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Working Class Zero


By Siddhartha Mazumdar

CARA APPROACHED the counter, did a pirhouette while screaming, "Can I have some more silvuh-way-uh please?" Buddy backed off a bit, allowing his paunch some room to move, brushed his hair back and wiped the sweat off his forehead; Jim, the boss, whistled "Lonely is a man without love" for maybe the twentieth time since the morning, picked up a butcher's knife and snapped the links holding a strand of sausage together.

Gregory, he yelled over the sizzle of grease and blare of WBCN.


"Gregory," the cry went up again. "What do you think of this sort of music?"

"Yah, Yah," the short-order cook guffawed, going back to his potatoes.

"Chuck Berry. Do you know who he is?? He used to be popular in the 50s--Have you ever heard the Beatles sing 'Roll over Beethoven?'"

"Take out." Gregory yelled into the main room of the diner, and soon enough, one of the blue-jean clad ballerinas was there to escort the sealed styrophome container.

Gregory was more than a recent immigrant from Poland--a fact he proudly revealed by displaying a "Solidarnascz" (Solidarity) button above his postcard from Denver--He was a good worker and was respected for it. Jim talked about how Gregory moved up to the grill from washing dishes in a little over a year. "That's where I was when I first started here, too," he told me.

Buddy, the other cook, came from a locale far less revolutionary--Somerville, Mass. He was a local boy who knew when to stay quiet and let his co-worker have the limelight of other people's curiosity.

"How old are your kids?" I asked him late on afternoon, picking up from snippets of conversation that went by earlier on.

"Eight and four."

"Wow. You must have got married right out of high school," I exclaimed before I knew what I was saying.

"Yup. I guess so." He didn't look up and speeded chopping his salad greens up.

The waitresses were all clad in blue jeans and they all seemed to look alike. They didn't seem to have to work too hard, probably because the restaurant wasn't particularly busy. Their screams for more silverspoons, glasses, or little dishes had a disturbingly plaintiff tone, as if the dishwasher wasn't doing his job. "Why aren't they any forks and spoons out here?" I heard the clones cry out to me.

I'm really concerned about you," Jim told me, "You should be done with all the dishes, pots and pans, and peel a pot of potatoes, and be out of here by quarter after four. It's not even busy, and you're taking until after five."

THERE'S SOMETHING very peaceful about washing dishes. Just you and the dishes, you and the silverware, you and the pots and pans. It's a rather solitary job in an otherwise hectic environment. There's nobody to hassle with except for the waitresses who scream to get their trays filled. A certain rhythm develops, an implicit harmony between the dishwasher and his dishes and the uneaten food he must brush off the plates.

The harmony comes from the dishwasher's unique role, not only in the economy, but in the natural cycle of living and dying. The janitors of an affluent society, dishwashers feed themselves only through cleaning off the uneaten food of others. They are the highest predators of the biological chain, scavengers for people who don't hunt, gather or cook their meals. Depending on how you look at it, they occupy the highest or lowest rung in a society whose purpose is enjoyment. Their services indispensable for running restaurants, they are the vital link in the economy of hedonistic culture. Civilizations without the affluence and leisure to afford dining out certainly do not need dishwashers, but ours can't survive without them.

As in all other aspects of a society that sustains itself on the growth of industrial capital, the restaurants have watched the introduction of automation into their business. High-speed, electric dishwashers are hardly the cause for any luddite outrage, their encroachment onto the tasks of human hands is actually minimal, more a certification and final sterilization than the appropriation of the dishwasher's manual efforts.

WORKING WITH a machine merely adds to the pace of a dishwasher's job. The plates still must be scraped, and the pots and pans scoured between cycles. The mechanical dishwasher never gets forks and spoons clean anyway, leaving at least an invisible film of grease, if not a yellow plastic film of egg yolk, in the trenches between prongs of the forks. The dishwasher makes you run, stooping to grab the buckets from under counters, and testing eye-hand coordination. Reaching with the left hand for not-quite-clean plates; right for dirty, so the left can pick up the stainless stell. A quick move to get glasses, cups, and deep-dished bowls to their separate dishwasher to get them cleaner; dump the detergent, slam the doors, turn the knobs; run to the sink and scrub the pot Gregory just left for you.

"HOW YA' DOIN', Sidd!" Jim asks.

"Fine," What more can I say?

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