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This Side of Princeton: Dining Hall Workers


While trying to scrub off a dried ketchup stain from the tub in the dish room on a Friday night, I started to reflect on my life choices so far and wonder why I was in a dish room, on a Friday night, scrubbing off dried ketchup from a tub. Before coming to Princeton, I had always prided myself on only working jobs that were meaningful to me. When I applied, I certainly had not envisioned myself breaking that pattern by working in the dining hall.

Despite Rockefeller College’s beautiful, Harry Potter-esque architecture, its dish room can in no way compare to Hogwarts. One soon gets the impression that Princeton must have forgotten about the room’s existence, because tools are constantly broken and drains are often blocked, and the dishwasher has stopped working twice this year. Thanks to these conditions, a day without slipping once on the wet food while carrying dirty plates on my arm can be considered a real success.


Damn it, I say to myself. Because I am so focused on cleaning the tub, I totally forget to take care of the dishes coming through on the belt. Now they are piling up and a cup full of water makes its contribution to the already wet floor. While multitasking is never a problem for me in class, cleaning the tub and simultaneously collecting the dishes from the belt proves to be a real challenge. Instead of helping me, my co-workers choose to make some sassy remarks. Our sass is based on a mutual understanding, though — we use it to release all of our stress and anxiety. It’s almost therapeutic.

But sass is of course not the only thing that unites us. We usually play music while we work, which allows us to invent a completely new set of dance moves on the wet floor. If there is ever a dance competition in the dish room, my crew would win for sure! And I love joking around with them, hearing their different life stories, and threatening them with the hose if they are getting too sassy.

Yet this is not the only way working in the dining hall has become therapeutic for me. I have come to appreciate the routine, the sweat, and the manual work. No matter what is happening in my life and how lost I might feel, once I enter the dish room, none of this is important anymore. It’s always the same routine: First I take care of the belt, then sort the silverware, then bring in the tub with dirty silverware from the dining hall, then clean the tubs and mop the floor. And no matter what happens in the next week, I know I will do exactly the same again when I come into the dish room the next time.

When I allow myself to immerse into this routine, I escape readings and problem sets and papers. My thoughts can wander around freely while my hands seem to know what to do automatically. And especially in such a stressful environment as Princeton, seeing one’s own accomplishments immediately is unimaginably gratifying. Before starting to work in the dining hall, I could never have imagined how happy a perfectly clean tub could ever make me feel.

But now I look forward to spending a few hours of my week sweating in the dish room and bonding with people, who, like me, are also trying not to slip on the wet floor. At the beginning I didn’t want to tell people where I work because I was embarrassed to have a job where I have to wear an orange apron and where my fingers get wrinkled by the cleaning water. But now I realize that it has become an enjoyable part of my life. I know that in these two hours, I can simply work without having to think deeply or stress about anything at all.