Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Zen of Dishwashing (This piece will appear in the Summer 2011 issue of the Crested Butte Magazine.) Photo by Mike Brenneman

Washing dishes was my first real job at the ripe age of 16. Today at twice that age, it is still my occupation. What lies in the space of those 16 years is the Zen of dishwashing.

I’d be willing to bet half the people living in Crested Butte have been a dish diver at one time or another. Our economy demands that most of us take jobs we are overqualified to do. Something that the economy in the Gunnison Valley also demands is creativity, so I suppose it is fitting that Zen dishwashing was born in Crested Butte. (Former dishwasher, Garth Mangels of Crested Butte, gets credit for coining the term.)

Dishwashing was my main occupation during my collegiate years, and I met a ton of characters working in the restaurants of the Valley. One of the most memorable characters is the first Zen dishwasher I ever met, Tim Foulkes.

I’d been diving in the dish pit at the Palace in Gunnison for a couple of months now and was ready to move up to cooking. I was 20 and ambitious, the dishwasher was the lowliest place in the restaurant, and I was tired of being the last person in the joint when the place closed down. The cooks would promptly start drinking at the bar when their shift was over, leaving me to finish up on my own.

Plus I’d nearly died in that dish pit, when I unknowingly turned on the disposal one day with a big sharp knife in it, and it came flying out, blade first, barely missing me. It would have been a tragic death for a young diver.

Tim loved death metal, and the main benefit of the Palace was that the diver had his own stereo, a key element attaining Zen in the dish pit. Back then I was somewhat of a Deadhead, which could have put us at odds with each other, but luckily it didn’t.

I’d never seen a diver as content as Tim in the pit. He would simply blast his death metal and get into the zone. Since I’d recently been in his shoes, I’d stay a bit later, helping him put the dishes away so he wasn’t alone finishing up while everyone else partied at the bar.

Another thing about Tim was that he refused to advance to cooking. I’d never seen someone do that, and couldn’t conceive why one would hold on to an occupation that paid less, and was treated worse. But visionaries are often doubted at first.

This place, in those days was a little too casual about the drinking; the boss was a so-called recovering alcoholic who still drank. Anyways the place wasn’t turning a profit, and closed down after I’d only worked with Tim for a few months.

I followed Tim to the Green Lizard, a Mexican joint, with alcoholic managers, and the worst dish pit you’ve ever seen. No machine, just a sink, and lots of oils from all the fried food. The only ray of light and fresh air was a small vent right in front of my face. That space was even violated one day when a cook pulled a prank on me, blowing flour through it, covering my face in white powder.

Fortunately the unhappy, alcoholic managers would not stick around in the evening, and we’d be left alone. Not all of the cooks were mean; some were climbing buddies of mine, and we’d take safety meetings near the pit, blowing the marijuana smoke into the vents above the grills. A couple of times police officers would come in for food, just after the meetings, but the smell was masked by the fryers and other food on the stovetops.

I jumped at the chance to advance to cooking, leaving behind the cramped dish pit, but moving closer to working with the alcoholic manager. He always gave me and everyone else a hard time. So it was only a matter of time before I got sick of this job, and one summer day I called in and told them I was done.

I tried to seek employment with my friend Rich Lombardo, who owned the now-gone Mexican joint Serranos, in Gunnison, but he didn’t need any help. So he called up to some restaurant owners in Crested Butte, and set me up with an interview at the Cantina.

The start of my diving career at the Cantina was unremarkable; I showed up, washed some dishes, went home and repeated. There wasn’t much of a social scene for me, no climbers worked there, and I didn’t have any friends that worked there either. But it was a job, and it paid more than the places in Gunny, so I continued on.

During this time period of my life I started to experiment with minimizing bills and maximizing recreation time. I was studying recreation in college, and I figured it was time to take a semester off for some field research. My lease ran up at the same time, and I put my domestic belongings in a storage area and moved into a tent.

It was a glorious period, with plenty of time for climbing and camping, and virtually no living expenses, save for gasoline, gear and food. I wrote poetry by the fire when I camped alone, and spent a lot of time inside my head just thinking.

