The reason you can find employment as a dishwasher without a resume, recommendations, or an interview becomes obvious after you finish your first full day on the job. The pay is low. The hours are excessive. The work is relentless and brutally physical. The turnover rate is high.
This week ran from Wednesday through Saturday. I did four shifts, all over twelves hours. Saturday began at noon with me scrubbing out a grill, and ended after midnight with a coworker accidentally stopping up a grease catcher and flooding the kitchen. That meant an extra hour of mopping up a wet floor covered in oil and half-eaten, partially decomposed animal fat. I didn’t get home until it was almost one in the morning.
Lest you think I’m whining or complaining, rest assured I am not. The dish washing fraternity has produced many more great writers than my other alma mater, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey. Considering how James Baldwin and George Orwell both spent time working as bus boys and waiters, and how Herman Melville almost certainly had to swab the deck of his whaling ship clean of animal grease, I probably belong to a more distinguished group of alumni than last year’s graduating class at Princeton or Harvard.
Melville, Baldwin and Orwell didn’t become great writers because they worked at menial jobs. They became great writers because they overcome the physical strain and emotional alienation of working at menial jobs. After Charles Bukowski clocked out of his twelve hour shift at the Post Office, got drunk, and had a fight with his girlfriend, he still had something leftover at two in the morning to sit down at his desk and write Post Office and Ham on Rye. Walking home from work on Saturday night, I decide that to prove to myself that mopping up animal grease has not beaten me down, I will take a long bike ride the next day, not an easy 20-mile ride through town, but a mid-range, 40-mile ride through the Watchung Hills.
On Sunday morning, I sleep late, get up, practice my Spanish lessons, play my clarinet for a half hour, and get on my bike at 5 o’clock. It’s June. The days are long, and I still have plenty of light. The sun doesn’t set 8:28PM, something I had noticed, the previous evening at work, with some dismay. “My God, I had thought,” looking out the window after probably my 500th load of dishes, “it’s still light out. That means I’ve got at least three, probably four hours to go.” Now the tables are turned. “Awesome,” I think. “It’s only five o’clock. I can spend at least three hours in the woods on my bike.” I ride out of town on my Specialized Allez, a 6 year-old, entry-level, aluminum road bike that in spite of its cheap price, never seems to fail me. I wasn’t crazy about it when I first bought it. What I really wanted was a Trek 520 or a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a serious, and seriously heavy, steel touring bike, but at the time I didn’t have $1300 dollars. I only had $700 dollars, so an entry-level aluminum road bike with Shimano 2300 drive train was all I could afford. Now I love it. I’m just about six feet tall. The 56-inch Allez fits me perfectly. It sometimes feels as if it had been designed for my 32-inch inseam and my long torso. It’s light and responsive. It corners well, and I’m strong enough to take on just about any hill, even riding a compact double, and not a touring drive train.
As I ride through the woods, I begin to worry. Cycling, like a long shift washing dishes, initially separates your mind from your body, lets your brain wander through the recent, and distant past. Images, past conversations, song lyrics, the memory of certain physical gestures, old and new daydreams, current events, and plans for the future flow through your consciousness like a river full of debris you gaze down at from a bridge. I remember a conversation I had with the head waiter, the head waitress, or the manager, whatever title she goes by, at the end of the previous night. We talked about the town, which has a rich north side, a more modest, lower-middle-class south side, and a reputation for flooding. “At least the north side floods,” I said. “God punishes the rich.” The manager has a disarmingly ingratiating personality. I always used to think people like this were my friends, not realizing that people in positions of authority are always good at making you think they are your friends, getting you to open up and be yourself. “Oh,” she said, as I realized that, without realizing it, I had revealed myself as an angry leftist. “Only people on the north side of town care about the difference between the south and north side of town. The south side floods anyway. My parents had five feet of water in their basement after Hurricane Sandy.”
In other words, perhaps cheering on God’s wrath against rich, bourgeois scumbags was probably the wrong thing to say while working at an expensive restaurant that caters to the affluent. As I climbed into the Watchung Mountains, and as physical exertion overtook worry, as my mind and body had to overcome their alienation from each other to tackle the steep hills, I also realized neither I nor she really cares if I’m an angry leftist who hates the rich. You don’t hire a dishwasher become you care about his politics. You hire a dishwasher because he can show up every day on time, then work twelve hours for $9 dollars an hour without a break or a lunch hour, and without complaining. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I had overcome the brutal work week, not by sitting around the house, but by exerting myself even more, using non-alienated labor to heal myself from alienated labor. On the simplest level, riding a bike up a steep hill and running dishes for twelve hours are pretty much the same thing. Your heart beats faster. Your muscles tire. You are progressively transformed from man to machine. The larger difference is that working for another person has no payoff other than the money you get for putting yourself at his or her disposal, for following orders, and doing what your told without complaining. Riding a bike up a hill is the opposite. After you reach the top, after you conquer the hill, you are no longer a machine. The bike responds to your command. It carries you where you want to go. The machine, far from conquering you, has become an extension of your will. You have conquered the machine, and, by extension, capitalist alienation.
As I looked down at the Manhattan skyline off in the distance I realized that my mind and body had become one. My lungs breathed freely and easily. My back no longer ached. I was calm composed, content, not anxious and jumpy, a free man, not a slave waiting for the next command. The rest of the ride was pleasant and easy, an enjoyable little trip through the woods. Indeed, at the 35-mile mark, I began to wonder if 40 miles are even enough to challenge me anymore. Maybe the next day, I thought, as I pulled up into my driveway, I’d schedule a longer ride. I had defeated the physical challenge of four consecutive twelve hour shifts as a dishwasher. Even at age 50, I realized, I’m still physically strong. The only thing left was to write it all down.