In an attempt to better document the American underground press, or at least the sharp, tiny sliver of it that worked its way through the gristle surrounding my heart 20-some years ago, I’ve given myself the task of reaching out to all of the zine publishers that I know, and asking them how they found their way into the underground press, and how, with the benefit of hindsight, they now feel about the experience. Today’s interview is with Pete Jordan, or, as he’s known in zine circles, Dishwasher Pete, the man behind Dishwasher, and the subsequent book, Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States. His new book, In the City of Bikes, is available everywhere, but you should buy it from Reading Frenzy, the fiercely independent Portland bookshop where he once worked as a volunteer.
MARK: Do I understand correctly that, when you first had the idea to start Dishwasher, you had no idea that zine culture existed, and that other people were engaged in similar autobiographical, self-publishing projects?
PETE: Yeah, that’s true. In the late 1980s, I was working as a dishwasher as were several of my friends. We often traded interesting and entertaining tales about our work and I kept thinking we should put them all down in some sort of publication. My idea was always met with blank stares. But then in early 1990, at a new job, I was explaining my idea to a dishdog I’d just met who was showing me the ropes. He said, “Oh, you mean you want to start a zine?” I didn’t know what he meant. In the early 1980s, I’d seen some punk “fanzines,” but they were all devoted to music, which had never much interested me because I was a bit of snob who liked listening to music, not reading about it. So I asked this dishwasher what he meant and he told me about a whole community of people making zines. In fact, he said, one of them was devoted to nothing but reviewing other zines. So after work, we went to his basement apartment and he showed me a copy of Factsheet Five and I was blown away. The publication I’d been envisioning—the one that my friends didn’t quite get—was actually part of something much bigger, which already existed.
MARK: In talking with Greg Hischak about the start of Farm Pulp, he said that he only discovered Factscheet Five after having produced about 9 or 10 issues. “I realized I’d inadvertently created something that was not only already created,” he said, “but had its own culture and secret handshake. I was taken aback, and then I quickly became aware of FS5′s ability to get people to send me money.” Money aside, was the zine subculture a good fit for you?
PETE: The zine world was a perfect fit for me. I met hundreds of great people through doing the zine and corresponded with probably thousands more. At its peak, I was putting out 10,000 copies of each issue and receiving a couple hundred pieces of mail each week. I handwrote letters to everyone who wrote to me (well, with the exception of some corporate/media types). But yeah, the zine put me in touch with a lot of good folks who I never would have met otherwise.
PETE: Well, a few years lapsed between the conception of the idea and the actual execution of it. I kept wanting it to be a collaborative effort because some of the dishwashers I knew had some great tales. I wanted them to take on the publishing burdens as well and figured I’d just be a contributor. But it turned out those guys were even lazier than I was so I ended up having to do it on my own.
I published the first issue in Phoenix, Arizona in January 1992, just a few days after I tried to interview the dishwasher on duty in the lodge at the Grand Canyon. Three National Park rangers didn’t take kindly to my attempt, telling me they’d never before heard of any publication devoted to dishwashers. They threw me out of the Grand Canyon and told me that I was banned from visiting any National Park.
MARK: Did you pay for the photocopying that first time?
PETE: Yeah, I did. I paid full retail at a photocopy shop. I was not yet wise to ways of that world. For the first issue, I made 25 copies. I mailed most of them to my friends and handed out the rest through backdoors to dishwashers in restaurants in Phoenix and Tucson.
MARK: I’d read in the past that you were a fan of the zine Scam, so I was thinking that you might be inclined to find a way to print for free, like in the back office of a restaurant during an evening shift.
PETE: I paid full price for copies of the first issue but it wasn’t long before I became hip to the ways of cheaper – if not free – ways to make photocopies. I used all the usual tricks of the trade at Kinko’s, from using magnets to zero out the blue counter boxes to putting large amounts of credits on the Kinko’s debit cards. I was also blessed by Kinko’s employees in more than twenty different cities who routinely did me up. I’d often received letters from Kinko’s folks inviting me to come to their town and allow them to put their position at my disposal. A couple of good friends even rose to become managers at Kinko’s stores and I wouldn’t even have to set foot in the shop. They’d have employees make the copies and then have the courier deliver them to wherever I was couch surfing in town.
MARK: When you printed that first issue, how long had you been washing dishes?
PETE: It was seven years after my first dish gig and three years after I’d declared that I would wash dishes in all fifty states.
