Lessons learned while washing dishes

In the 1980s, while I attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, I worked at the dormitory cafeterias. I held a variety of jobs, from serving students food at lunch to replenishing donuts for brunch to working on the dishwasher line.

On the dishwashing line, my fellow students and I sorted out the plates, bowls, glasses and silverware from trays that glided by on a conveyor belt through a small square hole that connected the kitchen to the cafeteria. Just below the conveyor belt was a small shallow sink that ran its length, complete with flowing water that would whisk away any leftover food from the trays. The four of us students also had a giant garbage can within easy reach.

The small, square room was hot and steamy and bathed in bright light. Each student had an assigned task — one would take the glasses, another the plates, a third the bowls and the fourth person would tackle the silverware. We all had to throw any leftover food or liquid into the sink before us and toss any trash into the garbage cans at our sides. As the trays glided by, our job was to snatch our designated item from the trays, empty them of any food or liquids and deposit them into the industrial-sized dishwashing racks. Then our four professional colleagues would lift the giant racks and place them in the maw of the giant automated dishwashing machine. The machine would roar and growl and do its work, and the workers would remove the clean racks from the other side and set them apart for use at dinner.

We wore giant aprons as we performed our tasks. The students learned the rest of the uniform quickly: Don’t wear long sleeves, but wear jeans and close-toed shoes. Don’t wear your best clothes. Expect to get wet and dirty. And be sure to schedule a shower when you are done.

I worked in the busiest cafeteria on campus during the biggest meal of the day – lunch hour. We could see up to 800 trays coming through in two hours on a given day. We would start out our shift with cordial greetings and banter, asking how everyone had been since we were last together. By 11:30, a steady stream of trays would begin coming through the tiny window, and we would continue to joke and talk as we worked. At some point, one of the workers would turn on some music, which often sparked a lively debate about who liked what kind of tunes.

By 12:15, the stream of trays had ballooned to a deluge, and our pace shot into sprint mode, hands flying as we sorted and racked. An occasional glass or plate fell to the ground and brought a round of ribbing from our co-workers, as well as a swift move by one of them to grab a broom and dustpan to clear the sharp objects out of the way. At the conveyor belt, we were rooted in place, arms flying back and forth, music playing in the background, singing to the tunes, handing the full racks to our coworkers and replacing them with empty ones as fast as we could move.

By the time 1:30 rolled around, the deluge had returned to a trickle. We would congratulate each other on finishing another successful shift. I would leave, my muscles tired and aching, smelly and sweaty, my shoes covered in spilled milk and soda, satisfied that I had earned my money that day.

On rare occasions, someone would call in sick. On these days, we would have to improvise and parse out what team members would do, either for sorting or for racking. For instance, we might help out the rackers by bringing our own racks over to the dishwasher, or they might help us out by pitching in to sort dishes for a while.

On one memorable occasion, the building lost power during the peak time at lunch. The conveyor belt halted. The water in the sink stopped. The only light in the room came dimly from high windows. Students continued to bring their trays and push them through the the small opening that led into the cafeteria. We frantically sorted dishes and stacked them in racks, and then the rackers stacked the racks to await the power. Trash began to pile up along with racks of unwashed dishes. The sink began to fill with discarded food and beverages. When the power finally came on after two hours, we cheered and jumped up and down and hugged each other as if we had won a victory. It was a day that showed how essential our work was to everyone who wanted to eat lunch off of clean dishes.

I learned many things in college, and working in food service taught me even more. I discovered that caring, friendly co-workers make work better. I learned that all members of the team matter and that it is important to show up. We celebrated our victories and respected one another. We had each other’s backs.

An perhaps most importantly, I learned that ALL work matters. We performed an essential function for the college, and working with my colleagues in food service gave me an opportunity to know and respect them and their work. Over the years since then, I have observed people treat workers in certain positions as “less” because of what they do. I say, put yourself in the shoes of the workers to honor the work they do and its essential place in the world.

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