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Meet Dishwasher Pete: The Man Who Set out to Wash Dishes in All 50 States

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In the restaurant kingdom, no job ranks lower than dishwasher. It requires virtually no skill (tons of stamina and work ethic, true, but they don't call it "unskilled labor" for nothing) or a presentable appearance. The dishwasher is typically the last guy out of the building after closing; works elbow deep in soggy leftovers; is treated like the grunt by everyone at the restaurant, including the bussers; and makes the least money.

All this is just fine with Pete Jordan; in fact, for many years, this is what helped to make washing dishes—or "pearl diving," to use the professional lingo—Jordan's ideal job.

Jordan, now 40 and living in Amsterdam, first washed dishes at a Jack in the Box after high school. His boss made him scrub pots as punishment for his bad attitude, but it was like throwing Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch: He didn't have to talk to anybody while he washed dishes, and he could zone out and listen to the radio, away from the micromanaging eye of the boss.

"This ain't so bad," Jordan remembers thinking. "Not bad at all."

One dishwashing gig led to another, and lured by the ease with which one could quit one gig and land another, Jordan made it his mission to wash dishes in every state in the country. Often hitchhiking place to place or sleeping in his van, he spent a decade in dishpits at communes, casinos, oil rigs, retirement homes, greasy spoons, the Lawrence Welk resort in Branson, a ski resort in Vermont, and a fish cannery in Alaska. As soon as he'd tire of a gig, he'd walk away and move on to the next pile of dishes.

All the while, he published a hit zine called, appropriately enough, Dishwasher, and he's just published a rollicking new memoir of the same name (Harper Perennial Press). This week, Dishwasher Pete, as he's best known, returns to his former hometown of Portland, not to get his hands dirty in the dishpit, but to read from Dishwasher and to show off his "impressive collection of mac 'n' cheese boxes and dishwasher ephemera, collected from around the globe."

MERCURY: "Work" is the central theme in your book, but the truth is, you hate working, don't you?

PETE JORDAN: Yeah, it's very true. Right now I'm lying on my friend's sofa, staring at the sunshine, and listening to music. I really don't see how work could be better than this.

Dishwashers are definitely the low men on the restaurant totem pole. What appealed to you about that?

I like being in the background, I like being anonymous, and I like to have as little responsibility as possible. And I don't like being on display or dealing with strangers or needing to have food cooked perfectly. Dishwashing offered a lot of leeway from responsibility. I don't like having to impress anybody while working. So, things like just shaving or wearing clean clothes or showering or anything—nobody ever asked me to do that washing dishes.

In the course of the book you established a personal law that you call your "fundamental rule." Could you explain that, and why it was so important to have that as your baseline?

The fundamental rule was to never take on a job that I couldn't leave once the feeling struck me. Most dishwashing jobs are in restaurants where there's usually a back door, and if not, a front door will do just as well. It's for when you get fed up or tired or too hung over or nauseous or whatever the reason may be that would lead one to want to stop working.

While in Alaska during the big oil spill year in 1989, lots of guys were getting hired to do the rock scrubbing jobs that were paying an outrageous amount of money, for very little or no skills. I passed on those jobs because it usually meant being flown out to islands or these very remote locations. I knew that if I got sick of the job, I'd find myself completely stuck on an island, and it would be horrible—my worst nightmare. So, I established "the rule" to keep myself from falling into such a position.

In the span of the book you quit 80 jobs. We don't hear about every one of them...

Yes, that would be a very tedious book.

What's your favorite quitting memory?

A great one was in New Orleans. There was this restaurant called Tavern on the Park, where Chef Tantrum cooked [You can guess how he earned this nickname—ed.], and he was such an asshole to the employees. When I realized that his father was the owner, it really made me want to quit that very night—but first I had all these dishes I needed to tackle. Then it slowly dawned on me, "What am I waiting for? I could just as well go now. I don't have to actually wash these dishes, especially if I'm quitting. They're probably never going to pay me anyhow." So I ended up hiding most of the dirty dishes throughout the kitchen, under counters and even in some ovens. That was extremely satisfactory.

One of the perks of your job was free grub. Some places would hook you up with free meals, but not all of them. In those cases, you treated yourself to the "bus tub buffet." You're more than happy to polish off half-eaten leftovers?

Well, I'd be happier if I were just fed, so sometimes in places where I wasn't fed, I'd have to make myself be fed. George Orwell addressed that decades before I took up the scrub brush [in his own memoir as a plongeur, Down and Out in Paris and London], saying at his job they got two liters of wine per shift because the restaurant owners knew that if you didn't give a dishwasher two liters of wine, they'd steal three. That's still the same case today. If you have employees working around food and you don't give them any—for free—they're going to get it anyway. And they're probably going to be a little bitter about it and will take more than if it was given to them.

But, your question was about the bus tubs, and indeed, while working, the bus tub comes back to the dish pit. I've never had any problems eating things somebody had already started. Sure, I'll finish it off.

Finally: What's the best place to wash dishes in Portland?

I'd have to give the nod to Paradox. Years ago, I was led to believe that Genoa was the best gig in town, but I've heard that's no longer the case. Paradox always treated me very well. I could come and go when I was in town, I got a share of the tips, and no one minded if I went to Belmont's Inn for a beer in the middle of my shift. Come back a half hour later and nobody would bat an eye—as long as I kept up with the dishes.

Pete Jordan will have a book release party at the Someday Lounge, 125 NW 5th, on Friday, June 1, at 7 pm ($5, 21+). On Wednesday, June 6, he'll be reading at Borders, 708 SW 3rd, 7 pm (free); and on Thursday, June 7, Reading Frenzy and the Independent Publishing Resource Center will host Holy Macaroni, where you're invited to bring your best mac 'n' cheese concoction for a cook-off and to peruse Dishwasher Pete's collection of mac 'n' cheese boxes and dishwasher ephemera (reading to follow). 917 SW Oak, #206, 6-9 pm, free, all ages.

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