Free Living Through Dirty Dishes

A kitchen Kerouac walks away from the job whenever he damn well pleases


One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
By Pete Jordan

Reviewed by R.A. DiDio
Philadelphia Inquirer/October 7, 2007

The award for the dirtiest blues tune ever written (literal and figurative category) goes to John Newton for “Too Many Dirty Dishes . . .”

I cleaned your dirty dishes
How much more am I supposed to take?
When I left I had fruit loops for breakfast 
Now there’s a bone from a T-bone steak, y’all
I say there’s too many dirty dishes,
Baby, in the sink for just us two 
Well you got me wonderin’, baby,
Who’s makin’ dirty dishes with you

For Pete Jordan, author of the hilarious Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States, there are never enough dirty dishes as he travels around the United States in search of fleeting jobs, cheap lodging, and free leftovers from the Bus Tub Buffet.

In a thoroughly entertaining memoir describing the zen pleasures of unending menial tasks and a totally unfettered lifestyle, Jordan — a.k.a. Dishwasher Pete — chronicles his soapy attempts to fulfill his life’s ambition of busting suds in every state in the nation. His frenetic job choices and impulsive travel decisions prove him to be a veritable KitchenAid Kerouac, a Dharma Dishdog who takes inspiration from George Orwell’s description of his own dishpit stint in Down and Out in Paris and London: “And yet the plongeurs, low as they are, also have a kind of pride.”

Pete Jordan is definitely not a plongeur!

Pride, indeed. Jordan is the ultimate professional nonprofessional. Following a set of personal dictums honed while scrubbing thousands of burnt pots, Jordan’s Rules go from practical (never take a job that you can’t walk away from on the spur of the moment) to philosophical (never take a job where you can’t wear long pants and not sweat). For him, the thrill of job-seeking comes from the knowledge that he will walk away whenever he wants — on his own terms.

(A confession: After two nights of cleaning the supper dishes of the family that managed the hamburger joint of my one and only dishwashing job, I quit in a show of teenage defiance. Dishwasher Pete would surely approve of this action, but would be highly critical of my technique — I never got paid.)

Where Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential recounts his “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” Jordan’s Dishwasher describes all the inedible bits that fall off the bottom of that same underbelly. From scraping pots on an oil rig, to hoodwinking David Letterman in an infamous bait-and-switch, to learning how to “dish kosher” from a born-again Christian, Jordan’s exploits are the stuff of pearl-diving legend.

Along his 12-year journey, Jordan does find time to investigate the history of his trade. With his unique analyses of wildcat restaurant-worker strikes in New York City and early union-organizing efforts of student dishwashers (not surprising, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), Jordan honors those who cleaned before him. He’s not afraid to display his political stripes on his rolled-up sleeves either: Although highly respectful of Gerald Ford’s time spent as a dishwasher, he is repulsed by Ford’s pardon of Nixon — a lousy busboy! (In the inverted world of dishing, busboys are only slightly higher than waitstaff.)

No better than Nixon — Washington, D.C. Student busboy working in the kitchen of the cafeteria at Woodrow Wilson High School, 1943. (Library of Congress)

Dishwasher Pete definitely has it all — job insecurity, disgusting work conditions, and very sticky shoes. Is it any wonder, then, that he also has a devoted girlfriend who sticks with him through thick and gloppy?

So if you’re looking for a riotously funny book to clean away those blues, read Dishwasher. Only be warned: Dishwasher is gross and slimy, and will coagulate on the hairs of your arm with repeated immersion, leading to convulsive laughter and an inability to hold onto a job for more than three days. Do not read on a full stomach!

Dishwasher Pete just can’t let go..

Richard DiDio teaches physics and mathematics at La Salle University.

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