One Man's Soapy Mission: Plates and Prose

Perhaps clouded in steam, Pete is somewhere in America right now washing dishes in a greasy cafe. People say Pete has the bemused look of a young man who won't stay long.

He won't. Pete is on a singular quest: to wash dishes in each of the 50 states. This is the stuff of legend in an age gone wild over the promise of computers to create a web of placeless places.

"One guy ... 50 states ... lots of dishes ... plenty of time" is the way Pete describes his quest in one copy of "Dishwasher," his self-published, 35- to 50-page "zine" that chronicles his adventures.

Printed in his own hand, the zines are full of the life and times of an itinerant, earthy, and keen-eyed dishwasher. His writing is direct and compelling, focusing on his experiences hanging around American dishes and restaurant back rooms. He offers charity and suspicion, and sees washing dishes as a lens.

"I don't have much need for material possessions," he writes. "No, there aren't any subscriptions [to the zines]," he says. "If lots of people send lots of money, then the last thing I would do is get a job, and then I would have nothing to write about."

Pete's last name is Jensen, but he doesn't like to use it. He turns aside requests to be interviewed. "I'm not interested in being interviewed," he wrote to me.

A few months ago, when Pete finally agreed to appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman," he decided at the last minute to send a friend who pretended to be Dishwasher Pete.

"The people at Letterman were crazy to get him on," says Michael Dittman of Franklin, Pa., who publishes a zine of essays called Curriculum Vitae and occasionally exchanges letters with Pete. "I didn't see the show, but the guy who was on was apparently really wacky," Mr. Dittman says.

Letterman's producers not amused

Later, when Mr. Letterman's producers learned that the wacky guy was not Dishwasher Pete, they were not pleased. Officially, they have no comment.

Pete makes no apologies. He is not a man who burns to get ahead, or covets any of the status symbols of American culture.

Steady employment is a yawner to him. Downsizing won't disrupt his life. Somewhere, dishes will need to be washed. Somewhere, there's a cheap hotel or friends with a place to crash. The point is to be out there, dish dogging, and writing.

"Yeah, Pete was washing dishes here about a year ago," says Mitch Larsen, one of the owners of the Black Cat Cafe, a cooperative cafe in Seattle. "He stayed a week or so, and did a good job as much as any dishwasher does, and he totally had a lot of friends here."

What does he look like?

"Sort of medium height."

Brown hair or black hair?

"Sort of brownish."

How old is he?

"Maybe in his late 20s."

How many states has he visited?

"Who knows?"

Pete told Out West, a western newspaper that focuses on life on the road, that he is in no hurry to reach his goal of washing dishes in 50 states. "I don't want to be 35 and have accomplished my life's dream," he said. "There'd be nothing left."

Until he was 18, Pete lived near San Francisco with his family, then left for college. He went on to attend at least half a dozen. Then he began to drift. He told Out West, "I do most of my writing in my head while I work. They rent my labor, not my mind."

Pete is the Lone Ranger of dishwashers, the troubadour of soap and water. Definitely siding with the workers, Pete skewers exploitative restaurant owners in his zines, includes cartoon drawings about restaurant workers, quotes from books that mention dishwashers, and includes a section on the history of dish washing machines.

In Portland, Ore., he attends a Dishfest, a gathering of dishwashers at the "late, great X-Ray Cafe." Pete writes that "they sang, told stories, and washed a few dishes." It was a memorable evening, one that left Pete "wishing the night would never end."

His writing is occasionally mocking and cynical, but his style has been highly praised by zine critics as one of the best around in the world of eclectic zines. He's not interested in describing the art of dishwashing, but probing the culture and attitudes of people who work in restaurants.

"I never met the guy," says David Kallstrom in Vancouver, Wash., a dishwasher who ran for mayor a few years ago. In one of Pete's zines he urged readers to vote for Mr. Kallstrom for any public office.

"There are all kinds of ways to make a living that most people don't empathize with," Kallstrom says, "but Pete does, and I've been washing dishes for a long time."

On some pages of the zines there are photos of fellow dishwashers who have joined him in his work. Another cartoon section is labeled "Jobs That Never Happened."

Each zine is numbered and costs 50 cents. No. 13, titled "Dishwasher. The Northwest Tour," is an account of Pete's gritty experiences in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

"Portland is a dishwasher's town," he begins, and the last paragraph, some 40 pages later is, "If anyone knows the whereabouts of my sleeping bag (it's maroon and covered with spray-painted stencils and went everywhere with me for eight years), please contact me."

Black Cat wins highest praise

Pete liked his work at the Black Cat. "[They] solicited volunteers to do the dishes or run the cash register," Pete writes. "In return the volunteers received hefty amounts of tasty grub and a share of the winnings from the tip jar. Heck, working there didn't even feel like work since there was an informal atmosphere, no boss, no pretension."

The Black Cat knew how to treat dishwashers. "They held a screening of the 1960s training film, 'Mr. Dish Machine Operator,' " Pete writes. "And if all that wasn't enough, I've even paid to eat there. Coming from a guy who works in restaurants, and thus can hardly afford to pay to eat in them, it's as big a compliment as I can give."

In other restaurants, reality was less sanguine. "At most places I've worked," Pete writes, "the majority of the cooks are male and the waitstaff female." He says the relationship is too often scornful.

"Dishwashers tend to be pawns in this messy battle." he writes. "Cooks will angrily tell us not to do something, that it's the waitresses' job to do it. Waitresses will mother us in an attempt to convince us the cooks are no good so-and-sos..... It's a drama continuously played out wherever I've been."

In another zine Pete describes a busy night in a Boston cafe. "There was an overabundance of bosses, owners, managers, supervisorial-trainees, etc.," he writes. "Every one was doing their best to out-boss each other all within the confines of a claustrophobic little cafe. I stuck toilet paper in my ears and tucked myself into the sink."

*Dishwasher, P.O. Box 8213, Portland, OR 97207. Copies are 50 cents each.

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