what’s wrong with being a dishwasher?

i just listened to one of my favorite radio voices, hannah joffe walt, do a this american life episode about poor kids and college and making it vs. not making it.

it was good. i love her voice and i love stories and i am always impressed at how these folks pump out these radio stories every week and they are so high quality, compelling, and keep my attention. i guess i am especially impressed now because i’ve been trying it. i’ve been trying to tell stories and make podcasts and it’s hard. stuff happens to me every day. my life is full of surprises and inspiration and ups and downs and yet trying to weave it into an audio journal is hard work. while i obviously don’t have the training for this, or producers and editors and sound designers, they somehow make it sound like it would be easy. when someone is really good at what they do they make it look easy.

take for example al, our dishwasher at my restaurant. al doesn’t say a word all night. he just does his job. he does it so well that he makes it look super easy. it’s not. any time you see a new person start that position you realize how different it can be. they can be backed up all night on a tuesday and need someone to bail them out for 30 minutes out of every hour. if you were watching it all you would scratch your head and say, “what is this person doing wrong? how can they be so bad at this?” but in reality, they are not “bad” at it, they are pretty much “normal” at it. any joker you brought in from the dining room would be about the same or worse. no. it’s that al is GOOD at it. being good at something is rare. at least it seems rare to me. i see people that are good at their job every day because i have worked hard to foster a good work environment and encourage folks to excel at their job. we also are lucky to get good applicants for jobs maybe because our restaurant pays better than many of the other local spots. people don’t leave the job often so the turnover is low. people work there a long time so they get good at what they do. so i do see people good at their job a lot in my insulated world.

but i don’t really want to talk about the people who are NOT good at their jobs but the people who ARE good at their jobs. al is good at his job. freddy is good at his job. freddy is my equipment repair guy and he takes so much pride in his work. when he comes in to fix anything he always looks at it from every angle. he not only fixes things but he improves them in the process. freddy will admit he is a redneck. he lives in a trailer with his young wife crystal. he’s not ashamed of being a redneck, he embraces the term. but he also is smart and funny and really really good at his job. we took apart our kitchen to install new floors and ovens. when we were putting back a shelf over the 3 compartment sink freddy realized we should add a 2x4 to the bottom of the shelf so it rested on the back of the sink. the shelf was a wooden 2x6 covered with a bended piece of stainless that covered the wood and then made a backsplash that attached to the wall. freddy could see that it was better to rest the shelf on the sink instead of hanging it off the wall. he went out of his way to fix it right. one piece of equipment has a wheel that sits on a drain. freddy said “next time we get a chance we should move that wheel so it doesn’t rest on that drain.” there are several reasons the equipment should not rest on the drain but i’ve certainly never noticed it or thought about it. freddy sees everything. he shows me the reason our dish hose it breaking often is because it is being left hung instead of held up by a hook. he can fix anything and does, but he is always figuring out what is causing the problem instead of just replacing parts. it is so rare to find someone like this. i used a lot of fix it guys before finding freddy. i’ve never met anyone so engaged in the work they do and so knowledgeable about repairing equipment. he’s happy too. i don’t think it’s ever crossed his mind that he’s “only” an appliance repairman because he’s an incredible appliance repairman. he loves what he does and it shows.

in the this american life episode there is a girl who wasn’t able to go to college and she is sort of portrayed as being stuck in a dead end job as a clerk at a supermarket. i understand this. i know people want more from their lives and she wants more from her life probably. but what i want to say, what i want to shout, what i want to somehow make into a ted talk and a mantra is… it’s okay to be a supermarket clerk. embrace it. be great at it. enjoy it. learn to live within the money that job provides… or find a better cashier job at a place that has better benefits and cares more about it’s workers. in other words, instead of treating low wage jobs as dead ends, treat them as a challenge to conquer. when i washed dishes i loved it. i tried to be the best. i wanted to wash them faster than they could be dirtied. i wanted to be the first guy done after work. when the rest of the kitchen guys took a break i went and got their dishes so i could get out before them. i wanted to be hyper worthy of my pay. i wanted to be content and i was. my wife and i bought a 704 square foot $30,000 house and i added on a screen porch by buying a few boards each paycheck. we gardened. we played scrabble. we put baskets on our bikes and rode them to get groceries. we had lots of laughs. we had no TV. we never tried to compare our lives to anyone else, but decided to be happy with the lives we led.

one day when we were on a walk in the neighborhood, (my wife and i when we were young….) i saw a lady out in the middle of her yard hanging clothes on a line. she had a hose stretched out to her washer in the middle of her yard and she took out the washed clothes to hang them on a line between the trees. i thought right away, “hey! we don’t have to go to the laundromat anymore! we can do that!” and the next paycheck i bought a used $100 washer and ran a hose to it and we were free from the weekly laundromat trip. our lives were instantly better because we could hang around our own house working in the yard and doing laundry at the same time.

i am a rich guy now. i am a white male from the suburbs of jacksonville florida and as a outgoing white guy with moderate intelligence i was able to find a path to money. it wasn’t until my mid 30’s but i wasn’t hindered by racism or lack of opportunity. but i wasn’t always a rich guy. i wasn’t born a rich guy. my mom was a 1st grade public school teacher and my dad was getting a disability check. i made a way to riches mostly by accident but i think it was an accident fueled by optimism and a desire to be really good at whatever i set out to do. i was actually driven to be the best dishwasher out there. driven i tell you. compelled to be content and spend what little money we had wisely. my favorite quote of all time is by vincent van gogh. i probably reference it entirely too often in times when i want to discuss things like this but here it is:

If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.

when i mastered dishwashing i gained insight into owning a restaurant. as i learn to master painting, i gain insight into happiness. there is so much to be said for doing one thing well. one thing. well.

in america we put too much importance on our place in society. our status. our class. why not put more importance on being good at whatever we do? being proud of being a great cashier? where are the stories about the dishwasher who never misses a shift, who makes his job look easy when it is actually very hard, and who has found a happiness and contentment in his station? freddy found it. al seems to have found it. my plumber marion seems to have found it. being happy and learning to live within your means is so much better than being rich and being an asshole. or being rich and looking down on people. even in the story on this american life the clerk acknowledges that the rich people who shop there can often treat her poorly… seem to look down on her. so we want to strive to be that? to be rich? successful? making 75k a year? no thanks. i’d rather be the best cashier in the place, the happiest cashier you’ve ever met, and all that at only $9 an hour. that, to me, proves character.

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