Scrubbing to an Understanding: What I Learned Washing Dishes

The first few days on the job were arduous. I should’ve been able to snuff out that Dietary Aide was code name for dishwasher—in fact, if I had bothered to read the job description packet that I was given during my interview then I could’ve certainly confirmed this—but nevertheless I didn’t anticipate that nearly the entire essence of the job was to stand in the corner of a hot and humid room and scrub pot after pot after pot for eight hours of the day. Days in which we served clam chowder were the worst as, although I would contend our kitchen cooked up a respectable chowder, the last remnants of it would remain stuck and burnt to the bottom of the pot and practically impossible to fully scrub away. Macaroni and cheese pots, chicken parmesan trays, and muffin sheets, believe it or not, could all make a case that they were just as formidable to clean. The endless convoy of dirty dish carts would begin to encircle me as the day wore on, taunting me in their numerical advantage of hundreds to one, surmountable, always, but never going down without a fight.

Before, rinse and repeat used to be an expression, but now it had context. On go the rubber gloves with their weird light blue complexion—worn by how many sweaty palms before me I preferred not to consider. One giant silver sink, water and soap, water hot enough to put my hands and wrists on the verge of first-degree burns, that I would fill nearly to the brim with pots and pans. And then I would scrub, relentlessly, passionately, continuously, yielding the grossest concoction of soap, water, cheese, potatoes, tomato sauce, you name it, murky, grimy, sometimes a mustard yellow and other times a chestnut brown tank of fluid that I would drain about every 20 minutes or so. Then I would place the scrubbed-clean pots in the giant sink filled with only water beside me to rinse off any linger remnants of soap residue, and then lastly they would go into the sink filled with bright pink sanitizer. A number of these pots had curious dents in them, and I would later hear stories about how some of the previous dishwashers had a tendency to make it a war zone and the pots took the brunt of their frustrations. One previous dishwasher used to work at a seafood restaurant on the beach, and as it turns out when he came across a pot he just couldn’t fully get clean he’d toss it out the window into the ocean. He eventually got fired when one day a heavy tide brought in about a dozen pots and pans for all to see, but I appreciated the comic relief in the tale. I think the job could drive anyone mad. I think the jury’s still out on me.

At times I felt quite like a fish out of water. Simply put, I had never spent so many hours on end with my thoughts, pots, and a horribly plain beige wall. It was as if this room was purposely designed to be as aesthetically displeasing as possible: the beige wall with an appearance eerily similar to the descriptions evoked by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a vomit pink tile beneath my feat, the forever looming dense air, the forever looming hyenas—I mean, carts—testing my willpower. On the rare occasion that I was able to escape this god-forsaken room to deliver or collect food in other areas of the hospital I would find myself getting somewhat lost, and as my friends and parents can likely attest I was a grouch when I returned home for the evening. Neither particularly sociable nor a recluse, washing pots in the backroom of this hospital presented me with this peculiar conundrum of disliking the extreme degree of solitude that the job afforded but equally unable and, at times, unwilling to socialize with whichever coworkers happened to be passing through the dish room every now and then throughout the day. So for a few weeks I mostly stared straight ahead at a wall, grinned and bore it, gave my wrists and fingers a steady daily workout, and reminded myself that in a few months I was off to college and with a selective memory these three months had never happened.

Then one day, we’re probably in early July at this point, I’m sitting outside on the patio during my 15-minute lunch break. It would make far more sense to be sitting inside on this 95° scorcher, but I was determined to get some fresh air and, frankly, it was cooler outside than in my workplace. So with my Sprite, ham & cheese sandwich that more closely resembled an unappetizing melt at that point because I forgot to refrigerate it that morning, and a copy of Narcissus and Goldmund, I am sitting outside the hospital, roasting in the sun and drenched in sweat, seeking enlightenment but more closely looking the part of disheveled patient far more than competent employee. One of the cooks, Tim, comes outside to chat with me—something that normally grinds my gears when I have a book in hand. But he looks an amicable guy, probably in his early 50’s, bald, tall, a gaunt figure, but always cheery so down by my side goes my book. He usually works the early 5:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. shift and I don’t get in until around 11:00 a.m. so even if I had been a tad more sociable than I am we hadn’t had a ton of face time in the workplace in general. But today he’s working a shift along the same hours of mine, and in truth I’m thrilled to have someone to talk to for a bit.

“Y’know, Patrick, you’re doing a helluva job in that dish room. I haven’t seen the pots this damn clean in years,” he bellows, “you might not think us cooks notice that kinda stuff but we do and it’s an asset to not have to worry about that sorta thing. Shame you’re only around for the summer ‘cuz we’d love to keep ya on.”

“Well, Tim I really appreciate you saying that,” I naturally reply, “just tryna do my part and if it makes your life easier then I’m glad to hear it.”

I have no way of knowing if he’s just telling me this to be nice or if my scrubbing skills are actually superior to my predecessors at the helm of the dish sink, but I’m absolutely appreciative of the gesture and it serves as reassurance that I have been putting in a shift each and every day for a reason and that it hasn’t gone unnoticed. We went on to talk about the Sox game from the night before, and I even overstayed my shift break by a good 8 minutes before I let him know I really did have to get back at it or the kitchen might collapse.

“Good man y’are, Pat, I’da kept you out here until we both got an ear full.”

