The Dish Tank
When I was nineteen I lived and worked at the Grand Canyon.
I worked there for a month until they fired me for drinking.
I worked at El Tovar.
The most expensive restaurant at the Grand Canyon.
Presidents, rock stars, if you had money you ate at El Tovar when you went to the Grand Canyon.
One table of six could amass a six hundred dollar bill at dinner.
I worked in the dish tank.
The reason I worked in the dish tank was because I was American and not in a good college.
The Grand Canyon got workers from all over the world through some program I can’t remember the name of.
If you were from Russia, France, Iceland, etcetera they would put you in the front of the house as a busboy or server.
It also worked the same way with kids from good colleges like Yale and Harvard.
The reason they would have the foreign workers work in the front of the house was because the name tags at the Grand Canyon specified where you were from. And the rich tourists would look at the people’s name tags and see Holland or England and think it was great.
They also only had to work three to four days a week for no more than four hours at a time while dishwashers worked five to six days a week ten hours at a time.
The front of the house people made more money per hour than the dishwashers.
They made $5.35 plus tips. We made $5.35 with no tips.
The people who had to do dishes were Americans from states like Illinois and Ohio, and the Native Americans.
There were two dish areas.
A front area where plates, cups, and silverware were cleaned.
And a back area where pots and kitchen utensils were cleaned.
The room where the kitchen shit was cleaned was a hellhole.
The walls had all the paint crusted off.
The garbage was filled with dead fish.
It smelled like hell in there.
The room was filled with steam from the hot water.
There was a metal stand to put the dirty pots on.
There was a small radio that played the Grand Canyon radio station which was just the same four bad songs over and over again.
There were three huge sinks.
One to soak the plates.
One to wash them.
One to sanitize them.
Two guys worked that room together.
For the month I worked there, I worked with about seven different people because the Grand Canyon fired people constantly.
When I first got there, the head of the dish tank was this deranged old wastoid named Chuck.
He was about fifty years old.
Had a handlebar mustache.
Had worked at over five national parks.
He once said this to me: “I remember one of my past lives. I was a slave master in the Old South. I remember being in charge of a huge plantation.”
I looked at him and said nothing.
He would talk like everything he said would be life-altering and earth-shattering, which is common among people who don’t know shit about anything.
The guy wasn’t miserable though.
He loved living in beautiful places and having new experiences.
Which isn’t bad.
I knew a lot of people way more intelligent than him back in Youngstown, but they never had the balls to be happy.
Even though Chuck was dumb as shit, he always found a way to live in beautiful places.
Then after a shitty day of work he could walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon or to the hot springs of Yellowstone and smile.
The second in command was José, a Hopi Indian.
He had the most horrible teeth I have ever seen on a human being.
They were all black and broken up.
They looked like black gravel in his mouth.
It was fucking horrible when he smiled.
José would work really hard and look miserable the whole time.
He didn’t talk much either and no one could understand what he said.
He had a really thick Hopi accent.
The weird thing about José was that he could disappear and reappear out of nowhere.
Like you would turn around and José would be gone or you would look back and José was standing there.
You would say, “José, how long you been there? You scared the fuck out of me.” And he would respond, “Like ten minutes.” It was fucking weird.
José was a drunk.
As were most of the Indians at the Grand Canyon.
Well hell, most of the Americans working at the Grand Canyon were drunks too.
José didn’t show up to work one day because he decided to not stop drinking while down in Flagstaff and they fired him.
Which was sad because he was a really good dishwasher.
I saw him before he left the Grand Canyon and he said that he was going to another park deeper into Arizona to work.
One American who worked there was a nineteen-year-old named Dave.
He was this complete jerk-off from Illinois.
He would constantly talk about OSHA and how we couldn’t do certain shit because it was unsanitary.
The other dishwashers would stare at him like an asshole and tell him he was stupid.
There isn’t much that can be said about him except that he was a big loser.
There were some other dishwashers but they were either there at the beginning of when I got there and or at the end when I got fired.
One night at the Grand Canyon.
I was up all night drinking with some kid from New Zealand.
His name was Tom, a nice kid.
He had grown up in New Zealand, had an American mother and a Kiwi father.
I guess his family had money back in New Zealand and he was just passing through.
He was kind of a backpacker but backpackers never go near real people and stay on their scheduled route and only speak to other backpackers.
Tom was different, but he didn’t care.
There was a sense of hopelessness and disillusion about him that I think brought him to enjoy the company of lower class people like myself and the other dishwashers at the Grand Canyon.
Whatever made him feel like that, I don’t know.
Well, one night we had stayed up the whole night in the community TV room of the dorm talking about our lives and other people’s lives, and whatever thoughts came to our drunken brains.
The sun eventually came up and we were sitting there about ready to go to sleep and then this old beat-to-shit Indian came in, sat next to us, pulled out Top Gun from his pocket, showed it to us and said, “You wanna buy this video?”
Tom and I stared at him, wondering what the hell was happening.
We both said, “No thank you.”
Then the Indian put the video back in his pocket and left.
Tom was like, “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
It was the Fourth of July at the Grand Canyon.
No fireworks because of the dryness of Arizona.
