Cool dishwasher turns bicycle activist
29 July 2007 - Having written a successful
book on his experiences as a dishwasher, Pete Jordan is now working
on a follow-up. “I asked my wife if for my birthday I could
quit my job and work on a book about cycling in Amsterdam. And she
said yes, so I quit”.
Jordan spent years trying to work as a dishwasher in all fifty
states of the USA, and wrote a hilarious book about it. At the end
of the book, he has moved to Amsterdam, but is uncertain whether
he can stay. Thanks to his Irish background he has an EU passport,
but his wife can only get a residence permit if he has the means
to support her.
So what happened since the end of the book?
“Well, it’s all going to be in my next book, so I don’t
know how much I want to reveal (laughs). I was getting a job as
a cleaner, and I was able to keep that job. I needed some kind of
job in order for my wife to stay here legally. So I kept that job
until she was legal”.
“Then I asked my wife if for my birthday I could quit my
job and work on a book about cycling in Amsterdam. And she said
yes, so I quit. About three days later I found out that she was
pregnant. So I worked on the book for another two months, but then
I realised that no publisher was ever going to buy it”.
However, publishers were interested in a book on his dishwashing
experiences, and he needed an income. “So I did that Dishwasher
What brought Jordan to Amsterdam was a university course in urban
planning. After he had injured himself when his bicycle bumped into
a ridiculously steep speed bump in Pittsburgh, it occurred to him
that there should be civil servants who look at transportation from
a non-motorist perspective.
In Amsterdam, the language barrier prevented him from getting such
a job. However, he did become actively involved in cyclists’
organisation Fietsersbond. He writes a column for the Fietsersbond
publication OEK and helps with its distribution - all 5,000 copies
are hand-delivered by volunteers.
In one of his columns he describes how more and more tourists rent
bicycles. Many Amsterdammers complain about cycling tourists, who
often obstruct traffic and cause near-accidents. Jordan: “Yes,
but I’d much rather have them on a bicycle than, say, in a
Jordan has participated in a Fietsersbond group that looks at issues
such as how wide bicycle paths should be or how intersections should
work. They also looked into the stretch of road along the Amstel
between the Munt and the Blauwbrug, which is very dangerous for
cyclists. It is due to be renewed.
WHITE BICYCLE MYTH
In addition to his Fietsersbond activities, Jordan is doing research
for his new book on cycling in Amsterdam. One of the issues he is
studying is the white bicycle plan presented by Provo Luud Schimmelpennink
in 1965. The idea was to make free bicycles available as a way to
Jordan: “There’s a myth in the United States about
how successful that plan was. But I’ve talked to Luud Schimmelpennink
and I read all the original newspaper reports about it. And it was
more an idea; people thought that something like that should happen
on a large scale”.
“My brother-in-law lived in Amsterdam in the late 1960s.
I asked him, ‘do you remember the white bikes’, and
he went ‘oh yeah, they were everywhere, there were hundreds
of them’. And I said ‘really, for my research shows
there were never hundreds, there were probably never more than three
or four at a time’. So even an eye-witness had given in to
Another story that will be in the book is about how Jordan and
his wife are going to buy a bicycle shop in Amsterdam Noord. The
owner plans to retire by 1 January.
“Several years ago my wife asked me to fix her flat tyre.
So I asked, ‘you don’t know how to fix a flat tyre?’
And she said ‘oh yeah I know, but you have to help’.
Well actually she didn’t know how to fix a flat tyre. And
then she told me she wanted to become a bike mechanic. ‘But
you don’t know how to fix a flat tyre!’ But she went
to a bicycle repair shop in the Jordaan, where they took her on
as a trainee, and she trained for six months. Then she got a job,
and now she plans to own her own shop”.
Before he moved to Amsterdam, Jordan studied how dishwashers had
played pioneering roles in labour disputes in the 1930s and before.
He honoured them by taping pieces of paper to historic locations
with messages such as: “On this spot in 1934, dishwasher Ramon
Bolasquez smashed the windows of the Waldorf-Astoria during a strike
by culinary union workers”.
After the Second World War, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees International Union “was basically taken over by
the Chicago mafia. The mafia controlled it from top to bottom. The
union had guaranteed life-time salaries. If someone went to prison
for other mafia things, they were still getting like a 150,000 a
year from the union. So this had nothing to do with workers’
rights or anything”.
At some point, Jordan went to the Chicago union offices to study
the archives. “The guy they brought out to talk to me was
straight out of the Sopranos, wearing a pinky ring and everything,
saying: ‘what do you want?’ I said, ‘I’m
trying to do research’. And he said, ‘no, no, no, you
can’t do that’. So I didn’t push it”.
Finally, the Federal Prosecutor has cleaned up the hotel and restaurant
union, which now concerns itself with workers’ rights again.
It secured a major victory in Las Vegas, now having the best-paid
dishwashers in the USA.
In Chicago, the union is involved in a strike at the Congress Plaza
Hotel that has been going on for years. Earlier this month, Democratic
presidential candidate Barack Obama dropped by to walk a few laps
on the picket line and show his solidarity with the striking dishwashers,
housekeepers and bartenders. “OK? Well that’s great”,
ARTIS MEMBERSHIP CARD
Currently, Jordan is giving interviews and appearing on television
to promote Dishwasher. In the book, he describes how as a dishwasher
he wanted nothing to do with journalists, because they wrote ridiculous
articles on him that were half made up. When David Letterman invited
him to his show, he sent a replacement who pretended to be him.
“Well the difference is, back then I was just a guy living
my own life and doing my own thing. I didn’t want my face
published in the paper, because then if you apply for a dishwashing
job everybody there knows who you are. I wasn’t trying to
promote anything. Now I am; I’m trying to promote this book.
And I’m just more comfortable with it”.
He even got invited to the Letterman show again. “When the
book came out, my publisher sent them a copy. And the producer said
no. But two weeks ago, we got a phone call from them saying that
actually David himself had read the book and really liked it, and
he wanted me on”.
This time, Jordan had to show his ID to the producer to prove he
was not a stand-in. Letterman actually said he might ask him to
show his ID on air. “I was going to show my membership card
from the Artis Zoo here. I had it in my pocket”.
Other Pete Jordan activities:
Jordan has a collection of almost 300 laminated macaroni-and-cheese
boxes from 190 different brands, most of them with place and
time of purchase documented. Macaroni and cheese was his favourite
food in America, but is unavailable in Amsterdam. The boxes
- often showing a photo of what the meal is supposed to look
like - are currently on display at a Portland, Oregon bookshop
which is also considering publishing them as a book. Jordan
is thinking of finding a gallery in Amsterdam to exhibit the
During his dishwashing days, Jordan published a zine called
Dishwasher. At some point, it had about 10,000 subscribers.
One issue of the Dishwasher zine was a 7’’ called
‘Music to Wash Dishes By’, containing songs by punk
bands, preceded by dialogue from a 1960s instruction film (‘Cleanliness
is the keynote of the food service industry. And cleanliness
must begin with employees’). After the original 3,000
copies were sold immediately, another 1,000 were printed. A
reissue is not being considered, if only because it would be
too complicated to get permission from the original band members.
Some of the music is available on MySpace,
though. Songs for a volume 2 had been recorded, but the tapes
were stored in a shed in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina
came and probably lay in toxic water for two weeks.
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