Lynn Burton

Three weeks into my ski-season retirement gig as a pearl diver at an undisclosed restaurant in the Aspen area, and one name comes to mind: “Dishwasher Pete.”

Dishwasher Pete (Jordan) is a legend in the restaurant and vagabond world. Now 54 years old, in his 30s Dishwasher Pete spent 12 years traveling the country, with this goal to wash dishes in all 50 states. Stops along his sudsy way included: A fish cannery in Alaska, an off-shore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a commune, hospitals, cafeterias, a dinner train, a ski resort, restaurants and “just about anywhere dishes were dirty,” according to one published report.

During his years as an itinerant “dish dog,” Dishwasher Pete (DP) self-published a ’zine titled “Dishwasher” that chronicled his adventures. In 2007, Harper’s published his memoir titled “Dishwasher: One man’s quest to wash dishes in all 50 states.” The advantages to the occupation included being able to quit the job at a moment’s notice, an abundance of similar jobs all over the country and in most cases, free food and in some cases, free beer.

Dishwasher Pete appeared once on the David Letterman Show. In that amiable one-on-one chat, DP and Dave reminisced about the time he was scheduled to appear but a friend sat in the hot seat instead because DP had no desire to be on TV. The syndicated radio show “This American Life” broadcast a segment on DP’s Letterman scam a few years ago (Note: That segment and others are included on the double CD best-of “This American Life” that includes author Sarah Vowell’s signature monologue about her gunsmith dad’s homemade cannon, one segment on a Texas man who won a new pickup by being the last contestant standing while touching the prized item at a car dealership, and more).

Anyway, Dishwasher Pete is on my mind as I continue to learn the finer points of washing grease, cheese and tomato sauce, spaghetti, vegetables, meat, scraps of food and various unidentifiable items off plates, bowls (three kinds), pots and pans ranging from small to the 50-pound stainless steel mixing bowl, and many items whose function I have yet to determine.

Don’t forget the dozens of kinds of utensils, some as foreign to me as chopsticks to an Eskimo. One of the most troublesome items the 8-foot cutting board the “Pizza Guy” lugs back to the dishpit like a floppy surfboard at about 3 p.m. every day. It takes two of us pearl divers to shove it through the Auto-Chlor machine. (Note to a certain friend who thinks washing dishes doesn’t make the best use of my alleged “talents,” I think I’ll start calling myself an Auto-Chlor operator).

So, what about the dishpit I share with two other guys for seven or eight hours a day? This is only my second dishwasher job, so I’m far from an authority, but this pit must be one of the strangest and most unwieldy in the entire United States. The dishpit is about 20 feet long and eight feet wide, with the Auto-Chlor machine on one wall, and drying racks and dirty racks on the wall behind us. A well-traveled path lies between the Auto-Chlor and drying rack that connects the “front of house” to “back of house,” so there is almost constant foot traffic through the pit most of the day.

Working in this pit is like running a fire drill in a submarine.

I don’t much mind running dishes through the Auto-Chlor machine, aggressively scrubbing burned-on food from the bottom of pans, dumping 10-20 pound loads of silverware into a tub for the bussers to come and get, pre-washing some items and not pre-washing others (Note: That’s a controversial question in this dishpit but I won’t go there), and much, much more.

Time goes by fairly fast, thanks in part to other duties I’m often asked to perform, such as “cutting brownies,” mucking out the chili vat, and trying to form filafa dough into cookie-shaped objects (Note: Mine look more like something a 4-year-old would cobble together from Play-Doh but hey, I’ve only done it once). You might not think so, but working a dishpit and putting out a weekly newspaper (which I used to do) share one common thing: In both jobs, you’re constantly asking yourself what you can do in the next five to 10 minutes to get the job done on time.

Of the jobs I’ve had over the past 50 years (which include factory work, retail, newspapering, hosting at a restaurant, Census taking, giving away dog food samples at grocery stores in Denver, “guarding” purses at Gucci in Aspen and more), I’d put dishwashing about midway up, or down, the toleration ladder.

We’ll see how my body holds up through the ski season, but the life of a traveling dish dog might be inviting in the five years to come. Work the dishpits in Tucson, the Gulf Coast and Florida in the winter, then back to Colorado and maybe the Pacific Northwest in the summer. We’ll see.

Lynn Burton is a retired newspaper guy and lives in Carbondale.