See: DANMARK series
The heat of the kitchen dripped down my sore back and into the thin latex gloves that covered my scarred hands– slashed fingers that reminded me of tally marks from first grade. The gloves, however, were hardly reliable: only lasting a meager five minutes from the heavy steel-wool scrubbing of inch-thick layers of grease and food off plates and pans. Repeat. This was my life for the month long stay I endured as the plongeur at the Komandor Garden, a dingy summer island resort off the coast of Denmark that had seen better days. 12 hours a day of nonstop standing and hunching: loading big metal machines like the 100-plate capacity dishwasher I called My Throne. It was hell, but I loved it.
I started out as the fresh recruit; the suburban boy who yearned for a different perspective. I was one among the many American, Polish, Danish, Congolese, French, Hungarian, Croatian, Estonian, German, and Portuguese workers: a dishwater mixture of skin pigments, ideologies, and backgrounds. As the dishwasher I was the point of contact in the kitchen. I was a brother to the waiters for every dirty plate they returned and a blessing to the chef’s with every glistening knife and pan I presented back to them. We were dishwater, but we were also a family.
Working in a 10m x 10m box with ten other people it became impossible not to get to know each other inside and out. So, as the day progressed, the stories of our lives– the most intimate and personal moments– poured out. I vividly remember Jerome’s thick French accent (“Bah oui,” he would always say with a pouty bright face) as he described how he, an ambitious boy at the ripe age of 19, had arrived in New York City to look for a kitchen job. With no place to go, Jerome lived homeless for the first night. That night, at a soup kitchen, he was offered a cheeseburger and a quote from a smiling black man that would change Jerome’s outlook on life forever: “The color of your skin doesn’t determine whether you’re hungry or not.”
Or the time Muhammad, after a long night of orders, sat down beside me and recollected his memories, from the age of ten, of seeing starved refugees from the Rwandan Genocide lifted up by a tractor and dumped into a ditch. He went on to describe how after returning home he asked his mother why they had to die. “I couldn’t understand how this could’ve happened. Why was there all this hate?” he passionately remarked with watery eyes.
What did I learn from working at the Kommandoer Gaarden? This was the question I kept asking myself on the bus back towards our modern world. Was it knowledge of different types of soap? Sure, I learned all of that well, but looking out of the bus window onto the fields of grazing sheep I felt changed in more than just kitchen techniques. I realized that the world, as a whole, wasn’t any different from the dishwater in which I was a part of at the Kommandoer Gaarden. The stories of Jerome, Muhammad and the many other coworkers I had the privilege of meeting extend far beyond the realms of the kitchen.
Everyone has a story, and the more we hear them, the more we coexist and understand each other. Getting of the bus, far away from the worn-down kitchen doors, I recognized that it was my duty to communicate the stories of my coworkers, and others without a voice, to the rest of the world in every way possible. For we live in a world where division has become more polarized than it has ever been before so it wouldn’t hurt if we all tried to imagine ourselves in the kitchen. Let’s not forget: stories are the binding substance within the dishwater.