A lot of drinking though.
I was sitting in the community TV room with like six other guys.
There was Martinez Whitehair, an Indian who was completely insane.
That day he wore socks up to his knees, shorts, and a plain white t-shirt.
When he was drunk he would go on for hours about how the Navajo language came from the rabbits, how people need to respect the dishes they wash, how the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s ark, and how the Elders are racist.
There was a fat guy named Bob who had a handlebar mustache, was bald, and fucking stupid.
He would never get drunk.
But would talk about how people can lift themselves up by their bootstraps all night.
I would argue with the fucker all night.
I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
But random people would say they thought I was right.
There was a guy named Michael who was African-American and very pissed all the time.
He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.
He made me look stupid constantly. Everything I told him, he would tell me I was wrong.
As the years passed I would find he was right, and not because I was looking for the answers he gave me.
But because after I figured it out I would think, “Holy shit, Michael told me that at the Grand Canyon two years ago!”
I wish I could find Michael to tell him what I learned and to learn more from him but he’s gone.
They are all gone and if there are any left they will be gone one day too.
Tom was also there.
We were all sitting there having a nice Fourth of July talk and then a middle-aged broken-looking Indian comes in and sits down on one of the couches, drinking a tall boy and carrying three more with him.
He had on a ball cap with one feather in it.
Bob the fat guy asked the Indian how he got the feather.
The Indian looked at us and said, “In Vietnam.”
The darkness is coming, I thought.
The Indian with the feather began his monologue on the Fourth of July.
The monologue was scatterbrained.
The man obviously had been drinking heavily for over thirty years and had what is called Mush Brain. Which is common among older people who have spent their lives drinking and doing drugs and have been through too many absurd and terrifying experiences.
It is when a normal person can barely communicate with the outside any longer. They have an inability to form paragraphs and sentences to convey complete thoughts. You can tell when speaking to them that they know what they are talking about and they know what you’re talking about.
But they have killed too many brain cells and just can’t do it anymore.
The Indian with the feather basically told us.
He went to Vietnam on the Fourth of July back in ’68.
That he thought it was bullshit that he had to go because the Vietnamese weren’t doing shit to him but he was drafted and didn’t want to go to prison.
He was there on the front lines because he said if you were a minority that is where you immediately went.
He snuck away from the American side and found a small village and found some Vietnamese people to live with.
Waited till after the war was done to go back to America.
While speaking he kept telling us he saw babies burned alive.
“I saw babies burned alive!
“I saw babies burned alive!
“I saw babies burned alive!
“I saw babies burned alive!”
How he saw useless death all the time.
Everyone in the room barely said anything during his monologue.
There was no need to interrupt him.
We wanted to hear what he had to say and we didn’t want him to get off track.
He didn’t say it like it would change our lives either.
He said it like it had changed his life.
He didn’t really care who he told or who was listening.
He just knew it had to be said.
I would not doubt that he told that monologue to a different group of people every Fourth of July and that he will tell it till he dies.
After I got fired from the Grand Canyon I moved to San Diego.
It was one of the biggest culture shocks of my life.
The first week there I’m sure I just walked around and stared at everything like I’d entered an alternate reality.
Everything in San Diego in 2000 after the great bull market of the nineties looked shiny, glossy, and new.
The streets were perfectly paved and clean.
Not a cigarette butt to be found on a sidewalk.
All the buildings were less than ten years old and if they were older they were remodeled to look like new.
When you walked down the street, people didn’t give you the “I’ll cut your fucking balls off ” look that is common in Youngstown.
Youngstown was a third world country compared to the neon newness of San Diego.
When we first got to San Diego, we sometimes went to the beach and sat on the wall separating the beach from the boardwalk.
Watched people ride by on bikes or just jogging.
We would sit there for hours, staring at the people going by, talking shit about them as they passed.
Most of them except the Mexicans seemed very concerned with how they looked.
They wanted pretty faces, strong muscles, and basically to look cool and sexy.
Tom and I looked homeless, which we were. We’d been sleeping in gas station parking lots in my ’89 Caprice Classic.
There were a lot of homeless people at the beach.
Most of them were your stereotypical homeless.
Most of them delivered papers and did construction under the table for forty dollars a day.
Some would wonder why they didn’t save up and buy nice clothes to get a job.
The truth is, forty dollars a day didn’t buy shit in San Diego in 2000 and probably buys even less now.
The money went to eating a cheeseburger at Jack in the Box and the rest went to booze.
I remember one homeless man who collected cans on the beach.
When you were on a San Diego beach, you would just throw your beer and soda cans on the beach so the homeless wouldn’t have to sift through the garbage to get them.
I remember an old, almost dead Chinese man who was wearing the traditional blue Mao Communist outfit.
He had built a yoke out of a plastic pipe and attached two huge garbage bags to the ends.
He carried it down the beach with no emotion at all.
I doubt he had time for emotions.
He would put his yoke down and pick up some cans and put them into one of the bags.
Then pick up the yoke again and walk down the beach.
I sat and watched that.
It was real and could not be denied.
This post is part of Tao Lin Day. To read more posts in this series, click here.