ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
George Orwell did it, so did Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford and Little Richard. Many great men, and some great women, too, have logged time working as dishwashers on their way to bigger things. For Pete Jordan, washing dishes was not a stepping stone, but a calling. For 12 years, Jordan was an itinerant dishwasher so committed was he to this profession - and indeed that's what he calls it - that he set out to work as a dishwasher in all 50 states.
He wrote a zine along the way and contributed radio pieces to the program "This American Life." And now Pete Jordan has written a book. It's called "Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States." In it, Jordan takes readers to the heart of the kitchen, a place known as the dish pit.
Mr. PETE JORDAN (Author, "Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States"): Some places - it might be an actual room, maybe it's just a corner of the kitchen, maybe it's even the walkway on the way to the bathroom. And it's the place where all the dirty dishes and the leftovers get brought.
There's usually a gentleman, sometimes a woman, sometimes a crew of people who's jobs it is to scrape those plates, and - maybe if they're a little hungry, they'll snack up the plates, who knows? And wash them. Get them cleaned. It's probably usually hot and steamy. And there's usually some roaches and rats and mice also enjoying the free food that's in the area.
Mr. JORDAN: Oh yeah. Sure. Yeah, it's no secret that they're there. I guess it's a secret to the customers.
NORRIS: You know, when I read your book, Pete, one of the things that I was struck by - in one Chinese restaurant in Mississippi, you wrote that you were actually discouraged, actually told not to wash the dishes thoroughly because the owner wanted you to leave the plates greasy. Could you explain that?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, he felt that washing water glasses was a waste of time and resources, so water glasses are just - gets sent back out to the dining room floor. And yeah, the first time this issue rose was in - when he told me not to bother washing a soup pot. That was in the middle of washing and he just grabbed it and started making soup in it.
I found myself in a weird situation where I was challenged by the owner. He wanted me to wash the dishes less, and I found myself wanting to wash the dishes more, and I'd have to sort of do it while his back was turned.
NORRIS: How hard was it to find work?
Mr. JORDAN: Not too hard in most places. Usually, I'd roll into town and walk around. I just love walking around in new cities and new towns. And looking for a Dishwasher Wanted sign that would be posted in the window and ask for the job, inquire about it. They would ask me if I could start right then or, you know, usually at the latest - by the next day. And yeah, I was always game.
NORRIS: When you got to New Orleans, Pete, and this was before the city was devastated by Katrina, you wrote that you found that washing dishes was a closed profession - closed to a white man. You happen to be a white man.
Mr. JORDAN: That's right.
NORRIS: Now, was this your experience? Just your experience or was there actually some sort of unwritten rule in the city of New Orleans - that white men did not wash dishes?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I was told before I got there by two dishwashers who had passed through New Orleans - two white guys who passed through New Orleans - that they had both - independent of each other - tried to find dish work there and both of them had left town without ever being able to find a job. And both were told that whites worked in the front of the restaurants and blacks worked in the back of the restaurants. And that's just how it was. And I thought that sounded rather ridiculous and archaic. And I was determined to go to New Orleans and prove them wrong. And get a dishwashing job on my own.
But once there, I was told even by many locals - waiters, for example, white waiters who said that in their restaurants, it was all blacks in the back and whites up front, and that I would have hard time finding a job in town. And indeed, I did. It took several weeks. Until I finally did get hired at a place and I thought, we don't quite - proven everybody wrong, but instead the guy wanted me to be the head dishwasher at a large French Quarter restaurant.
And then he gave me a tour of the place and I realized that all the other seven or eight dishwashers who I'd be the equivocal(ph) head of, were all black. And it was a position I found myself not willing to take.
NORRIS: So I'm going to give a bit of this away. In the end, did you get to all 50 states?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, no.
NORRIS: Are you going to reveal that?
Mr. JORDAN: No, I didn't finish it. A little thing called love got in the way. It took me a long time to realize that women like it a little bit more than a guy running around the country washing dishes. And so when I finally did find the woman who wanted to settle with me, I gave up the quest and settled down.
NORRIS: Now, did she tell you, you can't wash dishes in restaurants but it's perfectly fine if you want to wash dishes in our kitchen? Do you wash dishes at home?
Mr. JORDAN: I have an exclusive contract to wash dishes in the home. My wife -for as wonderful as she is and beautiful as she is and as a wonderful cook that she is - she may indeed be the world's worst dishwasher. So she does all the cooking. I do all the dishwashing.
NORRIS: Pete Jordan, thanks so much.
Mr. JORDAN: You're welcome.
NORRIS: Pete Jordan's book is called "Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States."