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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 book first”.

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 rented car”.

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.


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 fight pollution.

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 the myth”.

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”, Jordan comments.


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 boxes.

  • 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.


Background: Dishwasher website; Fietsersbond (in Dutch)


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