When someone asks me what I do for a living, I say, "I'm a college professor." If there's any further interest (usually the eyes have already glazed over) I say that I'm in a computer science department and I work on human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence. This all might sound rather grand--a multi-syllabic occupation, an implied abbreviation after my name--but it's not really. Here's another job title, just as long as "professor": dishwasher.
My first job was washing dishes (mostly pots and pans, actually) at a now-defunct Italian restaurant in a suburb of Baltimore. I'd come in at 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening and help the prep cooks: washing lettuce, turning tomato sauce through a mechanical grinder, and sometimes scraping the beards off mussels with a dull knife or extracting translucent cartilage from the heads of squids with a not-quite-as-dull knife. To this day I can peel wet garlic like a demon.
Once the restaurant opened for business I'd work with one or two other guys loading dishes and glasses onto racks, pushing the racks through the dishwasher, and drying the glasses with a towel or tablecloth when they came out. It was hinted that the drying part wasn't quite kosher, but our aging equipment couldn't produce spotless glasses without our help. Rick, the manager, would sometimes come back and shout at us for being so slow, or that our music was too loud. We'd shrug. What's a dishwasher to do?
As night drew on, our main work would shift to scrubbing. We'd sidle behind the cooks on the line, pick up a tub of abandoned pots and pans, and dump them into the water in the one of the stainless steel sinks in the back. The left sink would be enough to hold everything at first, but eventually the middle sink would fill up, too, with only the sink on the right free for rinsing. The coarse steel scrubbers made quick work of leftover marina, scorched mozzarella and parmasan, and other bits less easy to identify. By the end of the night my hands would be raw from scrubbing (scaly the next day), and my T-shirt and jeans soaked with dishwater from chest to knees.
I learned something about how a kitchen works but very little about how to cook. The lessons were really about the workaday world. Minimum-wage jobs are a great leveler. The cooks mostly rode motorcylces to work; I drove my parents' Chevrolet Chevette. I was in high school, thinking about college. My co-workers had other goals. Finding a better apartment. Working through a divorce. One dishwasher speculated about going to prison--he'd have no worries about meals, and he'd be able to lift weights all day long. He also claimed to own two pit bulls that he'd trained to threaten black people. No one took him seriously, but I was glad that he wasn't scheduled very often.
After a couple of years, I was promoted from dishwasher to busboy. I got along well with some of the waitresses--Lynne, with an open face and bright red hair; Laura, slim and dark, with a sardonic sense of humor. On my first night, with tip sharing, I earned quite a bit more than I had in my former position--even more than some of the waitresses, Laura told me. It didn't last. I couldn't keep up the pace. One evening, during the usual meeting before opening, I said to Mike, the manager, "I don't think I'm very good at being a busboy." One of the waitresses chipped in a correction: "No, you're not a good busboy." (This taught me something about the tradeoff between accuracy and saving face--accuracy is important when it affects your livelihood.) I was demoted back to dishwasher. I was happy to be back at my old station. I was living Harry Callahan's dictum: A man's got to know his limitations.
Eventually, though, I had to go. At another pre-opening meeting, I told Mike that I was moving on. He made the announcement to the rest of the staff and I bid my farewells. I said, "I want to do something with my life," and a wave of laughter went through the group that I didn't quite understand. I realized much later that my friends working at the restaurant were already doing something with their lives. Today I feel some embarrassment for being so callow, but I'm also glad that they could brush it aside.
I returned to the restaurant a few years ago; it had been twenty years. Waitress Lynne was tending bar. We chatted about the old days, about who had gone on to other things, about who had disappeared without a trace. Her brother, whom I didn't remember, had started a new restaurant. Was I part of her memories? I don't know. She was a good bartender, and that was enough.