A Dispatch From the Dish Pit

Oct 5th, 2012 | By | Category: Misc

dish pitDeep inside the bowels of a high-rise hotel in Greensboro I find myself staring down a massive tray of congealed grits. It is my duty to clean this buffet serving tray and restore it back to its original, pre-congealed grits state. It’s my first night on the job and the party to whom these grits were served left hours ago in the morning when I was still sleeping off the previous night’s excesses. I aim the spray hose right into the middle of the tray and squeeze but the outer shell of the grits are now impermeable.

There are still three more “Queen Mary”s (large, metal shelves with wheels) of dirty dishes from throughout the day, two of which I must complete before clocking out. The plates are the easiest. Just line them up on the rack, spray them down and send them through the machine. Same goes for glassware. But it’s the enormous pot’s used to cook the eggs and grits and the trays they were placed in that are the most troublesome.

I decide to let those soak in soapy water in the sink before attacking them and get back to dishes, silverware, coffee cups, plates and utensils. I restart my routine; one rack with slots for plates and bowls, one without for utensils. When each is full, I spray them down and send them through the industrial dishwasher that sounds like the artificial wave generator at Emerald Pointe.

I learned long ago working late nights at shitty jobs not to daydream about other things that I’d rather be doing. But at 26 years old with a college degree I could not help but echo David Byrne’s existential cry “How did I get here?”

I’ve got plenty of half-assed answers in my head: the economy sucks, nobody is hiring print journalists, an English degree, or hell, any liberal arts major qualifies you to wait tables unless you want to borrow even more money for grad school. Truthfully, it’s probably because I never took my schooling serious enough and squandered the good opportunities that I did have.

None of that changes the fact that here I am, on a Saturday night, in an underground dish pit, surrounded by foods in various states of decay, and it fucking stinks down here. I was washing dishes at my first job when I was 16. A decade and a degree later, I’m still working the same kind of job I could have gotten at 16.

I think to myself that maybe I can be the Lionel of this place. Lionel was the long-time dishwasher at the last place I worked who was universally adored despite his curmudgeonly attitude from nearly two decades in the dish pit. Despite the higher pay grade of his superiors, Lionel was the smartest and most well-read person in that restaurant at any given moment. He graduated from UNC with an English degree in the 60’s and despite his intellectual acumen, as one chef put it, “all he wants to do is shove dishes through the machine.”

After learning of his background, I befriended Lionel and we would converse regularly about the merits of Bukowski versus Nabokov, or The Kinks versus The Smiths, sometimes becoming so loud that our managers could hear us in the dining halls and would come back and tell us to quiet down. “They should listen. They might learn something,” he would say.

But deep down in the dish pit of this hotel, there was no one to talk to. The lone cook kept pace on the line and occasionally a member of the wait staff would drop off dishes, but beyond that there was no stimulus beyond the dishes and the machine.

Toward closing time the cook told me to sweep and mop the line. I had finished all of the dishes on the queen mary but the gelatinized grits remained soaking because they were still a soapy, soupy concoction that was nauseating. I decided to let them soak overnight and let the more experienced dishwasher handle them in the morning.

About a week later, when I came to get my paycheck, the chef told me that I wasn’t fast enough at washing dishes and that they couldn’t use me. Apparently being well read and literate do not qualify one to be a dishwasher.


Joe Murphy is a UNCG alum, part-time food service worker and part-time drunk.

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