MARK: Were you keeping a journal before starting Dishwasher?
PETE: I wasn’t doing much journal writing. I was more involved with letter writing. I wrote a lot of (long) letters in the years before starting the zine and in many ways, Dishwasher was simply an extension of my letter writing.
MARK: How would you describe Dishwasher to someone who has never seen a copy?
PETE: I’d say it was a humorous account of one guy attempting to work dishwashing jobs in all fifty states and which also examined the culture and history of dishwashers. Largely handwritten and with plenty of cut-and-paste graphics.
MARK: What was the best thing ever submitted to Dishwasher that you chose not to run?
PETE: It would have to be some of the artwork that dishwashers had created. In particular there was a series of portraits that one dishdog painted of the other dishers he worked with. I wanted to curate an art show that displayed the art I’d received, stuff that was created by dishwashers about dishwashing. But it was just one project of many that I never got around to completing.
But as for receiving submissions: I admit I was a bit selfish because the zine consisted of a very tiny fraction of the dishwashing-related stuff that was sent to me. I loved receiving it and seeing/reading it and I felt spoiled that I was the only audience for a lot of that stuff.
MARK: What, of all the things you discovered when looking into the history of dishwashers, did you find the most interesting?
PETE: I was surprised to find how deeply involved dishwashers were in various union actions, like those by communist dishers in New York City in the 1920s and 30s or those by young radicals in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s and 70s. In those sorts of unionizing drives or strike actions, the dishwashers were often the most radical and outspoken. I suppose they usually had the most to gain and the least to lose by whatever labor action they were involved in.
MARK: I understand that you’re a fan of Mark Twain. How would you define your work in relation to his? Are there parallels that can be drawn?
PETE: In 1987, I spent a few months in Kentucky (where I walked off a dishwashing job after just 45 minutes because I was so hung over). During that period, I read 26 books by Twain. I suppose I was drawn to Twain because—even in his most serious work — he could be so damn funny. Anything I write seems to have at least a tinge of humor in it. I’m currently busy with a project documenting the death of every cyclist who has ever been killed in traffic in Amsterdam over the past 125 years. It would seem like a terribly dry — if not depressing — subject. Yet, in just the past week, at two different book readings that I gave here in Amsterdam, I touched on this project. Each time it was interesting to see a roomful of 50 or so people all laughing at the anecdotes I was relaying in terms of this morbid project. I suppose I don’t know any other way to approach writing than by using humor. Maybe I was influenced by Twain in that way.
MARK: I’ve read before that your first dishwashing job was at Jack-in-the-Box. Would I be right to infer from this that you grew up in California?
PETE: Yeah, I grew up in San Francisco, in the Haight-Ashbury.
MARK: I don’t want to stereotype, but, given your age, and the fact that you were brought up in the Haight, would I be right to assume that your parents were hippies, at least for a while?
PETE: No, they weren’t. They moved to the Haight before the whole hippie thing went down. They were older and were immigrants and, though politically liberal, had little to no connection to the hippie world. Well, I guess my dad was bemused by it all. I remember that whenever we happened to be driving along Haight Street, he’d cruise slowly and check out the freaks. And he always gave any Haight Street hitchhiker a lift. But no, my folks were no hippies. Eventually they were evicted from their rent-controlled apartment when the yuppies began flooding into the neighborhood in the 1980s. Much is made these days about the unaffordability of S.F. due to the Silicon Valley techies driving up housing prices but it wasn’t all that different in many neighborhoods in the 1980s.
MARK: What was Pete Jordan like as a kid?
PETE: An urban Huck Finn (if we’re going to continue with the Twain theme here). No, I don’t know. I was adventurous and restless. I spent a lot of time wandering around my neighborhood and the city. Riding the length of every bus and streetcar line. Hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Seeking unlocked doors. Breaking into construction sites. Roaming around vacant buildings and hospitals. Looking for trouble and too often finding it. Being a juvenile delinquent among guys who were much better at it (or worse at it, depending on your vantage point) than I was. Mostly, though, I just wanted to get the hell out of the city and see the rest of the country.
MARK: At what age did you leave home?
PETE: At 17, when I went to college in the suburbs. I was one of the few teens I knew in my neighborhood who hadn’t dropped out or been kicked out of school. I stuck with it mostly just so I could go to college somewhere outside the city, as that was the only way I could figure how to get out.
