job standards are almost exasperatingly high. I seriously started keeping track of my numbers about three weeks back and, on a good day, with nominally dirty plates at hand, I’m scrubbing through 17 full tables settings every hour. Seventeen! I’m talking aperitif glass, appetizer fork, appetizer plate, bread bowl, wine glass, scotch glass, main course plate, butter knife, steak knife, dessert plate, dessert spoon, the works. God forbid some folks come in for the tasting menu, and I’m running upwards of three dozen washable items per seating.
The manager—a stern but charming and warm French Canadian with no less than three hyphens busying-up his first, middle and last names—refuses to purchase an industrial washer. He claims it betrays the raison d’etre of the whole establishment. When he first unveiled this concept to me at the end of my first shift I almost screamed at him, but today, as I pound through near two-dozen table settings in a 70 minute period, I almost understand what he means. As a customer, you don’t want to think that some cold-steel piece of hollow engineering is involved in the preparation of your food. No, you want to know, for a surety, that human hands were involved every single step of the way. You want to know that a middle-aged woman in some foreign country whose location on the map is a vagary to you was somehow enlisted in the thread-by-thread creation of the table cloth. That underpaid-yet-hardworking artisans of the Indian subcontinent honed their craft for decades before they came to create this elegant piece of burnished silverware. Yes, you want to know that somewhere, round the back, a poor and hapless young man is scrubbing away at the dishes, holding them up to the light, running a finger across the detailed finishing of the edges, ensuring not a single fleck of grit or grease is sullying their gleaming surface.
What these wealthy dinners guests want to know, deep down, is that someone lived worse than them, and slaved in their little moments to serve them in some small and meaningless way, and that their trivial labours could be glossed over, consumed, and never thought of again, and that somewhere a job could be made, and a wage could be earned, and in so earning, the cycle could continue, so that until the end of all reasonable time, there’d be a job at the back of every kitchen, and in every factory, a job that no wealthy person would ever seem to want, but which so many people poor enough would always seem to need.