I thought I’d hit the big time when I got a job at Bennigan’s at age 18. No more flipping burgers at McDonald’s, where they made you clock out to use the bathroom. “We’re not paying you to pee,” the manager would say.
But Bennigan's was different. The Irish-themed franchise was a real restaurant, and working there was sure to impress anyone, I thought. As a weekend dishwasher, who made $5.50 an hour (with free salad, baked potato and all the soda I could drink during my shift), I thought I was special. And my new green-mesh cap and matching pima-cotton polo shirt told me to believe it.
But, by the end of my first shift, I felt like a full-fledged bottom feeder. And it wasn’t just the work that knocked me down.
My eight-hour shifts went like this: waitstaff delivered trays full of dirty dishes to me and stacked racks of used drinking glasses above my station. Throughout my shift, leftover Coke and iced tea dripped down on my head.
I pushed racks I had filled with dirty dishes through the Hobart machine — a long, metal, humming vortex of detergent, boiling water and steam. When the racks emerged, I stacked the hot plates and glasses to cool then carried them to the “food line,” where the meals were prepared.
In my isolated pit, I scrubbed hardened cheese off nacho plates with steel pads that cut my water-pruned fingers. Steak knives sliced my palms. I got scalded more than a few times. And since there was no ventilation, I performed these tasks inside what felt like a hot, waterlogged blanket.
Dishwashers, as I quickly came to find, were the lowest of the low in the restaurant world. If you washed dishes, you might as well be an ex-con, an illegal alien or a high-school dropout. In the kitchen hierarchy, it went Broil Cook, Fry Cook, Salad, Expo, Prep and, finally, me. To reach the top of the heap, no less than 25 people had to die.
Everyone either ignored me or yelled at me: “WE NEED PLATES ON THE LINE! … WE’RE LOW ON WATER GLASSES!” As it goes, with such social ranking, waitresses were chilly towards any attempts I made at small talk. Their reactions were akin to a kid from the Dungeons & Dragons Club asking the head cheerleader for a back massage.
I didn’t know what I could do to change their perceptions that I was just a loser, nobody dishwasher. I was so much more than that! I was in college, studying to be a journalist. I had big plans for my life. But none of that seemed to matter. The prejudice drove me crazy.
But slowly my attitude began to change, thanks to a fellow dishwasher name Abu. He was a skinny Kenyan who wore his cap so low he had to tilt his head back to look at you. His English was pretty good, but his accent was thick. If everyone saw me as the bottom of the kitchen ladder, I could only image where they ranked Abu.
But the longer we worked together, the more I learned about him. I no longer saw the simple dishwater with a funny name, but a man of great ambition and wisdom.
Over the roar of the Hobart, as we wiped sweat from our brows, details of his life emerged. He was completing his doctorate in mechanical engineering at Florida Tech University. He had already graduated from a top engineering program in Kenya, and had a top-level job waiting for him at home. He spoke with passion about the bridges and buildings he helped create, and of his dreams to improve his country.
Abu was probably the smartest person in the whole building and no one even knew it. And it didn’t seem to matter to him. He was not looking for approval or acceptance, nor did he need it. He did a good job with a constant smile and went home at the end of his shift.
As I watched him carry stacks of plates tucked under his chin, I saw a man who was not defined by the tasks he did, or someone driven to change his workplace ranking. He was above the petty social hierarchy the restaurant world placed on him.
I think about Abu, and what I learned working that Bennigan’s job, whenever I see men collect my curbside recycling or the 65-year-old guy at Publix who bags my groceries. I know the work they do and their job titles they hold say little about the people they truly are. I know there is much more to them and their stories.