MARK: I’ve heard your name mentioned several times over the years in conjunction with Reading Frenzy, and, thanks to Facebook, I know that Chloe, the owner of the shop, recently visited you in Amsterdam. Assuming there’s a friendship there, and that it arose through the zine, I’m curious if you could talk a little about that relationship.
PETE: I arrived in Portland on my Northwest Dish Tour in the summer of 1994. During that first week there, just about every day someone told me that a new zine store had just opened up in town. By the time I finally made it into Reading Frenzy, after it had already been open for a week or so, I felt like I was probably the last person in town to have visited it. But I immediately became friends with Chloe — and became the store’s very first volunteer — and it’s wonderful to see that the store is still going strong 20 years later. Reading Frenzy was a very big part of my life as a zine editor, there’s no question about it.
MARK: What was it about Dishwasher, do you think, that resonated with people? In other words, was it more than just the fact that you’re a very good writer? In my case, I think there was a vicarious sense of freedom that was attractive. I like that you had no problem with just walking away from a job… a community… and moving on.
PETE: Well, at first, I only ever envisioned the zine being of interest to dishwashers. There came a time early on when a majority of the mail I received began tipping towards non-dishwashers. It bummed me out that so many people outside the occupation were interested. They felt like interlopers. I felt like ending the zine. But then a friend of mine explained that it wasn’t really about the subject matter. People, he said, were responding to my writing and that I should take that as a compliment. I suppose I didn’t yet know how to take a compliment.
MARK: Did you have any revolutionary aspirations upon setting out, or was your only intention to share interesting stories? Did you ever, in other words, see the zine as a vehicle for empowering dishwashers, encouraging them to fight for higher wages, etc?
PETE: No, there were no revolutionary aspirations. I just wanted to share some tales. But it became very much something that many dishwashers — and other low-wage shitjob workers and dropouts and quitters — read as empowering, if only in a personal way. As for fighting for higher wages or whatever, that spirit existed in the zine but the zine itself was never involved in any specific battle. One thing I never wrote about either in the zine or the book is how, while dishing in Alaska, I was elected shop steward by 35 of my co-workers. Us messhall workers at a salmon cannery belonged to the Alaska Fishermen’s Union (which had no fishermen in it). I envisioned using my position to advance some causes but eventually I grew disillusioned when I realized my position was essentially powerless.
MARK: I’m sure you’re tired of talking about the infamous Letterman appearance, when you sat in the green room drinking beer and eating sandwiches while your friend Jess sat with Letterman, being interviewed, pretending to be you. I’m curious to know, though, if you’ve ever considered how things might have played out differently had you gone out on stage that day… Do you think you would have gotten the book deal, or become a regular on This American Life (TAL)?
PETE: Your question implies that the Letterman show gag led directly to the book deal and my appearances on TAL. I should point out that I eschewed all that kind of stuff for a long time. The first invitation to appear on Letterman was thrown away without me replying to it. Even before the Letterman thing, I’d received offers from publishers to do a book, all of which I’d turned down. And I didn’t respond to TAL’s initial request for me to do something for them. To me, all of that stuff — plus other things like invites to write for magazines or to do speaking engagements or whatever — simply meant taking on responsibility, and my life was devoted to doing all I could to avoid having any responsibility (which is why I’d settled into an occupation that required so little of it).
But after I wrote in the zine about the Letterman thing, TAL asked that I read that on the program and I figured, “Read something I’ve already written? That sounds easy.” And though I turned down more than a dozen book offers during the quest era, years later I finally did feel settled enough to sit down and tell the whole dishwashing tale from start to finish in book form.
But, back to your question, it would have been different if I had just appeared on the show instead of my friend Jess. It would have just been one of tens of thousands of occasions of a guest appearing on a TV show and that would have been very unappealing and boring to me and not noteworthy in the least.
MARK: I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t have had success had you walked out onto the stage with Letterman that day. I’d read that you had been approached by This American Life prior to that, and, obviously, you’d garnered enough attention to have been booked on the Letterman show. So I’m not suggesting that the gag is what brought you attention, a publishing career, etc. I think you’d agree, though, that it elevated things to a different level…. more substantive. I should also add that I’m not suggesting that it was a calculated move on your part. I just find it fascinating. Conventional wisdom would dictate that, if given the chance, you go out on stage and take your shot. You did the opposite, and, as a result, at least from my perspective, you were better served. It was a cool thing to see happen.
