copyright © 1990 Todd Ristau


By Todd Ristau

Well, you know, most people don’t think that dishwashing is much of a job. They look down on ya a bit, and I can understand that because it’s usually a job held by teenagers who still love at home and don’t suffer much if they quit, don’t come in on a football Saturday, whatever. And in general I know it’s a messy bottom rung affair, but I love it. It’s honest work and fair enough pay. You know, I won’t be able to retire on it, but Hell, they won’t make me quit when I’m sixty either. I’m young enough now, and I doubt that I’ll stick with it that long, but I really do like it. It ain’t like the kitchen. I worked there too. In the kitchen you gotta be on your toes and you can’t think about anything but the waitresses yelling at you and getting the food done right. But, back in the dish room….why, you can think about anything you want and nobody pays you a second thought–as long as the silverware and coffee cups arrive with regularity.

You can get a system going and it is so automatic you can just go into your head. That’s if you’re smart, see, most dishwashers are young kids who don’t have any experience and they resent having the job. They don’t think about anything but where they wish they were. Like in the kitchen….and I have to laugh at that, these stupid young kids thinking that they’d be better off in the kitchen with the hot ovens and all that pressure.

Better pay means more respect to them, stupid bastards.

I laugh and tell them that nobody in the food service gets any damned respect anyway, so why not be where you can set your own pace and listen to the radio, sing at the top of your lungs and take a lot of breaks?

Stupid. (pause) Well, young.

I make up stories. I couldn’t do that in the kitchen. I scrub with my hands and work with my mind…it’s like a technique for freeing up the mind. Zen, maybe, with my mind and body splitting apart.

I’m a dishwasher by paycheck, and a writer by self-regard. I wouldn’t make up stories if if I had a job like cooking or where I handled money, and I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t have as much to write about if people respected me for my job. They respect me for my personality as it is, and they admire me because they see it as a personality that survives in spite of my position and condition.

They don’t know that I admire them even more for the same reason.

I laugh around and meet people and I wouldn’t have that so easy if I wasn’t doing a job they wouldn’t do. It’s instant people credit, or something, and I smile at them and say, "Blessed is the dishwasher, baby, for it is he who works in the manner of the Lord."

And they say, "What?"

And I say, "We taketh the fouled and unclean and make it clean and useful once again." Then they laugh at that and buy me a beer. They know I can’t afford it myself and I don’t mind their kind generosity…ain’t I stealing their lives for my stories anyway?

Yeah, I like who I am and I like what I do.

Some of the more practical and less philosophical aspects I could do without, like the cheap bastard who owns this place would rather buy fifteen domestic garbage disposals a year instead of one decent industrial one. I wouldn’t mind a plastic grip on the hose so that I still had some feeling left in my hands. You know, I have to test the water in my bath with my elbow because what feels good to my dishwasher’s hands is like to scald the skin off my butt?

That’s permanent. Nerve damage. That don’t go away. And the smell back there is enough to kill you when the grease trap makes the sink back up….ain’t my job, but if I want to do my job, I gotta do somebody else’s job…..and while we’re on it, who says it is the dishwasher that’s gotta clean the human throw up off the floor of the john when some drunk overdoes it?

Unwritten law of the food service.

Oh! There was a terrible situation last week….that it would not be wise to discuss in mixed company…on the subject of garbage disposals, though, when I worked my first job–which dishwashing it was–See, you start your first job in a restaurant you are probably gonna be in Food Service your whole life. It gets in your blood and it gets on your clothes…..that’s what I always say. But the truth is, you don’t need any experience to get in and you don’t learn a damned thing that is gonna help you get out. Before you know it you got 25 years as a cook, waiter, or dishwasher.

Anyway, my first job was when I was 15, at the Drawbridge Restaurant in Moline, Illinois. They had a broken disposal. We had a 25gallon trashcan under the empty hole in the sink. The dish room was hot and smelly, and the busboys thought it was great fun to come and throw balls of whipped butter at the back of your head. Every ten minutes you wiped butter off your head, blood from your fingers where broken glass or a knife cut your hand in the bustub, and you hauled that trash can full of garbage and hot water out back to the interstate to dump it by the road where wild dogs, rats, and flies were thinking it was their great day in the morning.

If it weren’t for the short skirts and low cut peasant girl blouses of the waitresses grabbing hold of my developing libido I might have got out of the food service back then and been somebody completely different…but what in life don’t have a distasteful side? Like I say, I like who I am and being a dishwasher doesn’t mean much more than that I get paid to wash dishes. A lot of people ain’t even got that to brag about.


This was written as an assignment for Lavonne Mueller’s docudrama class at Iowa. She had us read some excerpts from Studs Turkel’s book, Working, which is a collection of transcripts of people talking about their jobs. Then she had us write a monologue from the perspective of someone who worked a job. I wrote this based on my experiences at the Mill and other places I’d washed dishes…I think the idea was to write something "as if" you worked…I was one of the unusual people in the workshop who had worked and continued to work while in school. I’d asked Fred to read it for me, but he said it cut too close to the bone and wouldn’t do it, so I did it myself and then read it at No Shame.

First performed at No Shame IC by me on 9.28.90 and then I did it at that Talk Art Cabaret thing, whenever that was, and it was also recorded for WSUI's thing that Dan Coffee did, children of the corn or something like that. Locally grown Iowa radio spots. I was supposed to get a copy of it but never did. He loved the monologue. It got a lot of radio play, because people seemed to like the segment--but I never heard it. I just came in and did it in one or two takes, I might even have been a little drunk.

When it was done at Charlottesville I just grabbed a random guy out of the audience and asked him to read it for me. I had two other pieces that night and didn’t want to do them all myself. The guy I picked had never written or even thought of performing before….that guy was Sean Nitchmann, and he’s been one of our core writer/performers here ever since.

"Dishwasher" debuted September 28, 1990, performed by Todd Ristau.

Performed at Talk Art Cabaret on February 26, 1992

Performed at No Shame / Charlottesville on May 18, 2001, by Sean Nitchmann.

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