For That’s So ‘90s Week, I’m taking a look back at some of the pop culture epherma of the ’90s that sticks with this ageing Gen-Xer. Today, it’s Dishwasher Pete’s memoir and the zine explosion.
It used to be easier to “drop out.” These days, there’s an entire economy built around the notion of staying in touch with everyone all the time, with documenting your every move online every minute.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, you could travel the country as a roaming dishwasher, publish an erratic zine about your lifestyle, and become a super-obscure cult hero to an audience of a few thousand who’d check in on you once or twice a year.
Amiably drifting Pete Jordan decided to work as a dishwasher in all 50 states, embracing the ‘slacker’ lifestyle and the zen of the moment, and shared his stories of the ‘dish dog’ way in what turned out to be a surprisingly successful zine. Long after his dish days ended, Jordan wrote the candid, witty memoir “Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes In All 50 States,” one of my favourite books about the ‘90s.
It’s like a petri dish of what social scientists might imagine the prototypical ‘90s Gen-X life story to be. Pete dishes on an oil rig, in Alaska, in chain restaurants and communes and tiny roach-infested dives. As his zine grows, he becomes a folk hero, and even appears on David Letterman (sort of – I won’t spoil the story, which is totally on brand for Pete). These days he’d probably be some kind of live-streaming influencer, but in the ‘90s a guy like Pete would just drift into your life occasionally, a battered zine showing up in the mail or a phone call from a guy wanting to crash on your couch for a week.
Pete writes with wit and refreshing humility, and like his idol George Orwell did decades before, gives us a real feel for the people and places of low-wage drudgery, the jobs nobody wants to do but somebody has to. It’s not always flattering – everyone dreams of telling their boss to piss off, and quitting a job over being told to cut your hair or to make waffles, and yet there are times when you feel a bit sorry for the people Pete burns by walking off the job yet again. Even Pete himself gets a bit worn out by his rootlessness by the end, as he abandons dishwashing nomadery and finds a new life for himself.
I dig “Dishwasher” because it reminds me of an era when life seemed less complicated, even though it was actually still totally complicated. Like many others, I put out zines and small press comics in the 1990s and dreamed of wandering free and having adventures. I couldn’t hack Pete’s lifestyle, even then, even during the months I was jobless and roamed the USA a bit. (A single night in a rain-soaked tent in a frozen field in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, was a bit much for me.)
The entire world of Dishwasher Pete and his zines is a relic of an almost obsolete form of communication – of putting cash in the mail and waiting weeks or months for a personalised glimpse at someone else’s life. Sure, now you can get that any time by looking at the computer in your pocket, but a text or an instagram post from a friend who’s washing dishes in the middle of Kansas isn’t quite the same at all, is it?