There was a woman who worked in the kitchen at the campus center in college. Her name was Denise, and she was old, with white hair under the navy blue Dining Services cap we both wore. She was assigned to train me for the 10pm-1am shift washing dishes. On my first day, she let me wear a real apron, instead of the plastic bag with cut-out armholes that I later adopted. I always associate those days of dining services with repetitive Christmas music, even though it was only October when I began.
The regular workers, the ones who weren't students, the ones like Denise, who laboured there from morning till late night, spent that last shift looking forward to going home. I spent it dreading the part where I would have to clean out "the grease trap"-a piece of machinery as charming as its name. I sang songs under my breath while I waited for the last few dishes and pots to come in and picked some kind of beans out of the drain with my yellow gloves. "You can sing out loud here, honey, I like music," was what Denise had told me, but I've never had a good singing-out-loud voice. Occasionally, someone I knew would return a dish at the window and wave to me before they recycled their glass and plastic. I thought it wasn't a bad place to work, for seven dollars an hour.
Towards the end of the night, the cooking surfaces were dismantled and sent to me to be scrubbed down and run through the dishwasher. I hated this bit from the start. The longest board was taller than me and I thought it ridiculously cumbersome to stand on my tiptoes and stagger backwards to get it vertically into the sink to be scrubbed down. I felt even more ridiculous when I realised there was no way to avoid getting sloshed with water when I tried pushing it through the sanitising machine (that was when the wisdom behind the plastic aprons became apparent). Three boards later, I was in a foul mood, that first time. Then the last one came. We called it the baby white surface. It was mercifully shorter than me, lighter than the rest and still smooth enough to be wiped down easily. I didn't notice any of these things, if truth be told. It was Denise who looked delighted to introduce me to the piece of equipment and say, "This is my favourite part of the night! Isn't this one all nice and clean? I just look forward to it all day," as she hoisted it into the dishwasher with me.
Denise must have been at least sixty five and that was a generous estimate, for someone so small and wrinkled. She told me she lived alone. I read her name in an article three years after that night, commemorating college staff who had served for decades. I wondered what she had done before she became the cheerful trainer of disgruntled work-study students in a dining hall kitchen. I wondered a lot of things.
I suppose nobody expects to be sixty five and looking forward to washing a five-foot long cutting board at midnight. No child will ever dream of growing up-or growing old- to know about all the secrets of getting a drain unclogged, or the fastest way to scrape burnt cheese off a pizza pan. At the time, it broke my heart a little to know that somebody who had so tenderly advised me on how to get through my daily shift as easily as possible saw dishwashing as the best part of her day. I'm wiser now, because I know that if a time ever comes when life throws soggy beans floating in sink foam at you, there will always be things to celebrate.