Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2012 (March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am)

Dean of the Dish Room


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March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am
By Bob Arnebeck'69

In any confined space someone inevitably rules the roost, and for a brief period in the late ’60s, I fancied that I was Dean of the Dish Room just off the common dining area of the college.

DishesIn 2001, I had an opportunity to return to my realm when my wife, Leslie Kuter’69, had an art show at the Wright Museum. I went after breakfast dishes were done. It was empty. There were no honors for me there, no commemorative dish on the wall. It all looked smaller than it looms in my memory. The washing machine in the center of the room looked menacingly quaint, like those famous photos of the old electric chairs.

I started at the bottom, catching glasses at breakfast during winter term, Tuesdays and Thursdays. I didn’t like catching glasses because the glass catcher always had to be on his or her toes, picking glasses and cups off trays placed on the conveyor belt at the whim of the face-stuffers in Commons who had the habit of leaving in harrying bunches or slowly torturing us, one by one. The dish rinser at the end of the belt could let dishes pile up to a degree. The loader could bide his sweet time until the piles started to teeter. Plus, it was bad form to always be turning the washing machine off and on. The unloader was at the mercy of the loader, at the wrong end of 10 feet of roaring, hot soapy water. Everybody I talked to in the dish room warned against unloading.

Next term—summer term back in the heyday of the Beloit Plan—I worked lunch, which was sweet. I liked coming in early and getting my lunch before Commons opened. Plus, a court decision in Wisconsin required the college to pay student workers minimum wage. We all got a 50-cent raise to $1.15 an hour.

I added the skill of rinsing. I was still too green to work on either end of the machine. Next term, I won a job on the dinner shift. I really liked eating dinner early, but on my shift all the jobs were taken by older students except one. I had to unload.

My advancement sounds simple enough, but nothing was simple in the late ’60s. I admit to having grown comfortable with the current take on that period. We all hated the war, we all loved the troops, we all strived for equal rights, and we all loved one another. Actually the late ’60s was a bad time even at bucolic Beloit College. Although Beloit did not have ROTC, there were plenty of guys already slated for the Marines and such a one was the loader on the dinner shift. He had the crew cut and the stolid stare, a man of few words and none of them gracious to anyone with long hair. I had long hair, which is to say it was just over my ears and touched my collar. I was slating myself to join the ranks of Poets.

More about differences back then: Violence underlay all of them. You can talk about all the national conundrums since the late ’60s until you are blue in your face, but none generated the malice between people that the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle did. One Saturday night, I was recruited for a mission to pay back another Marine for busting a mirror in a friend’s off-campus apartment, a scene that ended with edgy smiles and mutual enjoyment in cracking glass, but violence all the same.

I had no reason to like the Marine, and I am sure he had no reason to like the Poet. As I mentioned, the loader and the unloader don’t get into action until dishes begin to pile up. I learned from the glass snatcher, while the Marine was still lingering over his dinner, that he was the greatest loader of them all, who could fill the grasping plastic rows of the machine with lines of plates. No one could unload them as fast, and I now faced no easy choice: Let the machine stop or break dishes.

Nonsense! I am sure you are thinking, but like I said, violence was in the air. That all the dishes would be broken was a live possibility.

There is nothing pleasant about unloading the machine. The first thing the loader puts in are racks of glasses, which come out as three or four dozen inverted steam vents that you heft up and put on a six-foot-high rack. I’ve seen the machine stop when catchers had to catch a breath after too many loads of steam from the glasses. But even though the Marine marshaled the glass racks through the machine in tight formation, the machine didn’t stop.

You doubtlessly have already remembered the cliché: and, yes, I took everything he dished out. All through the march of china, the machine didn’t stop. The Marine, the Machine, and the Poet worked as one. It was a marvel, but there is no happy moral about teamwork to this story. The Marine and Poet never talked to each other. Whether he was miffed that I took everything he dished out, I’ll never know.

I am getting to a moral. I am pegging myself as the Dean of the Dish Room, and I had enough run-ins with deans at Beloit to know that they loaded morals the way that Marine loaded dishes.

When the Marine graduated, he actually did join the Marines. I finally got a chance to load the machine, and found it was not that difficult, cooler and quicker work than unloading, provided the rinser did a good job. The loader lifted wet dishes from loose piles. The unloader had to cradle hot dishes and slip them into stainless steel dispensers, again designed to just the right size. Having to gather rocking crockery, six to eight to 10 plates at a time, wasn’t easy in itself, slipping them into a holder and getting your hands back—Well, it is a hell of a job. In my mind, I could hear Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston singing “John Henry” every night I worked. The machine stopped once, on a night I had the flu.

No student who worked in the dish room ever called me the Dean of the Dish Room, but my swagger was soon noticed. Needless to say, with a Poet holding seniority and the pick of positions, communism was soon in the air. Some nights I would load, and some nights I would let the unloader load and I unloaded. The guy’s hair was long enough, not that we were great talkers, but we got into an easy rhythm. Our machine never stopped, too, and there was no contest, save one. I liked to linger over dinner as long as possible, and not start the machine, save to run a few racks of glasses through to keep up with thirsty demand for the insipid colored-water drink we all seemed addicted to then, until the rinser was pulling out his or her hair. I thought I cut a marvelously poetic figure, sitting at a table next to the dish room, reading Proust, now and then smoothing my apron and adjusting my T-shirt, then nodding to my unloader and going in to get the job done.

The Marine, I had noticed, never talked to anyone. Being a Poet, I made it a point to get to know the real kitchen workers. Because I tended to start the machine late, I began to see what happened when the dishes were done. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that one of the kitchen workers kept an eye on us, a pleasant woman with light brown curly hair named Betty, who was about 30 years old. I had imagined that all the kitchen workers were married, earning a little extra money to help out. Yes, Betty was married. She had two jobs, her husband had two jobs, they had two kids, and they hadn’t gone to a movie in years.

Of course, being so incredibly efficient, running the machine for a half hour and never letting it stop, and a Poet to boot, I was full of myself. I asked Betty what she did after we students left. She mopped the dish room floor. I offered to do that, but she explained that it wasn’t that easy. The kitchen staff also ran their pots and pans through the machine. Were they dirty? No. So if I mopped—I was an aproned Miller Upton (our illustrious president then, Father of the Beloit Plan) full of ideas. I actually did mop the floor a few times, but not without getting icy stares from the lady bringing the big kettles in for their steam bath.

Rather soon, Betty took me aside, and cut the Poet down to size. Many of the kitchen workers, she explained, wanted to get out as soon as possible because they had to go to other jobs. They were getting uneasy at our starting the machine so late since they’d all be in a fix if the machine broke down. So rather than mopping or doing anything else, they just wanted us—me in particular—to get the dishes done as soon as possible and leave.

I won’t say that the world would be a better place without Deans, but I will say that fewer Marines and Poets would not do the working people of the world any harm, especially Fool Poets who aim to do a Marine one better by putting a happy face on egotistical posturing. And I am sure any Machine will tell you that it feels no shame in being turned off now and then, or even stopping and starting in the normal course of getting a job done in a timely manner. In my last months working the dish room, I struck the not-so-noble pose of standing out in Commons and scowling at students, long-haired and short, lingering over their dinners, so many oblivious to the reality around them: The economy of nighttime Beloit depended on me getting the dishes done as soon as possible.  

Bob Arnebeck’69 is a writer who left Washington, D.C., in 1994 to observe otters and beavers on and around a large island in the St. Lawrence River. He has written Proust’s Last Beer: A History of Curious Demises (Penguin 1980) and Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800 (Madison Books 1990).

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