Washed Up

America's most famous pot scrubber tells tales from the back of the restaurant.

| Thu Jun. 7, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Pete Jordan is happy to have hair on the back of his hands again. The calluses on his fingertips, once riddled with deep cracks, have now smoothed a bit. The 10-plus years he spent washing dishes, pots, pans and silverware across 33 states are now happily behind him. "Dishwasher Pete" threw in the dishtowel years ago but he's just published a new book Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in all 50 States (Harper Perennial, 353 pages, $13.95), a collection of the back-of-the-restaurant observations that made him an underground literary star and possibly, America's most famous pot scrubber.

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In his new book, Jordan details a decade of dishwashing experiences such as taking a helicopter to report for a two-week dishwashing duty on a Shell oil rig, learning how to kosherize kitchen items at a Jewish nursing home, and battling cockroaches and rodents at a Chinese restaurant in Mississippi. His longest-running dishwashing job was for multiple summers in Alaska. His shortest gig was washing dishes for 90 minutes at a Perkins Restaurant in Kentucky. He earned $2 and change, and they cut him a check.

His letters to friends around the country about his life as a roaming dishwasher initially took the form of a 'zine that garnered a word-of-mouth following in the '90s. Fans were more likely to find Dishwasher on a friend-of-a-friend's coffee table than in a bookstore. The 'zine contained stories about Jordan's life and trivia about dishwashing machines and former dishwashers, such as Malcolm X, Little Richard, and Presidents Ford and Reagan. At one point, Jordan put out an accompanying seven-inch record called "Music To Wash Dishes By" that featured songs from the Queers, the Hi-Fives, Scared of Chaka and Ten-Four.

About 60 percent of the book is new material, and the rest is made up of revised, expanded segments from the original 'zines. Jordan cites Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, Joseph Mitchell, and John McPhee as his literary influences.

Jordan, now touring the country as a full-time writer, is often asked why he chose dishwashing as a profession. "I needed a job," he recently told a crowd of about 40 people at a small bookstore in San Francisco. "I had an argument with a roommate, who was mad because I wasn't paying rent. I went outside, walked about two blocks and a 'Dishwasher Needed' sign was posted. When you have no skills and you don't like sticking around, it's a good job. And they're easy to get."

Jordan, 40, is now married with a three-year-old son and lives in Amsterdam. He eats out as little as possible and does all the dishes at home. He also maintains a collection of 271 macaroni and cheese boxes. "And 21 of them have the word 'VALU' in them," he proudly told the crowd.

The catering company for the popular traveling summer punk music festival The Warped Tour recently offered him a dishwashing gig inside a mobile kitchen on an 18-wheel truck, but he turned it down. "I thought about it, but I already miss my son enough as it is doing this book tour," he says. Mother Jones interviewed Dishwasher Pete during his stopover in San Francisco.

Mother Jones: Why did you start the Dishwasher 'zine?

Pete Jordan: The idea originally evolved out of my letters to friends, before I had even heard of a 'zine. My first issue was 25 copies. I mailed some and handed out a few in Phoenix. I thought it would just be among my friends and dishwashers. Then I started getting letters, which was strange. Then there was a critical mass of friends and non-dishwashers. I almost folded because I felt awkward about it. There were so many letters, and many from people who were not dishwashers. It never dawned on me that non-friends and non-washers would read it. It made me uncomfortable. Even now I'm a private person, so it's hard for me.

MJ: But you've appeared on multiple episodes of This American Life, also. I'd think you'd be used to attention by now.

PJ: I started doing it very early in the existence of the show. I was turning down any media invitations at the time, but a friend told me the show wanted me. I had never heard of them. They wanted a story about my experience with the Letterman show. I thought, "Oh great, I don't have to do any work. I've already written this, so it will be easy." That was the first time I had read aloud. I was totally green.

MJ: You are famous in certain circles for allowing a friend to pretend to be you on Letterman. That was a pretty good way of avoiding attention. Why exactly did you do that?

PJ: It was a free plane ride, so I figured, "Hey, sure." There was no conspiracy. If I had gone on the show, we wouldn't be talking about it today. I would have been just another guy pitching his product.

MJ: After you stopped writing the 'zine and gave up dishwashing, what did you do?

PJ: When I quit the dishwashing quest I came back to San Francisco and went to SF State to enroll in Urban Studies. All that time I was moving around and washing dishes, I was attracted to urban environments. I spent so much time walking and riding my bike up and down urban streets. A lot of interesting things went into shaping those cities for pedestrians and cyclists, and also a lot of shitty things that hindered them. I felt like people who had those [urban planning] jobs were riding around in cars all the time. So if I was going to go back to school, I figured I could be an advocate for pedestrians and cyclists.

I went for two semesters and then went abroad to Amsterdam, which is well-renowned for those things, in July 2002. SF State said I could finish over there, except for a critical thinking class, which you're supposed to take as a freshman, but I never took it. So I took the class online and got all As. When the final exam came, it was 100 multiple-choice questions and I got 59 right. You needed 60 to pass. I was one question away from a B.A. I recently got an email from my former SF State professor who saw a New York Times article about me. I wanted to write back and say, "Hey, how about giving me that fucking piece of paper already!" All the bureaucracy. I'd like to think I can think critically, but apparently I'm a moron.

MJ: Well maybe the piece of paper isn't all that important after all. You've been able to carve your own niche in other ways.

PJ: It's funny because just the other day, 10 high school kids from an English class showed up in Marin to hear me speak. They were actually taking notes. And these 15- and 16- year-old kids in Philadelphia showed up when I talked at an inner-city culinary arts school. I thought they would just have their heads on the desks like, "What the fuck does this guy know?" type of thing. But they were really into it. They were asking questions, and I told them what a fuck-up I was in high school. The teachers told me later that they lit up when I was so frank with them. They have an incredible bullshit detector. It never dawned on me that I would ever be talking to high school kids, and that they would be so into it. Teachers mobbed me afterward for autographs. My story is not the "I washed dishes and now I own the restaurant" kind of thing. It's not that cut and dry.

MJ: Where did you grow up and what were your earliest jobs?

PJ: I grew up in the Haight in San Francisco. I delivered the San Francisco Chronicle for seven years. I also delivered the San Francisco Examiner seven days a week, for years. I was 8 years old when I started, and did it until I was 16. I went to Riordan High School. Out of 24 friends, only 3 were still there by the time I was 16.

I was arrested for dumb stuff as a teenager, like stealing 12-packs, or breaking into washing machines at laundromats with a crowbar. I was arrested maybe 20 times or so. I was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. I lived around petty criminals, who went on to be in prison. My whole goal was to finish high school and get out of the neighborhood. I went to college right away at St. Mary's in Contra Costa. It was bizarre to me. It was all rich, white preppy kids. I had grown up in a one-bedroom apartment with seven people. My goal was to go to another world, but unfortunately college didn't really work out.

MJ: So how did the idea to write a book come about?

PJ: I stopped doing the 'zine for a while, but more recently I felt that we should put it all together in a book, which is about me trying to wash dishes in all 50 states over 12 years. There's the 80 odd jobs I worked, and popular history of dishwashers. I wanted to do a 1,800-page dishwashing encyclopedia, but a friend told me that nobody would want to read such a thing. Then I realized tens of thousands of strangers would be reading my life story, and that was fucking weird. It's still weird, but I have to get used to it. I was painfully shy for so long; always the quietest at any dinner party. I'm getting better.