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Tray Translation: The Art of a College Dishwasher

Updated on October 6, 2012
A pretty accurate picture of the pulper of potential peril.
A pretty accurate picture of the pulper of potential peril. | Source

As a college student who is desperate to graduate as free of debt as possible, I, in said desperation, took the most hackneyed, demeaning job an intelligent young woman can take. That sentence is very misleading, and not at all what you may think, because in fact, I work as a dishwasher and not anything that requires short skirts or nocturnal romps. My job is more prestigious than that- I had to actually interview to wash the dishes of thousands of college freshman for fifteen hours a week, so I view it as a distinguished honor given only to those in their physical prime who also lack the convenience of a gag reflex.

I highly recommend this job to anyone willing to sacrifice their dignity and pride to wear an oversize button down and disposable apron while scooping sculptures made of mysterious elements into equally murky waters. The invigorating nightly struggles with an insidious pulper and a picky dishwasher leave one refreshed and glowing with greasy hot water and constantly running to restart the tray rack after some innocent customer (read: moron) didn’t push their tray in far enough.

In all honesty, it’s the people that make the job, as I work with several cute older men- nothing says romance like soggy cordon bleu and ‘clean me’ spelled out in chocolate chips and syrup on a tray. Beyond the gentle pulse of love that hangs in the sudsy air is the bonus acquisition of knowledge that comes with disposing of other people’s waste. It is known as Tray Translation and is the singular ability to describe in particular detail the former owner of any specific dinner tray, without, of course, ever having seen them. This handy skill impresses at dinner parties, celebrity fetes and can be used to entertain small wailing children instead of just backhanding them.

It's also a good way for customers to express their deep rooted hatred of dishwashers.
It's also a good way for customers to express their deep rooted hatred of dishwashers. | Source

I have, in my time as a dishwasher, compiled a rather useful list of several different tray translations that may be used to aid and assist any readers with burgeoning dreams of entering the glorious field of dish washing.

1. The Jock Tray: Everyone knows college freshmen who made any sort of sporting team are akin to Gods. And if you didn’t know that, well bless your naïve little soul, because reverencing a freshman athlete’s every move is the socially required norm on any college campus. At BYU, freshmen athletes have the blessed right to do whatever they wish in the dining hall in addition to having the raving appetite of three small blue whales. The jock tray is easily distinguished by several factors. As the tray rounds the circular depository, it will be invariably placed on one of the top shelves, far out of your pathetic reach. At first, you’ll angrily think this was done on purpose, but then you will realize the person who placed it there possesses more teeth than IQ points, and therefore also has a distinguishable lack of consideration for others.

The second indication of the tray’s former owner is the absolutely immense weight. You will stagger and buckle and groan as you lower the tray to your work surface, desperate not to surrender any of its silverware of other un-shreddable items to the pulper who is always waiting sinisterly at the end of the water-filled trough between you and the tray. The mountain of plates, bowls, cups and silverware will be astounding at first, but that will quickly change to a mix of nauseated awe as you realize they ate everything. At this point, the tray is thankfully easy to sort out and send on its way. However, jock’s rove in massive packs, and there will be another twenty similar trays just behind it.

2. The ‘Dainty Palate’ Tray: These are by far the worst trays to clean. They will arrive deceptively covered in paper napkins, as if they had just noshed on foie gras and cow brains instead of a burger with grill lines drawn on in magic marker. Upon removal of several layers of napkins, you will discover several plates of half eaten food that have been lazily swirled about. If you could interview the diner, it would invariably be a girl, who would simper and gently remind you that she has a delicate sense of taste and is slight of stomach.

Which makes you a heartless person for thinking those nasty thoughts- there’s no way she could have finished even one of her many plates of half eaten food! Do you want to make such a sensitive creature sick? Scrape the plentiful remains of her atrocious waste into the trough, chuck the tray into the dishwasher and harpoon the nearest dish room visitor for good measure.

