I had just graduated from college and panicked: I hadn’t lined up a job, didn’t have any leads in my field, and was absolutely clueless. My girlfriend (later my first wife) and I weren’t on speaking terms (a sign I chose to ignore) and I was couch surfing with friends until I could find a place on my own (or until said girlfriend decided maybe we could live together).
Life just sorta sucked.
I was about a month away from the fateful decision to go back to school and get a teaching credential, a decision I made with the flip of a coin. It was either teaching or nursing, because I thought of them as solid employment and something to keep the bills paid until I could, uh, figure out what I wanted to do with my life. That’s a crappy way to make important decisions but in the end the correct path won out. But I still had six months of rent and bills and whatnot to deal with.
Having run through a dozen or so of the obvious local retail options I decided to fall back on an old job from college days: dishwashing. Far from glamorous or heroic, further still from anything creative, just a mindless set of machine-like functions performed behind the scenes in a kitchen that allowed for the mind to wander. And where there are dishes there is free food, never a bad combination.
The Buttercup Bakery & Restaurant was (and I believe still is) the kind of place that tried to ride the hippie coattails of the late 1970’s into New Right 1980’s by serving up whole wheat bran muffins and designer omelets to the yup-and-coming. A quiet breakfast nook with an attached bakery, they seemed as good a place as any to disappear behind the heat lamps and make a decent wage. “Experienced Dishwasher Wanted” was all the sign said, and all I needed to walk in and fill out the application.
It was an dull sheet of paper, most of the usual job app questions typed onto the front side with a strange little essay topic on the back. “What do you think is fundamentally wrong with the world?” it said. That caught me off guard. Why was that question on a job application? Later in my life, as a retail manager with a bit of training, I learned that these sort of questions were usually tossed out during the interview process as a way of getting a feel for how an applicant handled themselves. Do they make eye contact? Are the coherent? How easily do they adapt to the absurd? Even understanding why a question like this is used doesn’t explain why it was on the application.
And like a fool, I took the question seriously and answered as earnestly as my 23 year old brain could handle on the fly. My answer was this:
Basically, the world seems to have lost its sense of humor.
That was about as much as I could muster and, I thought, a very suscinct and clever answer. We were on the verge of entering Reagan’s second term and to my way of thinking the world had completely gone off the rails. The Berlin Wall was nowhere near coming down and we were still a few years away from Ronnie joking about bombing Russia, things were tense. A proper sense of humor might loosen everyone up to the point where we could actually get down to brass tacks and sort things out. We, as a nation and a world, needed to find ways to laugh more. What could be wrong with that?
The morning manager who interviewed me looked at my application, listened to me expound on it at length, and frowned. Then she asked, in a tone that suggested I was a complete and utter idiot “Why do you want to work here?”
Huh. Hadn’t thought of that. Could it be that I need money? That if I had my choice I wouldn’t be sitting here at all? No, no, those aren’t legitimate reasons. Why did I want to work there?
“Every time I’ve been here it seems like the staff are having fun–”
“They get along, they like each other. That’s an appealing prospect to me, yeah.”
I later came to understand the look I was given had a name: the hairy eyeball. Nonetheless, the morning manager informed me that all applicants for the position had to go through an “audition” to be compensated with a free breakfast voucher. Did I have an hour right then, or would I like to come back another day? If I’d had any sense (and a sense of humor) I’d have laughed all the way down the block. Instead I said I was free, show me my apron.
The dishwasher was a standard Hobart machine jammed into a crooked corner near the back door. The staging area on either side had been shorted to fit the tight quarters, leaving the dish racks hanging partly off the ends. You had to load from the side near the washer to keep it heavy enough to stay balanced while you loaded the rest of the rack, and when it came out the other side you had to spin it sideways to keep it balanced enough to unload. Dirty dishes came in bins that needed to be emptied so they could be used by the bussers, usually stacked on the floor near the staging area. Clean dishes were placed on an open rack available on the opposite side by the cooks. And while a restaurant kitchen will have more cutlery and crockery than a large household, the fact is that this place didn’t have enough for the amount of business it did.
Which is to say that dishes left the kitchen as fast as the dishwasher could get them clean and to the cooks.
Entering the dishwash area the staff dishwasher asked me if I’d seen this type of dishwasher before (I had) and pointed out the placement of key items and then left out the back door. Instantly dishes came flying in and the cook was demanding specific platters. Breaking dishes or glassware is how not to get a dishwashing job but taking the time to carefully load the racks and run them through their 2 minute cycles wasn’t working. Steaming hot sanitized plates had to be stacked and slid toward the cooks with the hoe that, like a mug of beer flying down a bar, they would stop short of the edge and land on the floor.
Everyone needed me to do something right then, or five minutes ago, and the whole time I was trying to keep up and wondering why I kept bothering? I had pride and a work ethic and I let those foolish things prevent me from walking out on what was clearly an asinine situation.
At the end of the hour the dishwasher magically returned, put on his apron and within a minute restored order to the chaos I had created. It’s all about flow, and knowing the specific flow of a particular kitchen, and I didn’t get it. The woman who interviewed me smiled as she handed me my meal voucher, letting me know they would call within the week.
They never called, I didn’t care, and I didn’t use the meal voucher.
I don’t think I’ve had many occasions to write a personal essay since then — maybe less than half a dozen — but every time I need to write one I can’t help but think about the Buttercup Bakery & Restaurant question, about what is fundamentally wrong with the world. Despite my youth and haste, I was right all those years ago. The world has lost its sense of humor. And every interview I do, no matter which side of the desk I’m on, no matter what the circumstance, I’m always looking to see if the person I’m talking to would agree with my answer to that question.
If they don’t, I walk. I’ve learned my lesson.