Dishwashers and other divers after the meaning of work

AN entrepreneur in Carmel, Calif., named Gene Buck has organized a Brotherhood for the Respect, Elevation, and Advancement of Dishwashers, otherwise known as BREAD. Mr. Buck has been described as a ``free-lance public relations counselor,'' a line of work not famous for causing too many cases of ``dishpan hands.'' But in his day Mr. Buck paid his dues, and from his nights in the scullery he concluded that the ``pearl diver'' -- the professional dishwasher -- gets about as much respect as an olive pit left over from a plate of Greek salad. After a good meal eaten on squeaky-clean plates with sparkling silver, who ever says, ``My compliments to the dishwasher''?

Worse. As tummies are being complacently patted and gratitude is being distributed in the form of tips, when does 15 percent ever get figured for the dishwasher? The uniformed waiter or waitress, crisp and immaculate, picks up the gratuity from a silver tray with a graceful murmur of appreciation, while in a far corner of the kitchen a sweating wretch in a sodden apron gets nearly nothing for his palm but another plate smeared with the house dressing.

How to change social protocol? How to extend to the dishwasher the token of thanks that is due him? Mr. Buck suggests that politicians, after delivering their after-dinner speeches, might set a public example by dispatching a $5 or $10 bill past the kitchen door, in the general direction of those watery sounds, as soft and faraway as low tide lapping on the beach.

Mr. Buck is not the first dishwasher to dry off his hands and write a plea for the brotherhood. In his barely disguised autobiographical novel, ``Down and Out in Paris and London,'' George Orwell wrote at length about his alter ego's experience as a plongeur -- a reader can hear the water splashing up to the elbows in this French word for dishwasher.

Orwell's plongeur worked in a cellar below a cellar in a Paris hotel, ``a tiny underground den,'' with a ceiling too low for a tall man to stand up. Temperatures reached 110 degrees F. The plongeur lived a life almost as liquid as a fish -- plunging his body into warm soapy water, gulping tea to keep up with the water he perspired. In a stretch from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. a plongeur used up 30 to 40 dishcloths.

An inveterate moralist on the subject of class, Orwell regarded the plongeur as an economic victim, if not a near-slave. Yet Orwell admired the plongeur as readers of Greek mythology admire Sisyphus, pushing his rock endlessly up the hill. Dishwashers, he observed, ``take a genuine pride in their work . . . the pride of the drudge.''

Mr. Buck wants Sisyphus-in-the-soapsuds to receive money as a signal of a dishwasher's indispensability.

Orwell assumed that no amount of compensation could give meaning to the deed of dishwashing.

But are these problems of significance unique to the plongeur, the pearl diver?

White-collar workers, too, can be plongeurs, rolling up their well-ironed sleeves and plunging their arms, metaphorically, into the same murky water, day after day.

Perhaps that's why we so freely use the word ``creative,'' followed by a fancy label, to describe our jobs. If Mr. Buck can be known creatively as a ``counselor,'' surely dishwashers, somewhere, must be known creatively as ``kitchen sanitation engineers.''

The self-flattering rhetoric cannot save us. Like the dishwasher, who among us is not a candidate for replacement by ever-nimbler robots and ever-smarter computers? As our technology designs itself, and even makes decisions for us, we become stripped of professional arrogance -- dishwasher and chief executive officer alike.

Today, more than ever, we may tend to define ourselves by a snobbery of achievement, making our jobs and their titles our code of aristocracy. Yet today, far more than when Orwell wrote, we are all plongeurs, all pearl divers.

In the midst of machines that know more and do more than we, it is not by virtue of special knowledge or special skills that we can find final dignity in our work and in our life outside work. It is only by a full expression of all the loving, funny, personal things that machines precisely are not: our humanity.

Writing in this newspaper about the same time Orwell was writing about his plongeur, Mary Burt Messer declared: ``The underlying fact of work is the fact that man has value: that he is worthwhile, that he has that which must be given forth.''

Here is the hope for people who are more than the jobs they do -- dishwashers and the rest of us.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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