When the machines were roaring, we could not speak. The room was fairly small with 6 of us working continuously for about 2 hours. The floors were covered with rubber mats to prevent falling and the walls were floor to ceiling white ceramic tile. The room had a conveyor belt that emerged from the ceiling. The noise created a sense of urgency. The room was screaming. Go faster. Go faster. Keep up.
This was the University dish room. Nothing very spectacular, it was the place that thousands and thousands of dishes, glasses and piece of silverware were washed every day. We workers, each had a specific job. Like automatons we trained our minds and bodies to quickly grab, stack, sort and load the machine. Feed the machine is probably a better term . The machine was filled with steam and chemicals and it spewed out dishes and heat.
Outside this room, long lines of normally dressed students moved through 6 or 8 serving stations. Depending on the menu du jour, the smell of roast beef or macroni and cheese filled the air. Students emerged with their food into a huge dining room. This was a social event. The room was filled with happy chatter, or at least I imagined that. I never moved through those lines. Occasionally I would walk past the dining room but that was not my dining room. That was part of where I worked.
I stood next to Chen who was my partner. He was from China and spoke English with difficulty.
Chen: Grabbing a half eaten turkey sandwich and placing it on a stainless steel shelf above our workstation. – “Yumm, this looks good”.
Me: Thinking: “He does this every day. He is eating garbage.”
Chen: Grabbing some chocolate cake: “Yumm dessert”
If we could not keep up, we could stop the line. There was a big red button near our workstations. If anyone pressed it, the machine would stop and a loud klaxon horn alarm would ring. We almost never stopped it.
Nearby I could her Ronald singing at the top of his lungs. He sang opera. He was a black man and a full time non-student employee. Unlike the students, he was dressed in a white coat with black and white checked pants.
Suddenly he lifted a rack of glasses and threw it across the room. Glass shards flew everywhere.
“This is bull shit!” he screamed. Tearing off his apron and throwing down his hat. He ran from the room. We did not wonder what was wrong. We knew he was a talented operatic singer trapped all day in this room. No one went after him. No one called out to him.
Chen pressed the button and stopped the machine, the horn sounded and a supervisor appeared.
“What the hell happened?”
“Ronald just quit” I muttered to Chen
The Supervisor dressed in a business suit said:
“Well turn the
machine back on!”
“But the dishes will tumble onto the floor”
He looked puzzled and then disappeared, returning later in an apron over his suit coat.
I giggled to myself.
Chen laughed aloud.
Other workers were pleased.
We turned the machine on and the manager very lamely tried to juggle the trays, plates and racks of glasses as they came off the steaming machine.
“Ow! This hurts!” He cried.
“Wear gloves” we yelled” (Of course we knew that with gloves on he would be even more inept. Burning your hands was part of that job.)
Meanwhile, Chen and I pulled dishes and trays off the conveyor belt and dumped food into the yawing mouth of a huge garbage disposal. We worked very, very fast.
Suddenly, the disposal seized up and jammed. We both knew what had happened. We pressed the big red button and stopped everything. The horn again blarred.
WE had a 2 foot diameter disposal filled with food. In fact it was overflowing. The next task was for me to stick my arm into the pit and find the fork or knife down in the blades of the disposal.
I thought: “Never put your fingers near the blades, they will grab you and chew up your fingers.” This message brought to you by my mother.
I thought: “This is all food from peoples plates. Ick.” Again, this message was from my family. We avoided germs. We were a family of germ-a-phobes.
How could I, a child brought up in a family fearful of germs, stick my arm up to my shoulder in a pile of food scraps from other people?
Insane or not, I had decided after a few days on this job that either I got over my fear of the unclean or I would not earn my $1.75 hour. I did wash up carefully after work and I did not eat the food, but I was practical. My fears took a back seat to my paycheck.
Before I went away to school, I lived in my family home where nobody shared food. Where my father rinsed the bathroom sink with alcohol every day. I thought everyone did that. Only years later did I learn he had had TB and was always afraid for our family. We never kissed on the lips. Didn’t everyone avoid that?
Now in the Dishroom, I proceeded to do my job.
Chen looked at me. I said: “Make sure nobody turns this thing back on”
Chen stood vigil by the power switch. I trusted him.
I reached in, deeper and deeper until my fingers gripped a greasy knife. I struggled to pull it free and finally pulled the knife up.
I yelled “ Excallibur!!” Remember, I was 18.
Chen cheered as did my co-workers.
There were 5 of us jammed into a very small dishroom. We worked at a dormitory cafeteria. Chef Charles Legrande presided over the food, but we were at the other end of the food chain so to speak We washed dishes.
The dish machine was loud. It hissed with steam and made grinding noises as it pulled a belt of trays and dishes through.
Since we could not talk, we would sing. The noise level was so high that no one outside the room could hear you. We liked a particular song .The first line was: “They say don't go …on Wolverton Mountain”. It was a country song, and we would elongate on Wooolllllvertonn Mountaaain. (Listen) To we 5 it was hilarious and we did sang it almost every day. Usually, we would convulse in hysterical giggling laughter at our own sound. This happened 7 days a week.
My job was to immerse hundreds of spoons, knives and forks in a pool of thick green liquid.
“Hey Micky” I asked, “why do you think my skin peeling off.”
“Oh it is the green slime we use to clean things. You should wear gloves but have you every tried to sort silverware with gloves on?.”
We laughed about the absurdity of our situation.
I pulled a strip of skin off and went back to my task.
As a silverware person, I developed an odd skill at rapidly sorting and stacking spoons, etc. I could do it with my eyes closed and sometimes did. Practice does make perfect. I was very fast.
I was 18 years old doing my first year at Berkeley. We lived in converted WWII wooden barracks on the top of a hill. At night we would hang out of our windows to look at the lights of San Francisco as the fog rolled in.. We were far from campus, so our social lives were quickly focused on this tiny space at the edge of the Berkeley Hills.
My work paid minimum wage and I needed what I earned. Like the other fellows in the dish room, We envied fellow students with cars and more spending money, but we liked our job.
To earn extra money, I also worked in a little snack bar that sold hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream. We had a large grill that was turned on once a week to make dinner for Sunday night. We had a counter with red leatherette stools and a soda fountain. I met Sarah there.
She was coming through the snack bar line with a huge group of friends. I knew at once she was one of the “popular girls.” Shy as I was at the time, I didn’t make eye contact. I took Sarah's order, turned my back to her and put her order on the grill.
“Are you Alex Brown?” she said.
(I looked very much like another tall thin dark skinned fellow, Alex Brown)
“Yes” I replied.
So now Sarah, who would become my wife in about 2 years, knew me as Alex Brown.
What seemed funny and clever to me, quickly became weird as she would greet me as Alex . I told the real Alex Brown what I had done and agreed to play along. So for about a week, Alex and I pretended to be one another when talking to Sarah.
I dreamed of Sarah after the first day we met.
Later, Sarah told me that she not only dreamed of me, but she dreamed that we would be married. Since she didn’t even know my real name, this became a strange and classic family story.