A few years into his quest to wash dishes for pay in all 50 states, Pete Jordan realized that what he was really doing was hunting for a town to call home. With his vagabond's satisfaction in working as little as possible and quitting jobs at a moment's notice, and his working-class disdain for bosses, he definitely wasn't after a career. But by the late '90s, his zine Dishwasher was a cult phenomenon, and Dishwasher Pete himself a folk hero and contributor to radio's This American Life.
During a 2000-01 stint in Pittsburgh, dishing at Chatham College and the East End Food Co-op, Jordan nearly bought a house here. Instead, the San Francisco native abandoned his 12-year quest, left the road, got married and moved to Europe.
Now, Harper Perennial has published a one-volume rewrite of his zine. Jordan visits on May 23 to read from and sign Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States. "I'm really looking forward to getting back to Pittsburgh," says the soft-spoken 40-year-old. "It's one of my favorite places in the world." He spoke with CP about his book, the working world, and Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife, Amy Joy.
What will fans of your zine find new in the book?
I've become a better writer. At the time I was just writing it with a pen on a piece of paper and then photocopying it and sending it to some friends -- not giving any second thought about it.
Who influences your writing?
I mention in the book when I read 26 Mark Twain books in a row. Huge influence. When I discovered Bukowski, that was obviously a huge influence: a guy writing books about his everyday life, [about] his post-office job. Raymond Carver -- how simple he can keep things and yet tell a story so well.
Why did you start washing dishes?
I couldn't get jobs where I needed experience, or that I needed education for.
Yet taking an undesirable job gave you leverage.
As loathsome as the job seems to many people, among my friends it was empowering to do the crap work nobody else wants to do, and sort of remain anonymous or not take it too seriously. Just putting in your hours and leaving at the end of the day, and picking up your check.
Is there a paradox in hating work but taking pride in your trade?
I try to address that paradox with the epigrams: Dishwashers are "quintessential dirty workers," essentially nonpersons [writes sociologist Gary Alan Fine], and yet, [writes George Orwell,] as "low as they are, they have a kind of pride."
I had my own pride. I wasn't really proud, like, "I'm working for this corporation, or I'm working for this capitalist restaurateur -- great! I'm so glad to wash this guy's dishes!"
What do you think about the Wal-Mart-led trend to call employees "team members" or "associates"?
It's sickening. It's double-speak: They're still the employees, and they still will be laid off. It's kind of sad that it works, apparently. It does have some effect on making people think they're part of a team.
Whereas you were a complete free agent.
I did have the luxury of knowing I wasn't sticking around. If I was 19 years old and had two kids and needed a steady paycheck, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did.
Why did you almost settle in Pittsburgh?
I assessed every place I've been in the country and decided that Pittsburgh was the place for me. Especially with the good quality of living, and I liked the people there, and I loved the hills and the geography; I liked the size. And the price of the houses was the clincher.
I never did buy a house. Then I did have my bike accident. Laying there at [West] Penn Hospital, under the flood lamps, with a concussion, and whatever drugs they put in me, and the doctors picking the gravel out of my face, in that moment I really did have to wonder what I was doing with my life. I decided to finish dishwashing, which took me out of Pittsburgh again.
What's Amsterdam like?
We live on [a] square that's very much sort of the stuff that small [American] Southern towns used to have, with the butcher and the baker. There's maybe 20 businesses on the square, and it's the butcher, baker, green-grocer, hair salon, drug store, et cetera et cetera -- fish monger, and a bike shop. We like it a lot here.
Do Europeans view work differently?
When we first got here, my wife and I both trained at a bike shop in the middle of the city. You can nearly walk by it without noticing that there's even a bike shop there. Both me and my wife, at different times, told the shop-owner, "Hey, we should put out a sandwich board or something!" "No, no, no, I don't want any more customers!" My wife told him, "I'm going to tell all my friends to come here." "No no no no. I don't want any more customers!" So he's only open maybe 25 hours, 30 hours, max.
I didn't know I had it in me -- it's ingrained in me as an American, that you always should be bigger, especially in any sort of capitalist venture. So many Dutch people that we've encountered, the attitude is always, "I'm doing just fine. I take six weeks of vacation a year. My business is just perfect. If I were any bigger, I would have to get employees."
What are you doing these days?
My wife and I live above a [different] bike shop. We're in the process of taking over. The owner is retiring. My wife does run it and work there now, and I do repairs now and then. Hopefully by the end of the year, the bike shop will be ours.
Pete Jordan reads from and signs Dishwasher 7 p.m. Wed., May 23. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600
- Dishwasher Pete: A self-portrait.