Pace Yourself For This One

, , , , , | Working | February 16, 2018

I worked at a restaurant in my college town for several years. There were many colorful characters that I worked with in that time, but one in particular was the middle-aged dishwasher whom I’ll call “Ed.”

Ed was an enigma. He was the most frustrating person in the world to deal with because you could never really be sure if he was always messing with everyone around him, or if he was incompetent. He worked only dishes, despite every other dishwasher on staff being cross-trained on multiple stations. He worked at his own pace and did things his way, regardless of what anyone said, how nice or mean people were with him, or how busy it got. Ed would refuse to run silverware through the washer until he felt like it. It was most frustrating when we servers got to the end of our shift and couldn’t leave until we rolled all the silverware. But he wouldn’t argue with us or gripe or stomp his feet. He’d just respond to pleas to get moving with, “Oh, sure!” or, “You bet!” and then get to it when he wanted to — sometimes as much as 45 or 60 minutes after he was first asked, or after a manager finally stepped in. We were all sure that asking too often or pushing the issue would only cause further delays, so we got by the best we could. A few servers tried going around him and doing it themselves, but I know it couldn’t have worked, because no one ever tried that more than once.

No one was sure how long Ed had been around, either. He was well past the age of 40. Some of my coworkers had been there for going on seven or eight years at that point, and he was there when they started. Our management turned over three times in my tenure there, so anybody in leadership that saw him start was long gone. We asked him at different times how long he’d worked there, and we always got imprecise answers. “A few years.” “A while.” “Oh, I dunno.” There were all kinds of rumors going around about where he lived and what else he did. I heard that he lived with his mom in the middle of town, but I also heard that he lived in a crappy studio apartment. I heard that he was a PhD candidate at the university, but I also heard that he was an eternal undergrad, and even still I heard that he was only minimally involved with volunteer community committees at the university. (I never saw him on campus, for the record, but I did see his name listed in committee charters in the school paper.) The way he carried himself made me think that we were just little social experiments to him. But we could never be sure because, if that was the case, he never cracked.

I would always see him walking down the main thoroughfare through town to work. Once, I decided to give him a ride — it was dreadfully hot — and I hoped it would be a chance for the shell to crack a little. Like the naïve, liberal college student I was, I thought that all he needed was some understanding. Instead, he treated my offer of a ride with heavy disdain, though he did not turn it down, and responded to my attempts to start conversation with his typical, shallow, one- and two-word replies. I never bothered to offer a ride again after that; it was clear he didn’t want it.

After a few years there, I quit and moved away, but I still have friends and family in that town, so over the last decade I’ve made periodic visits. I often try to swing by that restaurant for a bite to eat. I had been gone seven or eight years at the time of this particular visit. All of the people with whom I worked had moved on years before. That night, I spent a lot of time at my table just looking around, noticing what had changed and what hadn’t, wondering how many people had come and gone through employment there who had no connection to anyone I had known. But at one point I glanced up at the server station and saw Ed bring up some freshly-washed glasses and then head back to the back. My jaw hit the floor.

At the register, I was paying my bill; I was being helped by my server. I had not brought up my status as a former employee to her or to anyone working there and hadn’t intended to, but after seeing Ed I couldn’t resist.

I asked the server, “So… is it still like pulling teeth to get [Ed] to wash silverware?”

The server responded without missing a beat, as she slammed the register shut, “More like a root canal. Do not get me started.” Then, in a very friendly tone, as she handed me my receipt, she asked, “When did you work here?”

I responded, “I started about ten years ago; I was here for over three years.”

“When did [Ed] start?”

“Couldn’t tell you. He was old-school when I started.”

She glanced over her shoulder with a clear look of wonder in her eyes. We exchanged pleasantries and went our separate ways. The mystery of “Ed” the dishwasher lives on, I guess.

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