When I was 15 years old the furthest thing from my mind was planning my future. This was the beginning of that age when aside from finding a way to be independent and seeking a girlfriend, there was very little planning going on. Ah, but getting a part-time job with a paycheck was a good start.
I managed to land a weekend job at a local diner as a dishwasher. I didn’t have any marketable skills yet except I guaranteed the manager that I would show up on time. Little did I know at the time that this was a lifelong attribute, something that every employer would relish in a job candidate. So be it, I walked in a few minutes early on day one, was given an apron, given the five -minute tour through the dish pit, introduced to the head cook (Millie), presented with a timecard, and left to my own common sense to figure the rest out. Millie was a little cold at first, I guess she wanted to see if I would show up and listen to her. The answer was YES on both counts. She took some time to show me how to set-up, stock, and clean out the machine, how to properly rinse and stack dishes in racks, the best way to stack and deliver plates and glassware to their proper home, and how to be efficient. I was ready to rock.
That first day was crazy. It was Saturday so I think everyone within fivemiles decided to come in for lunch. Millie was working the line with a helper – burgers, fries, grilled cheese, BLT’s, Club sandwiches, a few salads, Western egg sandwiches, sliced roast beef on white bread with globs of gravy, and a few dozen other items including her specials of the day. They were on fire, and I was enthralled until the dirty dishes started piling up. At first, I was enamored by the cute college student waitresses, that was until they splashed me with residue from dirty plates. “Why don’t they stack the same type of plates together to make things easier for me?” This is a question I would ask for decades to come. It wasn’t long before I was way behind. Dishes were backed up as servers barked out orders: “We need silverware. We’re almost out of water glasses. Can’t you work faster?” I put my head down and just plugged ahead, trying my best, dropping a few plates that shattered in a million pieces, wearing the spray of water that bounced off plates in pre-rinse, and burning my hands on the super-hot plates coming out the other end of the machine.
Millie was really cranking, and I caught her shaking her head a few times when she looked my way. I started to feel helpless and way over my head, when the lunch crowd finally started to dwindle around 2:00. It would take me until 3:30 to finally catch up and start to clean the area for the night crew that would arrive around 4:30. Millie and her helper were cleaning the griddle and busy chopping, slicing, and dicing for tomorrow and they seemed oblivious to me and the work that I was still engaged in. As I was cleaning out and filling the dish machine for the late crew, Millie brought me a cheeseburger and said: “Let’s sit down and talk for a few minutes.”
I thought for sure she was going to fire me after my first day, but instead she smiled and asked: “So how did you like your first day?” I shrugged my shoulders as if to say: It was OK. Millie continued: “You know, you did a really good job today. Many people on their first day, facing a busy rush like that, might have just slipped out the back door and not returned. It happens all the time. But you stuck it out. I saw you struggling, I felt your pain and confusion, but we were busy too, so I couldn’t help. I looked over now and again and when I saw that you were still there, pushing forward, I just shook my head wondering how we found someone with such persistence. I am impressed!” And here I thought that she was shaking her head because I was doing such a terrible job.
Millie smiled again and said: “Listen, I want to tell you something that must stick with you for the rest of your life. The dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant. We can get by without some employees, but the place falls apart without the dishwasher. You must always take care of the person who does the job that others may think is less important – show respect no matter what you do or where you work. If you learn nothing else while you work here – learn that. Now go home and rest – tomorrow is Sunday brunch day – it will be even busier. The nice thing is that you will have another dishwasher working with you. Thanks for being a good employee.”
I went home with a big smile on my face. My first job, my first day, and the chef said thanks. I think I’m going to like this.
Sunday morning, I struggled to get out of bed, but I knew how important it was for me to be on time. I dressed and rushed out of the house without any breakfast. I arrived at the diner right on time. Millie said: “Good morning, you’re late!” I looked confused and said: “Millie, I thought I was right on time?” She looked sternly at me and said: “On time means 15 minutes early. You need time to put on your apron, wash your hands, say hello to everyone, and then settle into your area. We don’t pay you for that.” Then her stern look turned into a smile. “Have you had any breakfast?” I held my head down and said: “No maam.” She laughed and put a plate of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast at the back booth table and said: “You can’t do a good job on an empty stomach. Take 15 minutes and enjoy your breakfast then get to work. Breakfast is slow, but by 10:00 the place will be packed.”
I shoveled down the breakfast – it was delicious – and went right to work. I set my station up, filled the machine, and attacked the handful of breakfast dishes and pots and pans. Those college waitresses began to arrive and each one stopped at the dish window, smiled, and said: “Good morning, Paul, nice to see you back here today.” I blushed and suddenly felt like I belonged.
The day was very busy, but Jim, a much more seasoned dishwasher worked with me through lunch. He showed me a few ways to stay more organized and save some steps, and when things kicked into gear we worked well together. He handled pre-rinse, stacking dish racks, and pushing them through the machine while I stacked the hot, clean plates, glassware, and flatware and delivered clean items to various spots in the kitchen and dining room. I was having fun. Millie caught me out of the corner of her eye, winked and smiled. This was enough of a signal to me – I was doing what I was supposed to. When Jim and I cleaned up at the end of service we sat down together and enjoyed that end of shift cheeseburger and he made me drink my first cup of coffee. “You will learn to love coffee and depend on it. Coffee can both help to build your energy and calm you at the same time. Drink up!” I struggled to get it down but managed to do so. He shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure working together.
That week I boasted to my friends about being a working man surrounded by attractive college girls and felt like I was on my way to independence.
The following Saturday I arrived at work 20 minutes early to Millie’s approval. She put her arm around me and said: “Welcome back!”. Then she handed me an envelope with my first paycheck. I quickly opened it and smiled. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I had in my pocket at any time before today. Millie explained about the pay deductions which were kind of discouraging, but as she told me: “We all have to do our part to support the government.” I guess, but I’m only 15 – do they really need those few dollars from me? It wouldn’t be the last time I wondered that.
OK, let’s see what today brings in the dish pit.
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