Portland, Oregon
July 24, 2000


I'm back at one of my usual jobs here in Portland – washing dishes Saturdays and Sundays at a hippie-ish, mostly vegetarian diner. I'm also lobbying to get my old Saturday night gig back at this hipster burrito restaurant and bar. I've got the same arrangement with the owners of both places: $6.50 an hour cash, plus an even share of the tips, plus all-you-can-eat food and beers after the shift. If I get that Saturday night shift, it'll mean that in the 31 hours from 10 a.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday, I can earn nearly $300 cash. It's no wonder that I always drift back to Portland.

The diner is kinda funny because the employees are mostly bitter punkers serving rich hippies. It's an old, cramped operation. I have to move whenever a customer heads to or from the bathroom. The place has a 1947 Jackson cylindrical dish machine. It's cute to look at and it's a nice antique, but it's a complete failure when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing dishes. The spray arms don't spin. At least last year the machine had hot steamy water kinda splashing around. Now the water is just a tepid, non-soapy gray.

When I introduced the topic of the machine to the owner, he said, "Oh, I know, don't you just love it?" He's gay and a bit flamboyant, and went on to rave about the old Jackson. I realized that it was a matter of form over function. He sounded like such a proud parent that I dropped the issue. Who was I to change the way things were done? I was just an itinerant on his way through town. This guy owned the place, and he seemed pleased with the way things were.

I can only say that sanitation (or lack thereof) starts at the top. And since there is very little at the top, there isn't much of it at the middle or the bottom at this place. Let's just say that hygiene isn't a priority among many of the employees. When I first started, I noticed after a couple of weeks that one of the waitresses had cut her hair. When I asked her about it she told me that she had to cut it because she had a case of lice. She then proceeded to freely inform me of her personal history as host to parasites. As she reeled off tales of scabies, crabs, and lice, I nodded politely and slowly inched away from her. She is now the day manager at the place.

Last Sunday, a patron sitting at the counter said to a waitress, "I come here often and every now and then I find a hair in my food, which isn't too unusual – it happens at other restaurants, it happens at home. But now as I sit here and look into the kitchen [through the pick-up window], I have to wonder if the hairs in my food are armpit hairs." The two female cooks that day were wearing tank-top shirts and every time they reached up for a plate or bowl, their very unshaven pits hovered above the condiment station. I do believe that Oregon health laws call for that part of the body to be covered on anyone handling food.

There's other stuff, too – like that all the refrigerators are old and frequently break down, that the water pitchers are filled in the bathroom sink, that cockroaches have their run of the place, etc. I just pray that whenever the outbreak of hepatitis / salmonella / botulism / e. coli goes down, that it doesn't happen during my watch.

So why don't I do anything about it? Why do I "re-wash" all the "clean" stuff first thing when I start my shift instead of insisting the Jackson be overhauled or replaced? For a while, my answer has been that they pay me $13 to $18 an hour to clean the dishes, and during my shift, the dishes are clean. (I can't say the same for the rest of the week.) Am I compromising the pledge I've taken to uphold the laws of sanitation? I guess so. And why don't I take action? Well, up until writing this letter, I hadn't thought a whole lot about it. I know that if I was the permanent disher there, I would make changes, but since I just pass through, I haven't made waves. But I can't remain silent any longer. I'll bring up the need to repair the Jackson this week.

As for my Saturday night gig: Four or five years ago, this guy came up to me in a bookstore in Portland and asked, "Aren't you the dishwasher guy?" I hesitantly acknowledged that I was. He said that he was opening a new restaurant on the southeast corner of 25th and Clinton, and that I was welcome to wash dishes there any time. So I went down to that intersection a few weeks later and not only was there no sign of a restaurant where he said to go, but some musty old business-machine office sat where he said his restaurant would be. "Man," I thought, "that guy was crazy. There ain't no restaurant here."

Well, when I was back in town a year later, there was indeed a restaurant in that space. I guess it took him a while to get his money together. I was immediately hooked up with the lucrative Saturday night dish shift. Unlike the aforementioned place, it was actually an honor to work at this joint, because the staff was a virtual who's-who of notable past and present Portland dishwashers. Everyone – the owner, the cooks, the bartenders – had bona fide dishwashing credentials. Even the Friday night dishwasher was actually moonlighting from his regular dish job at Genoa, the Holy Grail of Portland dish jobs.

So I liked the people. The dish set-up is good, although the whole kitchen and most of the dish pit are wide-open to the floor. Normally I hate being on view for the dining public but this place is such a hip hangout that my view usually includes many hipster girls in cat-eyed glasses and beaded sweaters, so I don't complain.

The one main thing about working there is that I work with a bunch of alcoholics. Officially, every employee is entitled to three free drinks at the end of a shift. Since the end of my shift may come at 1 a.m., and since I'm usually wiped out after working, I'll just have a beer or two (instead of the three cocktails that I'm expected to have). There was a time when I first started working there that if I left the bar before I had my allotted three drinks, I'd get hassled. One cook in particular would say, "Where ya going? You're not gonna have your third drink? That's like taking a cut in pay!"

So one time I succumbed to this cook's pressure and hung around. What difference would it make, since the bar would be closing in an hour anyway? Well, closing time came and the cook told me to accompany him on a walk around the block. By the time we had circled the block, the bartender had cleared the place of patrons. The three of us then proceeded to drink out of paper cups and watch videotapes of not one but two full-length Neil Diamond concerts, and the movie "King Kong vs. Godzilla," not once but twice.

Suddenly the daytime prep cook appeared at my side and I thought, that's weird, he should be sleeping, he's gotta work in the morning. I said, "What're you doing here?" He said, "It's 9:30 a.m. I'm here to open the place." Nine-thirty? I turned around and was surprised to see daylight. "I gotta go," I mumbled as I staggered for the door.

Fortunately my bike held me up as I stumbled home. After a brief few hours of sleep, I was back at work that night. I expected to get razzed for having spent the night in the bar, but no one said anything. Apparently it was par for the course.

Since then, I have my beer or two and then I'm gone.

This place is the number-one seller of Schlitz beer in the state of Oregon.

Well, that's the news from here. Congratulations on the lake-front house. I've been seriously thinking about buying a house in my beloved Pittsburgh, PA. I just got a letter from a friend there saying that a house up the street from her was recently purchased for $1,000 by some real-estate scum who had turned around and, without putting any work into it, is trying to sell the house for $5,000. Many of my friends are urging me to buy a house there and are even offering to loan me money to do it. How pathetic am I for needing a loan to buy a $1,000 house?