As I walked into the Wilcox Hall dish room for my first dish shift, I had a realization: I was clearly not prepared for this.
While every student dining-hall worker was in jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, an apron and equipped with headphones, I was in shorts, a tank top, slippery-soled shoes, no apron — and I was woefully without headphones. Not one to get discouraged early, I trekked in anyway.
Since everybody seemed either deep in thought or focused on music, I decided to make some basic observations. For example, every one of us knows that when we are finished with our dining hall meals, we are faced with three buckets: the food, the non-food and the silverware. While these three bins are clearly labeled and reasonably spaced, it is amazing to me how many people throw a spoon in the food, some food in the non-food and, to my new coworkers’ annoyance, napkins in the silverware.
“That’s the worst,” one student worker said as he pulled the soggy napkin out of the silverware pond and placed it into the non-food bin.
After the plates are — theoretically — stripped of all foodstuffs and non-foodstuffs, we patrons of the dining hall place them on a conveyor belt and send them on their way.
Just past where the plates disappear, one student at the conveyor belt — “working line,” as it is called — is charged with picking up and sorting everything that comes through. Is there food left over? Trash it. Drink left over in the cup? Dump it. Peanut butter and granola stuck inside a coffee mug? Curse the gods of line duty, and put it aside for later.
Once plates and cups are sorted and stacked, they join hand-scrubbed pans and other serving vessels and make their way down another conveyer belt to be loaded into the washer, which more closely resembles a car wash than a kitchen appliance.
After being washed, your pans, pots, plates, cups and everything in between are caught on the other side, stacked, placed on wheels and wheeled out to the servery, where you plaster them with food once again.
At this point, I felt like I had a working understanding of the process. I was ready to jump in.
First, I was handed a pan which 15 minutes prior was full of macaroni. “Scrub,” they said. So I scrubbed.
After a while, I thought I should explain my presence to the strangers who may be wondering why this apron-less, glove-less, headphone-less stranger was walking around, smiling and offering to do work. I introduced myself, declined to shake hands and dove right into the hard-hitting, investigative journalism:
“What do you guys do for fun around here?” I asked a little louder than I had anticipated, scaring my interviewees.
“Listen to music.”
“Catch up on podcasts.”
“I like to think.”
“The occasional music-blasting dance party.” I couldn’t tell if this was serious or not. Looking around at all of the earbuds, I figured I was out of luck this time around.
Clearly small talk is not the norm back here, so I returned my focus to de-cheesing my pan. When finished, I turned to a seasoned worker and asked if it was OK to load.
“A little dainty, but I like it,” he said as he powered through two more pans in the time it took me to turn around and figure out how to load the washer with my pan and a stack of 10 plates.
[Pro-tip from your editors, some of whom moonlight as dining hall workers: Grab all of the plates and slide them in a row. One at a time? Such a rookie mistake.]
Proud of my contribution to the cleaning cause, I followed my plates and pans through the machine and chatted with the two students catching the cleaned dishware. Perhaps I caught them offguard, as one proceeded to hit his head on part of the unit.
I asked if injuries were common as I attempted to make my way over to hear the answer without slipping on the wet floors. Lots of near misses, but no real injuries, they said.
“I do hurt my hands sometimes catching the pans,” one girl added. “They get kind of hot.”
Any other exciting happenings?
“This is not the job for people who are looking for something exciting,” I was told. “It is usually the same thing, every shift. Even the peak hours are the same every night.”
His tone was not bitter, but honest. After some digging, I heard some hand-washing horror stories when the dishwasher had broken, but for the most part, it seemed as though the job was exactly what I was experiencing: usually without surprises, other than the occasional over-conversational ‘Prince’ reporter.
I made my way over to help sort some silverware and chatted a bit more. Did they ever wonder how many plates go by in a shift?
Ears perked up. Guesses ranged from 1,000 to 2,500. “I’m going to have to count next time I work line,” a freshman told me.
Channeling my inner investigator, I made my way over to the conveyor belt to see if I could take a small sample.
I couldn’t. It was 7:15 p.m. The dinner rush had begun, and the girl working line had to pick up plates, bowls and cups so quickly that I nearly got knocked out with a rogue soup bowl. I tried to help out by dumping filled cups — seriously, people, dump your cups before putting them on the belt, and put them on the belt face-down — but this was just another case of too many cooks in the kitchen, so I went back to helping scrub the growing pile of serving pans.
Toward the end of the shift, I had made some new friends, mastered the blank stare at the floor for the slow times and managed to sort hundreds of forks, spoons and knives. When I left, I waved, yelled a quick goodbye which probably was not heard over the sound of dishwashers, iPods and inner monologues and made my way to the servery to grab a freshly cleaned plate and my dinner. And when I was done, I was sure to scrape my plate clean. Now I know firsthand how annoying it is to clean up the 500th messy plate, and I want to help any way I can.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/11/31438/