Most significantly, Tim was now someone that I could have a chat with now when I first got into work. It sounds like such a minor and trivial outlet to have, but when I knew that I may have to endure another six hours of near silence I would greatly cherish my 11:00 a.m. routine of filling the ice machines and putting any excess pots away from that morning or the evening before that would put me in the kitchen area with Tim. I learned his back was going on him, so I’d offer to carry some of the lunch trays and pots of soup out into the cafeteria for him. In return, when he had his later shift he’d round up the trash for me before I took it out to the dumpster at the end of the night—so, in hindsight, performing a gesture that did little to help his nagging back whatsoever—but often times everyone would get out ten minutes early as a result and it definitely eased my end of the evening routine that was my busiest of the shift.  In the mid-mornings we’d discuss the game from the night before and then on the days where we did both work until close we’d both jump onto I-95 and blare our horns when I got off at the exit a few stops before his. Amidst days characterized by monotony, I’d wake up in the morning very much looking forward to these short sequences that would provide me with the fuel to push through day after day.

As we went on to spend more lunch breaks together, though sporadic they were this did occur about twice a week, I learned more about Tim’s life. He lived part of his childhood in Germany as the son of a military family overseas, certainly no detectable accent to show for it however, and he now resides in Newmarket, New Hampshire. As a single dad, he raised a son that’s still serving in Afghanistan to this day and a daughter in her twenties. He was happiest when the Sox had won the game the night before, when his daughter was going to bring his grandson to the house sometime that week, and when he was going to get to Skype his son for a few precious moments. If all three of these things were in the cards, he could hardly contain his smile and chuckle as he pulled up a stool in the empty, white as snow cafeteria room. I found myself very enthralled with and admirable of this man. He had his days like anyone else, perhaps his bike cost more to fix than he really could stand to afford, Market Basket raised the price of Bud Light on him, he and his daughter may have had an argument about something—but when push came to shove he worked hard and always maintained a positive disposition I can only try to emulate in all facets of my own life.

I would ask myself questions about him that I couldn’t actually ask him directly. How was he able to raise a family as a single dad on a hospital cook’s salary? How did he always have such a cheery disposition working a job that he would readily admit exhausted the life out of him? If he wasn’t saving any money, did he plan on doing this forever? Of course, these larger questions eclipse what is generally appropriate as work chat, but they would still race across my mind every now and then. But in reality, he indirectly answered all of them too: he lived for his bike riding, the opportunities to talk to his son on the phone, his daughter and his granddaughter that had just graced his life back then. He cherished life’s simplicities, and no finite amount of money or the uncertainties of having a boy overseas could take away the tranquility and the pride that these circumstances instilled in him.

I left for school in early September, but I returned to the hospital the following summer of 2012 and then returned to work an additional nine months in 2013 when I took time off from school. It wasn’t because I particularly loved what the job entailed, the pots remained stubborn and the room remained hot and the color schemes of the room and the gloves and the water remained unappealing, but rather I simply enjoyed speaking with Tim. As I was flying to and fro Scotland to my university in St Andrews, finding time for budget-friendly weekend excursions in Europe to places as remote as Malta and Corfu, the kitchen hospital and its humble nature was able to ground me and keep things in perspective. Contrary to the many beautiful places that I have been able to see over the past five years, the hospital kitchen and its cook ten minutes down the street from my house may just have had an authenticity that nowhere and no one else could replicate. For there was a certain comradery in getting through the day, complaining when it was a busy one, an unspoken understanding that everyone working there was in it together. My paycheck wasn’t sustaining my livelihood, it would buy my textbooks and pay for last minute flights via Ryanair, but for many of my coworkers—for Tim—theirs was, and this firsthand understanding instilled me with an empathy that I have carried with me ever since.

To this day, I am still in touch with some of my coworkers from the hospital kitchen. Probably not as in touch as we ought to be, but we engage in March Madness pools, PGA tournament pools, Christmas cards—the sorts of things I suppose young adults and up engage in when people go separate geographic ways. These gestures: an email, a Christmas card, joining a flustered new coworker outside at a table in the scorching sun just because, they can all seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. A summer job, before I embarked on a voyage to school overseas, could and did seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But, and it sounds all too cliché, sometimes there are lessons that can be learned in one’s own backyard, people that can lend a hand, people that can contribute to sculpting the person one becomes.

Tim and I will still drop each other a line following a controversial moment from a Sox game—but it is admittedly far less than it used to be. I’d venture to say it’s been a good 6 months since we’ve been in correspondence at all. He used to say that he would ride his bike all around Newmarket, Durham, Dover, and all the surrounding areas. I never really thought too much of it apart from the fact that he had clearly built up quite the degree of endurance, it all sounded nice, but I resided 40 minutes away in Massachusetts and never thought I would end up living in the same area. The passage of time runs the risk of building up barriers, and sometimes it is hard to pinpoint just exactly why. Perhaps people get busy, perhaps we subliminally fear there won’t be anything to talk about when our experiences are no longer shared, perhaps they’ve changed, perhaps we have. But there seems to be a little more than dumb luck at play here in the fact that I have ended up in his neck of the woods, and if I don’t see him passing by on his bike soon enough I have to reach out. We could reminisce about my job that wasn’t so special, a job that I don’t think about very much anymore, a job that because of him I would do all over again at 17 in a heartbeat.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. kirstyleargrant says:

    This is a lovely post. Very well written and puts life into perspective. I hope you get to see your friend again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patrick Baga says:

      Thanks so much Kirsty. We’ve made plans to meet up this summer as a matter of fact

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kirstyleargrant says:

        That’s wonderful. You probably mean just as much to him as he does to you and will find lots to talk about. I love fairly close to St Andrews. Lovely place to study I would imagine. I go to Stirling beautiful camous also.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Patrick Baga says:

    I think so too, for whatever reason we make up excuses for how it won’t be the same and then in my experience at least it’s often like you never skipped a beat. St Andrews was certainly a nice place to study – can’t ask for more picturesque views. I hope to return one day. Stirling’s gorgeous, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like castles per se but I really, really like them, so Stirling does the trick there and as you say just a stunning campus. You’re situated in a truly lovely part of the world.


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