The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

For Bill Richardson, part-time dishwashing became a road to salvation

Former radio host Bill Richardson found himself depressed and retreating from the world. His only way to find happiness was to take a job that was smelly, relentless, repetitive and dull.
Former radio host Bill Richardson has worked his way out of despondency, one dirty dish at a time. (Submitted by Bill Richardson/Wikimedia)

Originally published on March 3, 2019.

By Bill Richardson

The dog died. Despondency was born. I pretty much stopped leaving my apartment. Outside held no allure without the warm certainty of poop in a plastic bag. Also, I didn't feel like getting dressed.

I stayed busy. I cleaned, a lot. The apartment's very small. It got very clean.

I waited for dust to penetrate my defences. I was ready for it, weaponized.

Take that, dust. I thought about getting venetian blinds, those wide horizontal slats that grime adores, as a kind of entrapment ploy, but that would have required opening the door to an installer.

I kept the verticals. I kept them closed. The fridge and tinnitus were my boon companions. One droned. One nattered.

Every so often, the body's foreman upped the serotonin. The leaden hours turned a brighter shade of pewter. I wasn't happy, but I could remember happy, the circumstances that sustained it.

When I was sixteen, I worked a graveyard shift in a 24-hour restaurant.

I bussed tables and washed dishes and mixed up the signature hamburger concoction. Three in the morning, up to my elbows in diced cow and hickory-flavoured bread crumbs, Rod Stewart on the radio.

It was the summer of Maggie May. Joe, the cook, would grab my ass and say, "Yeah, blondie, you know you love that."

Joe was bad, but Joe was right.

Washing dishes all night was hard work, exhausting. I was happy.

I went home happy, I lay down happy, and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was gone, never mind the risen sun. My dreams were happy.

What wasn't to like? I was buddy on the night shift. My real life was gathering itself, just beyond the horizon. Any day now it would gallop into town and carry me away. Happy, happy, happy. 

I had to transfer the tiredness from my head to my limbs. I knew one reliable way to do that.

Awake half the night in the small clean apartment, I measured then against now.

I had plenty of tiredness, but it was interventionist, it got in sleep's way.

I had to transfer the tiredness from my head to my limbs. I knew one reliable way to do that. I found something to wear that wasn't sweatpants and crocs. I went out. 

"Did you bring your resumé?" asked the woman whose ad I answered and in whose kind regard I detected not a pixelated scintilla of a hankering to grope me and say, "yeah, baldy, you love that."

She looked at the gilded document, my charted past of every boast-worthy, useless, stupid thing: the degrees, publications, literary awards, honorary doctorates.

She said, "We get all kinds. I'll show you the Pit."   

I liked the look of the Pit. It was small and all about cleaning. I said yes. She said yes. Yes is a beautiful word. To my CV, under experience, I added "Part-time dishwasher." Location: the Pit.

"You know this is horrible work, right?" said my supervisor, when we met for the first time.

She plainly wondered, not unreasonably, if this elderly, fay gentleman had any idea what he was in for. She wasn't wrong.

There's not much to recommend dishwashing as a vocation. It's relentless, it's repetitive, it's dull, it's loud: like most Wagner operas, now that I think of it.

It's smelly, too, or can be, and not even the steam from the machine is compensatory: it's not as complexion enhancing as I'd hoped.

The tools provided are primitive and not efficacious. Nails are way better than scouring pads for removing baked-on egg or macaroni and cheese and if you were to meet me on the street and wonder if that's egg around my cuticles, I wouldn't be able to tell you for sure, as I spend long minutes with my fingers deep in drains, clearing them of remnants either fleshy or leguminous.

As sensory experiences go, I suspect it's not much removed from what surgeons know when they're digging around an open chest cavity, looking for a rogue sponge.

Dishwashing was a crappy job when I was sixteen, and dishwashing is a crappy job now, so I've been surprised at how much I like it.

It accommodates aesthetic and procedural variance from worker to worker.

It's autonomous. It's physical in a way that's manageable for a man of my years and sedentary history. It's straightforward in its requirements and in its measure of success.

There's never a need to worry about the placement of a semicolon or to agonize over whether it's Ralph Vaughan Williams or Rafe Vaughan Williams. Is it clean? Good. You win. Next.

"You're not doing this for the money, are you?" is the cautious question asked by the most comfortable and advantaged of my friends. Well, listen, 15 bucks an hour is 15 bucks an hour. It adds up, and sure, I'm glad of it, but no, it's not my main raison de lavage.

No debt, no dependents, I could quit tomorrow and not risk homelessness. I'm luckier in that regard than many of my colleagues who are 20, 30, 40 years younger, and who have known displacement and who are bringing home the bacon to spouses and children and who work hard, and who take their jobs seriously, and who do beautiful work and whose respect I've courted by also taking what I do, cleaning up after them, seriously.

By doing it as best I can. I was scrutinized at the outset, assessed. Was I going to be tourist or was I going to be crew?

They watched me flail, fail, learn, consolidate, find steady ground. I kept coming back.

"Hey Grandpa," said one of the Filipino bakers, when I was about three weeks into my tenure, "you want some cake?"

Eye twinkle. Humour. An open hand. I don't think I've ever felt so welcomed. Sleep comes easy, now. Long and deep. 

"Someone told me you used to be someone," my supervisor said, a while back. She was surprised, not unkind.

I took no umbrage. I couldn't pretend I didn't know what she was talking about, nor did I feel like explaining how what I've become is proud.

Happy, I am happy, and more of a someone than I've been for a very long time.

For The Sunday Edition, I'm Bill Richardson. Part-time dishwasher.   

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