Last fall I got it into my head that I needed a bit more income. I was (and still am) semi-retired from my IT job, only working two days a week, and was starting to feel a bit of a financial pinch from the fact that I was only working part-time. Being pretty much sick of the tech world after many years of it I decided I wanted to do something different. Unfortunately outside of tech I have no real marketable job skills. But there was a restaurant just down the street, a place my wife and I were both fond of, and I thought I might try to work there as a dish washer. I emailed the restaurant and got a quick response back from the chef and owner, Ali, inviting me to come in and get started. No interview, no application, no meeting first, nothing. I was to work two evenings a week, Fridays and Saturdays, a 7 hour shift each evening. Ali had wanted me to work Thursdays as well but I told her I couldn’t do that because I had another job on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I showed up on Friday at the restaurant to start work. I must have seemed pretty strange to Ali and her crew. Sixty year old men with long experience in the computer business do not normally seek jobs as dishwashers. That’s a job normally done by kids in high school. Ali looked at me a little suspiciously but went ahead and showed me the basics of how to do the job. I was a bit surprised because I had thought they must be using one of those big industrial dishwashers to do all the washing and that my job would be an easy one, just load up the washer and turn it on, etc. But no, no industrial dishwasher. Everything had to be washed by hand in big metal sinks. The dishwashing sinks were in a corner of the kitchen and the kitchen was rather small, so I was close to where Ali and the other chef worked.

After I started in on it, while I was working Ali would occasionally probe me with little questions. Where did I work on Tuesdays and Thursdays? I told her the name of the university where I worked. What kind of work did I do? IT and computer tech support. Clearly, she was wondering what in God’s name would possess an old guy with a long career in the computer business to want to do this menial little job in a restaurant. Another time she asked me about my wife. I said she was a professor. Oh really, where? Hamilton College. A professor of what? Philosophy and religious studies, especially Jewish studies. Why don’t you want to do more IT work instead of working in a restaurant? Well, because I’m sick of IT work. At one point she asked me if I’d taken the job because I’d planned to write about it. How did she know I was a writer?,  I wondered, though in truth I hadn’t planned on writing anything about the experience, at least not then. What did I do for hobbies outside of work? Well, I played music sometimes. Really, on what? Flutes. What kind of music? Well I play middle-eastern and Japanese and Irish, on different kinds of flutes. Do you play with a group? I used to, middle-eastern stuff. At this point I’m sure Ali must have decided that she had a complete and total weirdo on her hands.

Ali was a character, but I liked her. She was brash, bold, tough, and enormously energetic. She used the word “fuck” frequently. She worked extremely hard and had the energy of ten people. She was also an excellent chef. She had learned her business on-the-job over the years, living an adventurous life in different cities all over the world and working in whatever restaurant jobs she could get, gradually learning thereby how to be a chef. For all of her tough talk (“Hey I’m Irish, don’t fuck with me!”) I think she really cared about her employees and she treated everyone fairly. She expected all her employees to work very hard but she also tried to give them opportunities to learn on the job and gain more skills.  In addition to washing dishes she occasionally had me doing some basic food prep work, like shucking corn, peeling shrimp, slicing potatoes for french fries, rolling out dough for pastries, etc.

One thing I noticed right away is that I was actually making more money working in this job two days a week than I had been making the previous year teaching two math courses at a local college. It seems to me that it says something about the state of American education when anybody can walk right into an unskilled job off the street and start out making more money, just working two days a week, than someone teaching two college-level courses. I sometimes used to wonder, what if one of my former math students came in to the restaurant and saw me there carrying stacks of plates? I finally decided not to give a damn what anybody thought, and to do my job with pride. It was an honest job after all, there was nothing shameful about it. Once my wife’s lawyer (and a longtime friend) came in and saw me there wearing an apron and carrying a bunch of dishes. I chatted with him a bit, and he looked at my apron and asked me what I was doing there. I said I was working as a dishwasher. “No shit?” he said, “Wow.” Occasionally I would see other friends who came in to eat. They’d look at me askance, wondering what I was doing there. “I’m working! I like it here, it’s a good place to work,” I’d respond. I took my job seriously and I felt loyal to Ali and her crew, and wanted to present a good image of the place to the public. I became fond of all the people who worked there, Ali, the other chef, the house manager, the servers. I liked being a part of the team, even if I seemed a bit out of place because I was quite a bit older than the rest of them. The best part of the job was that at the end of each shift Ali would cook a late dinner for the whole crew and we would sit at the bar and eat and drink wine. At that time it felt like the hard work was worth it. I felt like I belonged there, that I was really a part of the team.

But there were problems. I found the work to be physically very challenging. As much as I didn’t want to admit it to myself, the fact was that I was a 60-year old man and I was feeling my age. It was very hard for me to keep up the energy needed to keep washing all those dishes 7 hours straight without stopping. About 5 hours into each shift I would start SERIOUSLY running out of energy and I’d get a tremendous amount of pain in my back. I began to wonder if I had the physical ability to keep working at that job. By the time my shift was over and I’d had the late dinner with the crew, I was so absolutely exhausted I could barely stand up and my back pain was excruciating. I would stagger home, fortunately not far, and with difficulty drag myself up the steps to the house. My wife was getting concerned about me. There was also the little problem of not being able to do anything together with my wife on Friday or Saturday evenings because I was working then. So I missed a couple of concerts that I would have liked to go to with her.

The final deciding factor was the news of a planned book publication party in honor my wife’s book. The party was to be attended by many of my wife’s longtime friends and colleagues and was kind of a big deal. This was a significant event and I felt it was important that I be there with my wife at this celebration but it was scheduled for a Saturday evening when I would normally be working at the restaurant. So the next time I went to work I told Ali I was giving 2 weeks notice. She said, “OK thanks for letting me know. Most people who quit don’t even bother to give notice. They just stop showing up.”

Several months later, sadly, that restaurant closed. The landlord was insisting on an exorbitant increase in rent and Ali said she couldn’t afford to pay the rent increase. So they went out of business. Now I walk past that place and there’s just a big empty space there. A lot of fun was had by a lot of people in that place over the years, all gone now.

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