I. Two weeks ago, after a summer spent clearing plates at a restaurant in Seoul, I donned an orange apron and began my next stint as a food industry worker at the Rocky-Mathey dining hall.
Past the salad bar, in the brightly-lit room to the left, is the dishwashing room: the mysterious place to which the gray conveyer belt so gallantly goes. Upon my entry I encounter the blare of High School Musical and a group of apron-clad folk singing along, clattering cutlery in the process.
My apron feels a little loose. The crash of plates a little loud. My uninitiated self is intrigued by how the rumbling beast of an industrial dishwashing machine swallows dirty plates whole and spits them out, mostly clean.
II. The first day I am on the fourth shift, which means I witness whatever happens when the dining hall clears and the last students trickle out. Tail ends of conversations on psychology theories and Friday night are accompanied by the composting of banana peels, limp leftover salad, and the incriminating scarlet conspicuousness of ketchup.
I watch it all happen in silence.
A dining hall staff member, who wears an enviably subtle shade of gray, enters the room with an armful of bagels and promptly thrusts them into the bin. They are followed by the multi-hued sugar-loaded donuts I often eye at breakfast. Seeing the soft bagels clustered at the top of the food pile leaves a heaviness in my heart, and for a moment I am compelled to save them when I realize, no, I’m not here to rescue bagels, I’m here to clean.
III. My second day, I am on the third shift—the one that many RoMa veterans have exhorted me to try for its relative “chill.” Ironically, I find myself sweating after the first hour. As always, the Beast rumbles on, fuming its hot steam as it continues to swallow plate after plate, bowl after bowl, ambiguous metallic contraption after ambiguous metallic contraption (one resembles a full-sized rowing oar, which apparently is used for the pizza but no one really knows how).
A fellow student worker carries over an impressively heavy stack of plates. I commend her for her strength and she tells me of the times she has dropped breakables in the past. The plastic cups are the only things I let drop in their carefully compartmentalized crates, and the only things that hit the ground are droplets of water and the occasional bright-orange liquid.
Curious, I think, but certainly not as troubling as the neon-blue stuff.
IV. Those who eat on the Mathey side of the RoMa dining hall know that, in lieu of a conveyer belt, there is a rectangular space in the wall that houses a counter for used cups and plates. Little do people know that the mouth of the Beast sits a mere two meters or so from the gap, along with the worker who happens to be feeding the machine that shift.
On my third shift, I just so happen to be the worker standing a stone’s throw away from the masses. When the load is light, I stand by the window—just out of sight—and watch as students walk by with plates either loaded or emptied (or, for the environmentalist in me, the disappointing half-consumed).
There is a certain excitement in being invisible to a world that is ever-so-observable. Although faces remain anonymous, I see, due to the surprising weight of the dining hall plates, many a bicep pass by. There is further diversity to be found in the plates themselves: someone (most likely a fan of Late Meal) walks by with a plate filled exclusively with fries, another saunters past with a bowl of cereal, and yet others walk by with varying mixes of greens and colors and carbs heaped to varying heights.
V. At one point, two friends duck down to say hi. It feels surreal to be seen, but welcome nonetheless.
VI. The plates are a lot heavier than they look. The shifting of various crates and kitchen utensils might as well count as a workout, which I happily fuel with a spontaneously assembled (and smuggled) bowl of cereal and soy milk. I grab sporadic mouthfuls in between shoving more plates into the Beast, but by the last mouthful the grains have gotten soggy.
VII. My third-crew shift ends promptly at 8 p.m. I bid farewell to my colleagues, return the orange apron and proceed to the downstairs dining hall office to swipe my card.
Soon after, I walk under the Holder arches with aching arms and a deep gratitude for the evening breeze. Like Alice and her Wonderland, I feel as if I’ve emerged from a land that only half-exists—but one in which the real Princeton ceases to be. A land where, for a fistful of hours, my mind gives space to thoughts that are put second to tasks I am told are more important.
Where I feel, surprisingly enough, a little more human.
VIII. Somewhere, sometime in the neighboring building, the Beast goes to sleep.