At noon on Saturday, I follow a specific set of steps, my movements already becoming rhythmic, intentional. I punch in my number. ENTER. IN. Listen for the beep. Check the screen. *Katherine Livingston* CLOCKED IN. I take off my coat. Then I take off my sweater, the one that hides the Bon Appétit shirt with the Bon Appétit logo. I’m a little bit less myself now, a little bit more Bon Appétit. There is something comforting about this.
I pull on my plastic gloves, putting a layer of synthetic protection over my skin, not to protect my skin from the dishes but to protect the dishes from my skin. This is an important distinction. I then take my place in the lineup, but the lineup doesn’t begin with me. It begins with machines, the blue conveyor belt that moves plates and dishes forward into the gaping maw of the window which leads into the dish room. The window is a mysterious thing. It eats up your bowls and plates and silverware and takes them to a place where you’re not allowed to go. No matter how you crane your neck around the bend, the dish room will not reveal its secrets to you. Because you are not meant to go there.
Inside of the dish room, it is hot. It is also humid and wet so that the air sticks to your lungs and hair. Steam and condensation gather on the conveyor belts and machines. It is large and well organized, both in its physical mechanics and in the mechanics of its processes. It starts with the little window and ends with humans who bus the dishes out to the dining hall. The blue conveyor belt—once it loops into the dish room and beyond the place that you cannot see past no matter how you crane your neck—carries the dishes to a person who sprays them with a high-pressure commercial kitchen faucet. The water is warm enough to soften the food stuck to the plates but not warm enough to burn, pressured enough to clean the food from the plates but not pressured enough to sting. The dishwasher (the person, not the machine) falls into a rhythm of practiced, habitual movements, working in tandem with the machines.
The bits of food, after they are loosened by the person and by the high-pressure commercial kitchen faucet, travel down a channel which runs parallel to the blue conveyor belt. This channel leads to a garbage disposal, which is wide enough to fit a head in and deep enough to fit an arm up to the shoulder. I am compelled by some morbid impulse to try one of these things before reason inevitably wins out. The dishes are sent further down the blue conveyor belt so that they can be loaded by a pair of gloved hands into the dishwasher’s conveyor belt, which has white, malleable teeth.
The dishwasher (the machine, not the person) is a hulking, metal, rectangular thing which takes up a good third of the room. It eats up the dishes. It pulls them through the hulking metal frame. It blasts them with some mysterious mixture of soap and scalding water. It spits them out the other end. It does this many, many times. There are blue flaps that protect the gloved hands from getting sprayed with soapy water and from wondering too long about what goes on inside of the dishwasher.
I only have time to worry about the dishes and the conveyor belt and its rhythmic movements. When I take my normal spot at the end of the dishwasher, where the plates and bowls and silverware come out clean, I fall into rhythmic movements. I pluck the plates from the white, malleable teeth of the conveyor belt. I stack them. I listen for the clink of plastic against plastic. I pivot on my non-slip shoes. I stack the dishes on the cart. I pivot back. I do this many, many times. It feels satisfying, like my gloved hands and non-slip shoes and Bon Appétit t-shirt are natural extensions of the room around me, like I am a natural extension of the room around me.
The trouble only comes when the dish cart is full, when I have to leave my place with the machines and push the dining cart out through an inconspicuous door and into the dining hall, which is full of people. This process is messy and frustrating. It lacks all of the reassuring, systematic rhythm of the dish room. It lacks all of the machines. The dining hall is a place for people, people who I have to push the cart through, who move out of my way, who stand in my way, who are polite, who are rude, who are unpredictable. I must reach around them and mummer apologies and pleasantries to them as they murmur apologies and pleasantries back. I am forced to think and feel. I am not confined to mechanical movements. But I am still gloved hands and non-slip shoes and the Bon Appétit t-shirt. The residual heat and dampness still stick to me. I am still an extension of the dish room. This state of limbo is upsetting. I stack the plates and bowls but not systematically, not rhythmically. The bowls fall all over themselves. The plates pinch my fingers. I run into someone. Someone runs into me. I push the cart back, more than aware of how conspicuous it is as it makes a loud and steady clacking sound against the floor, aware of how conspicuous I am with my gloved hands and non-slip shoes. I can only rest easy when I have taken my spot back in the lineup, when I can fall into rhythmic motions and feel at ease with the machines around me.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, I follow a less specific set of steps, my movements already becoming less rhythmic, less intentional. I punch in my number. ENTER. OUT. Listen for the beep. Check the screen. *Katherine Livingston* CLOCKED OUT. I feel a little bit more relaxed. Then I put on my sweater, the one that hides the Bon Appétit shirt with the Bon Appétit logo, and my coat on over that. I am a little bit more myself now, a little bit less Bon Appétit. There is something comforting about this.
Katie Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.