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Dishwasher Pete Interview

Tuesday, 29 May 2007 08:06
50 States, 88 jobs, 15 zines, and a 10 year quest - Meet Dishwasher Pete, an epic plate scrubbing folk hero come to life. (and frequent guest on This American Life).


In the mid-1980s Pete Jordan got a job at Jack In The Box, a job that taught him quickly that he had no tolerance for customer service. Despite the boss constantly cramming "the customer is always right" rhetoric down his throat, he told the first one that demanded he move faster to fuck off. As a result, Pete was demoted to the position of dish washer, a position which he in turn found to be ideal. There was no customer service, and time away from the bosses watchful eyes left him plenty of opportunity to slack off. It was at this point that an epiphany struck Pete Jordan. He realized that he could perhaps fund his love of traveling by dish washing his way around the country and vowed to wash dishes in each of the fifty states of America. A dozen or so dish gigs later he began chronicling his soapy adventures in a zine entitled Dishwasher.

Dishwasher Pete did this for 10 years, 15 zines, 33 states, and a total of 88 different dish jobs. He busted suds on hippy communes, off-shore oil rigs, ski lodges, passenger trains, and alaskan canneries. In the process, he got quite a reputation that was of an almost folk-loric proportion. What Paul Bunyan was to lumberjacks in the 19th century, Pete Jordan was the same type of epic hero to dishwashers of the 1990s. He garnered so much attention for himself that he landed a spot on the David Letterman Show (which he instead sent his friend Jess Hillard pretending to be him), and as a regular on NPR's This American Life radio program.

In 2002, Dishwasher Pete hung up his dish towel, his insane quest, and moved to Amsterdam with his wife. He took up a new career as a bicycle mechanic, but not before writing a book. A few months ago Pete's story - Dishwasher, One Man's Quest to wash Dishes in all Fifty States was released on Harper Perennial Books.

He's currently on a book release tour across the US and will be appearing at Needles + Pens on Thursday, May 31st. But before he gets to SF, I wanted to ask the Dish Master a few questions. So, here you have it, a mini-interview with the legendary Dishwasher Pete:

Andrew: How long's it been since you washed some dishes?

Dishwasher Pete: Professionally, it's been almost six years. Non-professionally, yesterday at a friends house in Philadelphia. I'm always honing my chops via home dishing.


Andrew: Besides the random cigarette butt, what was the weirdest thing you found on a plate over the years?

Dishwasher Pete: There's not much weird to find in bus tubs since, unlike a dumpster—which may hold untold treasure—bus tubs almost always just contain the dirty dishes and some leftovers. But still, finding a twenty-dollar bill was weird since the waitress swore it wasn't from a customer's payment.


Andrew: What was your favorite reoccurring Dish tub score?

Dishwasher Pete: Easy. Super rich, super thick, super fudgy chocolate cake. It's something I never bother to buy for myself. But if it was ever on the menu at any place I worked, then I always zoned in on the bus tub, digging through it in search of such delicious booty.

Andrew: For some of the Dish washing gigs you took, did you know instantly before taking the job that this would be a wretched place to work, but god what a great story it'll make? Like the off-shore Oil Rig and the Hippy commune to name a couple. Which one's were the worst?

Dishwasher Pete: Well, first of all, every dish job that I took on I worked it because I needed the money. In the cases of places like the oil rig or the hippie commune, I was just curious about what dish washing in such situations would be like. Even if I were to never write about it, I just wanted to have the experience to satisfy my own curiosity.
As far as worst places: I steered clear of places I presumed would be too depressing to work at. For example, I'm fortunate because I successfully avoided what I considered to be places I thought would be the worst work environments for me: national/regional chain restaurants where I'd have to wear some itchy, polyester company garb and would get bawled out for clocking in two minutes late after a break. There's thousands of those kinds of places and each one had massive potential to be the worst job if I'd worked there. in general, if a job sucked, rather than endure it, I always just quit.


Andrew: I loved the famous dishwasher lore that you'd touch upon. You mentioned George Orwell's dish washing stint in Paris, Malcom X's East Coast train kitchen pot scrubbing, and Little Richard's dish spot in Georgia that supposedly inspired his rocknroll hits. Are there any other famous dish masters that didn't make it into the book and you feel are worthy of rememberance?

Dishwasher Pete: Allen Ginsberg dished in Times Square when he was young. Years ago, a friend gave me Ginsberg's phone number and I called to ask him about it. His assistant said Ginsberg wasn't available that moment. So we set up a phone interview for the following week. When I called at the appointed time, the assistant tried get Ginsberg on the phone. In the background, I heard the poet yell, “Interview with a dish washing magazine? I'm not doing any interview with a dish washing magazine!” He died a few months later and took his recollections of his dish washing experiences with him.


Andrew: Who are some of your favorite Dishwashers from the last 100 years of history?

Dishwasher Pete: Bukowski, Orwell, Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie, Little Richard...I'd gladly volunteer to work overtime with that dish pit crew any day!


Andrew: It seems like the main underlying reason for your quest was basically a desire travel the country and dish washing was an easy way to stay fed and pay for your beer. Did you ever think “fuck, I should've called myself Waiter Pete, Bartender Pete” or basically another profession that made a little bit more money than washing dishes?

