The Third Ear 

click to enlarge art01_thirdear_dishwasher_100.jpg

Pete Jordan is the most famous "dish dawg" in the world.

His acclaimed memoir, "Dishwasher," about his 12-year quest to work washing dishes in every state, is one of the most memorable things I read in the last year. While traveling, "Dishwasher Pete" began publishing his own dish-washing zine and had his adventures chronicled on NPR's "This American Life" and featured on "Late Night With David Letterman," where Jordan duped producers by sending a dishwasher friend on the air (while the real Pete munched free eats in the greenroom).

Equal parts Twain, Kerouac and Bukowski, the book was called "an exceedingly well-written [exploration] of an American subculture" by the senior editor of the New York Times Book Review. Jordan eventually abandoned his quest, moved with his wife to Amsterdam and began running a bike shop, which is where I caught him by phone.

Style: Apart from the creation of the first dishwasher, what's the most important moment in dish-washing history?

Jordan: I suppose the creation of soap.

How about your all-time favorite music for the dishpit?

Well, for my dish-washing mentor Jeff, it was Sun Ra and nothing but Sun Ra. I think he liked that Sun Ra's cacophony matched the dishpit's own natural noises. Plus, he also liked that all the other restaurant staff hated it. For me, I spent a lot of time tuning dishpit radios to find the local oldies stations. For a long time I was fascinated with how the selection on oldies stations varied from city to city depending on what had been hits in those places in the 1950s and '60s. But by the time my dish career ended, local oldies stations had been replaced by monolithic satellite stations that programmed stations coast to coast to play the same songs. That was a bummer.

Any experiences in Virginia?

I spent some time bumming around Charlottesville. I was always a sucker for college towns. I produced the third and fourth issues of the Dishwasher zine [there]. It was at a time that I was traveling with money I'd saved up from my dish job at the Alaskan fishing cannery so I didn't have to work. Though I've been to Richmond a few times, it was never more than for a day or two. Richmond has the distinction of being one of the few big cities that I didn't spend much time in. I don't know why. I liked what I saw.

One reason the book is so compulsively readable is your rule of constantly moving. From early on, it seemed your wanderlust might have come from watching your dad work the same bland job forever.

Yeah, I was scared of being tied down to one place or going to the same job every day. But also, I was just curious about all the places I had never been. Plus, it felt normal to keep moving. For many years, I didn't understand how people ever lived in the same place year after year. That, to me, seemed abnormal.

Your zine inspired groupies. What attracted the women -- did you ever find out?

I did find out. Unfortunately, they like traveling guys because they're gonna keep on traveling. That is, they can have fun with the exotic passing-through-town guy for a short while. But then he'll be gone again and that'll be that. Seems like women often lost interest whenever I proposed sticking around for a while longer.

Are you interested in a movie adaptation of your book — if so, who do you want to play you?

Hey, if anyone wants to buy the film rights, I'm all for selling them. As for who would play me, well, my wife has requested it be Justin Timberlake. The resemblance might be a bit of a stretch, but I wouldn't stand in the way of him getting the role.

One of the ironies of your book is that while trying to escape a life of responsibilities by embracing an unappealing or "low" profession, you eventually became a semi-celebrity. It seems the life lesson was to avoid compromising and always follow your bliss. Is that how you see it?

I was pretty much always happy with my life during those quest years. I was dishing, traveling, writing. I had few, if any, obligations. I was seeing the country, meeting interesting people, satiating my curiosities. So if no one ever took note of what I was doing, it wouldn't have mattered. The fact that people did embrace my quest and my zine sort of confused me at first. I wasn't looking for any attention — and wasn't always comfortable with the attention I got — but the fact that my quest resonated with so many people was great. "Avoid compromising and always follow your bliss"? Yeah, that about sums it up. S

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