May 2007

Drew Nellins


Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States by Pete Jordan

There is, in the United States, a surprisingly large subculture held together by the National Public Radio show This American Life and all of its various connections. If you’re one of these TAL junkies, you already know about Pete Jordan a.k.a. Dishwasher Pete, who has appeared on no fewer than four episodes, telling tales about his quest to work as a dishwasher in all fifty states before turning thirty-five. Pete’s renown began with his long-running, cult-status zine (also called Dishwasher). Issues of the original, Xeroxed copies of Dishwasher remain highly-prized and nearly impossible to find.

In his new book, which is being released by Harper Perennial this month, Pete consolidates his twelve years of dishwashing adventures into a single volume. I’m so glad he did because my Ebay “Favorite Searches” alert -- which is supposed to inform me when his magazines appear for sale -- only ever got me one issue.

I really like this book. It’s not a work of genius or a peek inside the mind of one of our greatest men. It’s just an honest and fun account of a strange period in the life of a living oxymoron: a hard-working slacker. The writing is basic and straightforward, but never feels like reportage. I read it over the course of a few days, and was always happy to open it up.

Each of us entertains occasional fantasies about disappearing into the vast United States and starting a new life. Therein lies the appeal of the Dishwasher Pete phenomenon. Each time he gets bored with a dishwashing job, sick of his boss, or too hung over to get off the sofa where he’s crashing, Pete does not do the responsible thing. He does not get up and keep on plugging like the rest of us. He calls it quits (without giving two weeks notice) and moves on to the next state and the next job. As far as Pete's motivation is concerned, there is no apparent rationale behind his goal. He likes washing dishes, and he likes traveling... that's it. Thanks to the fans of his zine, Pete is never at a loss for a place to stay, and thanks to the unglamorous nature of his chosen profession, he rarely has trouble finding the work he loves. In fact, he finds work everywhere he chooses to roam, including a commune, an oil rig, a ski resort, and a fish cannery.

Pete takes pains to avoid painting himself as a hero as he tells his story. He describes (in sometimes disgusting detail) eating the remainders from the dishes that come through his dishpit, stealing beer and drinking on the job, hiding dishes that he doesn’t want to clean, making “free” long distance calls from pay phones and a number of other flagrant and funny rebellions. And, still, it’s clear to any reader that Pete is a good guy operating under his own particular code of honor.

Interestingly, he takes an earnest interest in the practice of dishwashing and reveals what he has learned in his extensive research into the job. The book is interspersed with the achievements of former dish dogs -- you’ll be surprised at how many celebrities and leaders have dished for a living. You’ll also learn, for instance, that to save your back from stooping over the sink, you should simply spread your legs wider.  

Pete is one of those guys that I’m always so grateful for, the definition of an individual. If you liked reading the zine (and who wouldn’t?) you’ll be glad you picked up a copy of the book. And to those who haven’t heard of Dishwasher Pete, it’s about time you meet him.

Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States by Pete Jordan
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0060896426
384 Pages