Dishwasher Pete: Well, a major reason why I did dish was because of the lack of responsibility and the anonymity that the position offered. Waiting and bartending involved way too much shuckin' and jivin' for my tastes. Not only am I unable to suck up to customers, I can't prevent my true feelings for them from being expressed (which is why, when I was 17, they took me off the front counter at Jack-in-the-Box and hid me in the back with the dishes). So I was very happy accepting lower pay for less responsibility and more anonymity.

Andrew: At the time you began Dishwasher zine, Travel zines were really common. Punk kids were zig zagging across the country and writing zines about their exploits a la Cometbus zine. It seems like a big theme of those zines back then was traveling by dumpstering food and scamming everything from greyhound bus tickets to the government by collecting food stamps and G.A.. (I guess you did have your “Gizmo” for making free long-distance calls on pay phones) How come you took such a proletariat blue collar approach to it all and worked your way all over?

Dishwasher Pete: When I initially envisioned producing a little self-published magazine devoted to itinerant dish washing, I didn't even know what a zine was. So it wasn't like there was a conscious decision on my part that I would do something different to all these existing traveling/dumpstering zines. I just did what came naturally and that involved trying to round up a few bucks to get by (eat some food, buy a Greyhound ticket, etc.). And actually, despite my quest, throughout those twelve years, I did my best to NOT work whenever possible. (On a related note, my all time favorite zine is the utterly brilliant Scam!)


Andrew: Another thing that amazed me about your quest is the dedication you had to this, let's face it, sort of miserable minimum wage paying job. A job in which most of the time your co-workers were red necks, gnarly ex-cons and other folks that probably wouldn't be the company you'd keep if you chose.

Dishwasher Pete: Thanks.

Andrew: I know you were a frequent guest on This American Life. Did Ira Glass approach you to be on his show or vice versa? And why did you pursue This American Life and reject the offers you got from CNN, ABC, and the indie film makers that wanted to tell your story?

Dishwasher Pete: It wasn't as if I was saying NO to everyone and then I jumped a mile high when This American Life asked me to be on the show. Actually, when a friend passed along the message and gave me told me TAL's phone number, I had never even heard of the show. After failing to make the call for a month or two, the friend said he'd call them for me. When I learned they wanted me to read the Letterman bit, I was relieved since that was already written and I wouldn't have to do any work.

Andrew: And how did you sort out getting paid from the David Letterman show after they found out a phony Dishwasher Pete appeared on their show?

Dishwasher Pete: Jess called the talent coordinator a couple weeks later asking for the money. She was very cool to him; told him she knew he was an “imposter.” But not long afterward, the $500 check showed up—just in time to pay Jess' rent.

Andrew: Do you think that now that you've got a book out, Letterman would have you on again or did you pretty much burn that bridge?

Dishwasher Pete: The book has been sent to them. A producer acknowledged receiving it. But I guess they still don't see the humor—they haven't called back.

Andrew: Throughout the book you mention all of the different types of Mac and Cheese boxes you collected in the states you traveled through. How many different boxes are you up to today?

Dishwasher Pete: Not sure how many boxes the collection contains since portions of the collection is spread around the country. But they're being rounded up for an installation that'll take place at Reading Frenzy (Portland OR) on the evening of June 7th.

Andrew: Do they have boxed Mac and Cheese in Holland?

Dishwasher Pete: Thankfully (for my the sake of my health), no.


Andrew: It's nice that despite the Bukowski quote you used - “What woman chooses to live with a Dishwasher?” that you still managed to get a woman to live with you and move across the world with you.

Dishwasher Pete: Yeah, I've answered Bukowski's question: an incredibly wonderful, beautiful woman chooses to live with a dishwasher!

Andrew: If dish washing paid enough to sustain a family and buy a home, would you have continued?

Dishwasher Pete: Sure, under those circumstances, there's a good chance I'd still be at it. But it doesn't so I'm not...


Andrew: What's next for Dishwasher Pete - a book on bicycling in Amsterdam or a movie staring Jess Hillard as Dishwasher Pete?

Dishwasher Pete: Yes, there will be a book about my life in Amsterdam, all seen through the lens of cycling. And Jess as me in a movie? I'd watch that!

Andrew: And lastly, are we ever going to see Dishwasher zine #16?

Dishwasher Pete: Dishwasher #16—after more than eight years of quality procrastination, is out! It'll be on the shelves of Needles + Pens any day now!

GO see DISHWASHER PETE on TOUR!! He'll be at Needles + Pens in San Francisco Thursday May 31st @ 7pm. Sacramento, Oakland, Portland, Seattle ...he's coming your way too!

PS - Dishwasher, One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in all Fifty States is available at neighborhood independent bookstores nationwide. Or if you can't find it there I recommend ordering it online from these fine zine slinging establishments: Needles+Pens (duh), Reading Frenzy, or Quimbys.

PSS - Some of the images for this blog were taken from the long out-of-print Dishwasher 7" that came out on Sticker Guy Pete's 702 records many moons ago (...is that credit enough?)

PSSS - For more info on the Dish Master Pete Jordan visit Dishwasher Pete.com


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