3. The Asian Adult Tray: For some undefinable reason, there are a regular handful of Asian men who are quite taken with rapidly prepared dining food that all shares the same distinct flavor. Even the off-brand cereal and mysteriously stale pudding cups cause paroxysms of joy. Their trays are by far the easiest to clean, and quickly identified for their meticulous (and you’re somehow sure it’s vaguely racist) arrangement. The tray of an adult Asian man will have a newspaper tucked neatly to the left of his meal, beneath an empty glass (no root beer and raspberry slushy drink mixes for these refined gentlemen!) that once contained water. Their silverware will be to the far right, wiped down and stacked neatly next to a clean plate with an equally clean bowl stacked within.

Their napkin will be perfectly folded and placed within this bowl, and you will feel vaguely disheartened that they couldn’t have at least folded it into an origami butterfly or dish room dragon. You’re pretty sure the pulper would appreciate such a delicate, carefully folded sacrifice.

4. The Tray of the Person You’d Probably Not Be Friends With: These trays are just simply indescribably odd. Lacking any true, definitive personality, the tray of the PYPNBFW will stick out instantly, although there will be no standard indicators. Some of these trays will contain a single plate surrounded by a dozen glasses. Others will be full of well-cleaned dishes, but will arrive alone, mysteriously lacking any silverware. In the same vein, others still will arrive with an inordinate amount of utensils spilling over the edges. You will feel a deep-seated urge to punch somebody in the nose but must somehow resist, because the guy cleaning trays next to you is your hot dish room manager. These trays are often noted for carrying several salt and pepper shakers and even the baskets of napkins that sit on the tables. You will quickly come to the conclusion that the owner of this tray is seriously deserving of a profanity moniker, and that you would most certainly NOT ever be friends with them.



These are only some of the tricks of the trade that I have managed to pick up in my two weeks employed as a damp, stationary version of a janitor. Once more, I highly suggest this job to you. Misery loves company.

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    • hawkdad73 profile image

      hawkdad73 5 years ago from Riverside, Iowa

      As an all-too-often-in-the-past dishwasher, I not only enjoyed this hub, but feel vindicated in away. Awesome.

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Haha, I completely (clearly) understand. Thanks!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      I spent a year as a dining-hall worker in college, too, and sometimes I feel like (17 years later) I STILL haven't gotten that greasy smell out of my hair!

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Ugh, I know what you mean! I just got off a seven hour shift, and I look like I just rolled in everybody's trays! Gross!

    • Shadesbreath profile image

      Shadesbreath 5 years ago from California

      Again shines that wonderful voice, articulate, clever, and making the most out of what for anyone else would have been an impossible-to-make-interesting topic. Nicely done. I hope you find room in your schedule for a creative writing class or two. I suspect there are a few of them out there who will drool when you show up and turn in the first bit of work. (DO NOT LET YOUR COMP PROFESSORS RUIN YOU. Take EVERYTHING they say with a grain of salt, eat the salt and throw their stuff in that shredder with the other inedible stuff at the end of the sink.)

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Haha! It's funny you mention comp professors... I had a writing and rhetoric course last semester, and nearly choked when my teacher passed back our first papers and I'd only scored an 89% for reasons undefined. Call me pompous, but I've never gotten anything but a 100% on my papers and I was dangerously displeased.

      I had to alter my entire writing style very specifically to suit her needs and luckily managed to score highly on the rest of my papers. It was a sad, painful time for me... :(

      I'm so glad to be out of that class, and a creative writing course is definitely on my radar for spring semester.

    • Shadesbreath profile image

      Shadesbreath 5 years ago from California

      Might be the best thing that ever happened to you. You find the right professor you can get your work seen by people. Connections are by far the most valuable part of college.

    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 5 years ago from New Jersey

      Well written and witty. Sounds like your job as a dishwasher qualifies for the show Dirty Jobs. Nothing wrong with doing a couple of dirty jobs in life to make one humble about the reality of what people do every day to make a living and survive.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Hi Shanna from Utah! I loved your hub:) Hilarious - yes! I worked in the cafeteria in middle school. I got paid in free luncehs and pocketed my lunch money. I totally know the hilarious things that job can make you think about. I, however, dispensed the food to the crazy animals:) haha! I made friends over chocolate milk - and got the big ole mean school bully girl off my back by serving up extra fries:) lol

      You are a great writer - just keep writing and writing and writing and so on:)

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Rock- You've got that right! Makes me that much more grateful for my education. Thanks for the follow!

