One man’s dishes

When asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” no child answers “wash dishes.” Not even Pete Jordan. He answered, “Paint houses.” Growing up in pre-gentrification San Francisco, in a neighborhood plagued with poverty and crime with a father whose tenement upbringing in Scotland made him cling grimly to a steady job he disliked, Jordan envisioned a profession both practical and carefree. He wanted a job that he could use, rather than a job that would use him. He hoped for a job that would allow him the freedom to quit at any time and get hired again just as easily, one that would allow him freedom from responsibility.

That job turned out to be dish washing.

Jordan floundered at the liberal-arts college he got into, feeling out of place among the well-heeled student body. He dropped out and tried several menial jobs, including house painting. They weren’t to his taste.

And then he discovered the dish pit.

It was a corner of the world blissfully outside the rat-race, where customers couldn’t bother him. As he dished, he got an idea: He’d travel the country washing dishes! Out of the idea came a handmade, photocopied magazine called Dishwasher that became one of the most well-known zines to emerge from the golden age of Xerox publishing. And out of 12 years of traveling and dishwashing, quitting and couch-surfing, writing and publishing, came Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in all 50 States.

Jordan’s memoir strings the narrative together through a collection of on-the-job anecdotes, detailing the peculiar people and places he comes across in his quest. Drunken cooks and deranged restaurateurs inevitably collide with Jordan and his fellow dishwashers. He encounters an aging thug, a self-styled gigolo, a Star Trek obsessed Christian, immigrants, young people, and fellow drifters, all different as they could be but for their common occupation. Jordan’s interest in dishwasher lore and the dishwasher’s place in American labor history leads to interesting interjections in the book as he crosses the continent, taking note of the spots where Little Richard and Gerald Ford busted suds, or where a protesting union dishwasher smashed the windows of the Waldorf-Astoria. As Jordan dishes at a hippie commune, on an oil rig, at an Orthodox Jewish nursing home and other locales, he learns about the country and about himself.

It’s tempting to say that Dishwasher is about travel or a tale of belated coming-of-age, but, throughout his tours of America’s kitchens and his struggle to find out what he wants to do with his life as he gets older, Dishwasher is instead about a man and his obsession with systems. Jordan’s mania for finding coins and keeping records of how many he’s found, crossing off lists he’s created for himself (to dish in all 50 states, to dish on a riverboat, etc.), and methodically walking city streets to try and hit every one, marking them off on a map, all demonstrate his compulsion to create systems and then master them. The fact that these records and achievements have meaning only to him is what makes them important—but the absurd, quixotic goal-setting that frees him from society’s game has its own set of limitations. If Dishwasher has a message, it seems to be this: Don’t become trapped in your own means of escape.

Dishwasher ends abruptly, paving the way for a sequel but denying the reader much satisfaction, withholding information on where Jordan ended up post-dishwashing. Still, Dishwasher is a rewarding journey to take, full of restaurant realism and quirky kitchens, and glimpses of America seen from the margins—a country as weird and surprising as anyone could ask for.