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Powell's Q&A

Pete Jordan

Describe your latest book.
For twelve years, I was the most prolific dishlicker of them all. From 1989 to 2001, I dished my way around the country, unwittingly searching for direction. From a bagel joint in New Mexico to a Mexican joint in Brooklyn, from a dinner train in Rhode Island to the Lawrence Welk Resort in Branson, Missouri, and from an upper-crust ladies' club to a crusty hippie commune — I washed the nation's dishes. And I wrote a book about it all.

[From the book jacket:] Dishwasher is the true story of a man on a mission: to clean dirty dishes professionally in every state in America. Part adventure, part parody, and part miraculous journey of self-discovery, it is the unforgettable account of Pete Jordan's transformation from itinerant seeker into "Dishwasher Pete" — unlikely folk hero, writer, publisher of his own cult zine, and the ultimate professional dish dog — and how he gave it all up for love.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
In the few years after I ended my dishwashing quest, I had no desire to write a book about it. My wife, though, had other ideas. If I wasn't going to write the book, then — Amy Joy continually threatened — she would. During games of Scrabble, she'd allow me to take as long as I wanted with my turn if only I answered her questions about my past. So while shuffling my letters and scanning the board, I told Amy Joy my life story, which she eagerly scribbled down. After about six months, that project petered out. Which was just as well since, a couple years later, I finally wrote my own book.

I just asked her what the name of her book would've been. She replied, The Dishwasher Pete Story: As Told to Amy Joy Jordan. She added it was just a working title and that, as the project neared completion, she would've come up with something catchier.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
My pal Jess Hilliard — whose name is mentioned 74 times in Dishwasher! — wrote an amazing book titled Hi! I Live on a Farm! On the first page, he introduces the book as being about: "Working in factories making diapers, gas tanks, wooden roofs, and Teflon pans. Farming beans, corn & wheat with 1940s tractors. Learning to weld & fix & build & save & sort of lose some weight & do some flirting with toothless Lutheran women. And discovering objects from outer space in my yard!!" It's a 78-page book, handwritten and the binding is hand stitched. Oh, and unfortunately, I have the only copy because he wrote it for me!

But Jess wrote another amazing book that's a little more accessible. It's titled Hi Friend (2001). Everyone should read it.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"While I'm washing dishes, a thousand plans come to me about writing my book. When I'm writing my book, a thousand plans come to me for washing dishes....What kind of damn nut am I anyhow?"
Woody Guthrie (from a journal entry written during one of his stints busting suds on a ship transporting troops across the Atlantic during WWII)

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Once I traveled to Macon, Georgia, to work at the same bus station diner where, in the 1950s, Little Richard had dished. According to the singer, the boss would say to him, "When are you going to wash those dishes, boy?"

Little Richard would reply, "A wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a lop-bam-boom!"

His way of cussing out the boss without getting axed became the basis for the song he wrote while dishing — "Tutti Frutti."

But the bus station on Broadway where Little Richard had worked was gone. A few blocks away, the closest thing the new bus station had to a diner was a candy vending machine. The site of the old bus station was now but a tiny grassy square overshadowed by a large parking garage. Since I was unable to pay proper homage by dishing on the very same spot, I did the next best thing: I commemorated the site sacred not only to dishwashing history, but to rock-n-roll history as well. Christening the square "Little Richard's Dishwashing Days Memorial Park," on sheets of paper that I posted around the square, I wrote the new name of the park along with a quote from the man himself:

"I was the most beautiful dishwasher in the world!"

What? "A wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a lop-bam-boom!" isn't considered literary? Ya gotta be kidding me!

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Well, my favorite pair of shoes shares the distinction of being my only pair of shoes. I'm a one-pair-at-a-time kinda guy. And they're always the same: slip-on shoes with no lace-tying to slow me down!

Just two hours ago, I was rummaging around the apartment looking for a needle with which to pop a ready-to-blow blister on the bottom of my right foot. Though I couldn't find a needle, I didn't want to ask my wife lest she become concerned about the state of my shoes. Then Amy Joy entered the bedroom, sat on the bed, and told me I needed to buy a new pair of shoes. Now, she didn't know anything about the blister or the needle hunt. She just has that instinct. And I suppose her instinct is right. I mean, after two years of faithful daily service, the soles of my socks are thicker than the soles of those shoes. (And pretty soon, there'll be nothing but socks between my foot and the sidewalk!) So I reluctantly agreed to get new shoes. And thus, soon I'll have a new favorite pair.

And oh, I just resorted to using a screw to pop the blister.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Definitely turtles. In Dishwasher, I describe the time when I rid myself of all belongings except for my bike, my sleeping bag and some clothes and books carried in a garbage bag. My plan was to be able to go anywhere, sleep anywhere, and still have all my stuff with me. When I told my dad about this, he said, "What? You're living like a turtle?"

The remark was meant to be dismissive yet, actually, it was perfectly apt.

"Yeah, exactly," I said. "Like a turtle!"

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
Every day I read the Amsterdam daily Het Parool from front to back. My enthusiasm towards it can be charted as a bell curve. First I wade through the opening pages (top news items). The excitement then heightens through the national and international news. All this is the build up to my favorite section: the Amsterdam news. As someone extremely interested in the history and the urban planning/architecture of Amsterdam, this section of the paper never fails to satisfy. The grandest news nuggets of all are those articles concerning cycling in my adopted city. Each gets clipped and added to my files (some 700 articles so far!) to be consulted for my book-in-progress about my life in Amsterdam as seen through the lens of Dutch bicycle culture.

After that, the excitement dies down as I flip through the culture, business and sport sections of the Parool. I wish I could claim that I'm a faithful reader of the checkers column, but I can't. Maybe if there's a write up about the Dutch national checkers championships I'll read the whole piece. Otherwise, the checkers news only gets a cursory glance from me.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Books that Feature Great Dishwashing Episodes:

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell — Whether or not Orwell was "slumming it" when he dished at a Parisian hotel in 1928, it's immaterial. The dude busted his ass to bust those suds — and lived to tell the amazing tale of his weeks as a plongeur. After all these years, he remains an inspiration to those of us writing books about dishing.

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy — I love the scene where Joe Buck imagines what will happen when he arrives late to his dishwashing job. He'll tell the boss to bend over so he can shove the dishwashing machine up his ass. While the boss is doing as told, Joe then snatches the wallet from the boss' back pocket and walks out the back door.

The Same River Twice by Chris Offutt — After the author sent me this book, I grew terribly jealous of him. Offutt devotes a chapter to his dishwashing gig at the lodge on the rim of the Grand Canyon. When I had once tried to interview the dishwasher at that very same lodge, the park rangers grew so suspicious of me and my "dishwasher journalism," they threw me out of the park and banned me for life!

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley — Malcolm X was no one-hit wonder when it came to dish work. First he dished in Michigan; later on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in the 1940s, making the run between Boston and Washington D.C. His tale inspired me to dish on a train myself.

The Dishwasher by Dannie Martin — I was already a big fan of Dannie Martin's prison writings, so imagine how pleased I was that, upon his release, he wrote a novel about a recently released ex-con who lands a dishwashing job in Fresno. Written in a way only a disher/parolee could write it and appreciated in a way only disher/reader could appreciate it! spacer

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