      Realhousewife- Thank you! I couldn't imagine washing dishes in front of my high school or middle school peers. They would have been insufferable. Thanks for the follow! :)

    • Nate Ahern profile image

      Nate Ahern 5 years ago

      This brings back serious memories of college dishwashing. Seriously smelly memories. Think about that: your writing skills (the best I've seen so far here), made me smell something in my past. The giant conveyer-belt dishwasher smell. Possibly one of the most indefinably-gross smells known to man.

      Your characterizations of the different types of trays are spot-on. Especially regarding the PYPNBFW. I went to college in Nashville, and it seems that tray-and-dish behavior among college students is universal. I may as well have banged off dirty trays at BYU.

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Seeing as I just got off a shift, I'm completely bathed in that smell. Ick. The nice thing was that we got left over egg rolls though!

      Dishwashers need to unite to teach people about consideration for others. :P

      Thanks for the follow and fan mail!

    • profile image

      Emer420 5 years ago

      This is one very funny hub. As an ex dishwasher I totally understand what it is like having to deal with all of this. I was never able to see the humor in it like you, but that is probably because I worked at a Friendly's. Haha. This hub was very well written and showed a lot of spunk. Along with that it was very enjoyable to read. :)

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Haha, thank you! I see the humor in anything. I tend to be one of those obnoxious optimists!

    • profile image

      chuck 5 years ago

      Me being a "career professional" dishwasher for 7 yrs on and off, I can tell u that your customer/diner identification is spot on. I passed off college and went to a trade school yet I'm doing the same thing years later. Something keeps me where I am now. I'm well respected...everyone loves me i go on the line and make my own meals, I even tell some of the newer cooks and servers what to do yet no increase in pay. 15hr/wk.. try 45 plus a wk. You will get through it. One thing that keeps my mind off the grossness is that the food waste u despise would have been edible probably less than a minute before u are clearing the tray or dish. I hope the rest of your path in life isn't infested with the dirty dishes/trays from your peers. Inquisitively well written post by the way!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

      Congratulations on being featured in the HubPages newsletter. I can completely understand why this is your favorite hub - it is hilarious! I haven't worked as a dishwasher, but I did wonder about the mysterious people who magically cleaned our dishes on the other side!

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Millionaire- Thank you! As soon as I was done with the interview, I immediately wished I'd also mentioned that my blood donation hub was another favorite. The two of them aren't really very helpful in a traditional sense, but my voice really comes through in both of them, I think.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      This is a really fun hub - and you could probably turn it into a psych research project! I like your descriptions of the personality types; I think I've met them all.

      By the way, I've been to the BYU campus twice for Education Week - it's a beautiful setting, and I felt like I was on a movie set, with the mountains in the background. The cafeteria did a great job of keeping up with the huge influx of visitors. Now I know how they managed to do that! I will try to dine like our tidy Asian friends next time I'm there.

      Voted up, funny and interesting.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Brilliant! Great read. Give us more. Love your humor. Congrats on being in Millionaire Tips choice Hub for the week too. Massively well deserved. So glad I found you.

      Voting up and clicking the praises.

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Marcy- Thank you very much! When I came to BYU, I felt the same way. The mountains are unbelievable! I can't wait to climb some of them this summer. Glad to hear the cafeteria measured up. :)

      Goodlady- Thank you so much! I was not expecting to be included in Millionaire Tips' hub. It's an honor!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

      Hi Shanna11, it is a well deserved honor for you to be on my favorites list for the week ending March 18. It took me back to my college days, and the few times I ate at my daughter's college. I always wondered what they thought of me, especially on the days I couldn't find anything I wanted to eat!

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

      It's amazing how a creative observant mind can pull something useful out of the seemingly mundane. You did a great job here Shanna, I hit the "funny" button with pleasure, it's the hardest and rarest to earn i think. (here via MT's favourites).

    • duffsmom profile image

      P. Thorpe Christiansen 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      Love your writing. It is so hard to write humor and you have done a wonderful job here. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well done.

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