I finally graduated, and realized that there were warmer places than the Gunnison Valley to camp out and be a climbing bum/dishwasher. So, the first winter after graduating I packed up and travelled to Joshua Tree in southern California. I scored a job at a restaurant called Crossroads. I walked in and told the manager that I was the best dishwasher in Colorado. It must have worked because I found myself employed in their modest, three-sink dishwashing station the next day.

It was a winter of 100 days of camping, naked dance parties atop rock formations, plenty of climbing, and lots of free food from Crossroads. The two head cooks could not have been different from each other; one was a hard working thirty-something woman who cursed up a storm; and the other was a beautiful, quiet Asian woman, a climber, who had graduated from Yale. I made friends with both, as well as the other two cooks, who were eager to try climbing. I took them climbing, and in turn they treated me with a high level of respect, something that is often hard to come by as a new dishwasher in a kitchen.

It was as simple as my life had ever been. Moments of contentment came and went, and I pondered how long this simple life of climbing, camping and washing dishes could be satisfying.

By April Joshua Tree started to heat up, and all signs pointed that I should return back to the Valley. So I went back to the Cantina. The dish pit seemed bigger and cleaner than ever after working in a cramped space without a dish machine. One cook at the Cantina, however, was always messing with my Zen. He would shout obscenities at me, and rudely place dishes in my area by basically throwing them at me. He also dissed my music, (by now my music of choice was hip-hop, as I’d become less of a hippie). One day I put some Outkast on, and he started complaining about it, running off a slew of obscenities. It was either time to punch him in the face or walk out. I chose the latter. The same cook also had a plate thrown at him by another dishwasher whom he was disrespecting. I wish I could have seen that.

A couple of years ago I thought I had an opportunity to get out of the dishwashing game forever. I was working for minimum wage, washing dishes in Salt Lake City when I got a call from my alma mater, and they were looking for writer for their Office of Public Relations and Communications. I jumped at the chance and the job quickly moved to full-time; I thought my days of diving were behind me.

I went almost two solid years without commercially washing a dish. But, with the downfall in the economy my job was cut to half-time and I inquired up at the Cantina, and they took me back in.

Things were better now in the kitchen. The stars had aligned for some Zen dishwashing to take place, the cooks were friendly, I was being treated with respect, the music was generally good and safety meetings were tolerated. But now the problem was with me. I wasn’t content in the dish pit.

I thought about it long and hard. What had changed? Had I learned all the lessons in life that the dish pit had to teach me?

I reached out to fellow writers and philosophers to figure out where I went wrong. One friend, Nathan Kubes, an artist from Gunnison wrote back to me, “the term the Zen of dishwashing is right on. This drudgery is a serious pain in the arse, it wounds our ego, it exhausts our bodies, it tires our minds, and it seriously inhibits inspiration.”

What did I know about Zen? I realized I knew very little. Could the suffering with the dishes teach me as much as when I was content with the job? Was I really after Zen dishwashing or was I searching for something else?

I sought more information from Nathan and wrote to him to see if he had any readings he recommended on Zen.

He wrote back, “You want to read about Zen? Read the phone book.”

A clever answer, his thoughts had served their purpose. I began to look at diving with a new perspective. Meditation or Zen are not things that are easily attained, nor is finding happiness while holding down a mediocre job that you are beyond qualified to do. The whole summer I’d been learning more lessons about the Zen of dishwashing, and I thought I had lost the path. I was on it more than ever.

The busy summer has passed. While many are sad to see the summer go, in Crested Butte we, overqualified, grunt workers welcome the autumn, or the off-season with joy; especially if we’ve saved money and can recreate during the time when tourists are not recreating here.

I realize after this most recent season of diving, my return to the ol’ dish pit, after a long hiatus, that I don’t need to continue to look for Zen dishwashing, it’s always there; there’s Zen in every moment, learning opportunities in every situation, good or bad.

What I am searching for now is the dishwasher’s nirvana, and I’m going to be thinking about that in the next couple of months while I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor; time off, recreating in the wild lands of the West.

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