PETE: It was just something fun to do. Jess and I gave very little thought to it. But it was exciting to spread word to our friends to watch the show that night without telling them what exactly to expect, because we didn’t know ourselves. Hundreds of folks watched the show who were in on the joke in some way. So, no, it wasn’t some grand calculated move, just a harmless prank.
PETE: The producers weren’t so keen on me being a guest. One segment producer told me that when my book came out and my publisher pitched me as a guest, he’d immediately shot down the idea. What we’d done in the 1990s was his worst nightmare, so he didn’t want me anywhere near the studio. But then Letterman himself read the book and had enjoyed it and so he overruled his producers, telling them to book me on the show.
MARK: One of the reasons you gave for not wanting to talk with Letterman, back in the dishwashing days, in addition to just hating television, was that you valued your anonymity. Why was it important to you to publish anonymously and retain your anonymity?
PETE: A big reason was simply because I’m very much an introvert. I’m pretty quiet and like to remain in the background. I rarely seek the spotlight, even if it’s just at a dinner party or whatever. A friend recently took to calling me “The Invisible Man” because I prefer to hang back and observe. I’m now reading the book about introverts called Quiet! which has been quite fulfilling in terms of understanding myself. But also my anonymity at jobsites was important for me because I didn’t want the attention to be on me as “that guy who goes around the country writing about dishwashing.”
MARK: I’m assuming that, when you got your book deal, it was made clear to you that you’d have to do press, and essentially become a public figure. How difficult was that for you?
PETE: I didn’t mind so much doing the press when the Dishwasher book came out. One reason is because when the quest had ended six years earlier, I had simply disappeared—and had even left the country—without giving the zine’s readers any sort of heads up. So I wanted to get word out to them that I’d written a book, one that could fill them in on what had happened. At first it was difficult to do any sort of speaking engagements. Like I said, I’d always avoided stuff like that. But eventually I got comfortable with it and even grew to dig being able to communicate with a live crowd. I even enjoyed doing the Letterman show.
MARK: Having now done about half a dozen of these interviews with old school zine folks, I’m beginning to see some patterns emerge. Most noticeably, I’m discovering that, as a whole, we’re a pretty shy lot. Generally speaking, we’re opinionated and want to be heard, but we don’t want to be seen as we’re being heard… hence the gravitation toward zines.
PETE: I don’t know. I recall also receiving a lot of shitty zines by extroverts who were screaming for attention. As for myself, I think it had to do with a disinterest in the mainstream media. One thing we have to keep in mind (and remind anyone who didn’t experience life before the Internet) is that at the time, the major media was an absolute monolith that controlled the spread and consumption of news and entertainment content. Personally, it didn’t interest me to go to the major media to ask if they could please allow my voice and my viewpoint to be heard. Actually, I didn’t need to even bother to ask because of course they wouldn’t have been interested publishing the work of some unknown dishwasher. I just wanted to do it my way, in my fashion, at my own pace without any deadlines and without needing anyone’s approval.
And I think why many zine editors connected and bonded at the time is because they felt much the same way (or, at least, the ones I connected and bonded most closely with). These days, it’s a completely different world, with so much news and entertainment content being spread on the Internet. The mainstream media is hardly as mighty as it had been twenty years ago. These days, it’s so incredibly easy to spread one’s writing, to express oneself, online.
MARK: Over the 15 issues of Dishwasher, you noted several famous individuals, ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Malcolm X, who, at some point in their lives, had made their living as dishdogs. I don’t recall, however, your ever mentioning Andy Kaufman. Granted, he was probably more a busboy than a dishwasher, but I’m curious to know if you ever researched his career in food service.
PETE: Kaufman — like Richard Nixon — had been a busboy, and busboys were off my radar. My dishing mentor Jeff once called them the Uncle Tom’s of the restaurant world and the first who would fall when the dishwashing revolution broke out.
But as for famous individuals: for me to be interested in someone’s dishwashing past, there had to be something either about that person or about their dish job that interested me. For example, with the two dudes you mentioned: I was attracted to Malcom X because he had been a political radical but was even more interested in him because he had dished on a train, which had long been a goal of my own. And Ginsberg had also been a political radical and had dished in Times Square in the 1940s, which I found appealing, especially because he came from a communist family and there had been plenty of politically active dishers in Manhattan just a few years prior. I wanted to talk to Ginsberg about this so I scheduled a phone interview with him. But, when I called, his assistant answered the phone and then turned to Ginsberg and told him it was time for his interview with the dishwashing guy. I heard Ginsberg yell, “Dishwashing? I don’t want talk to that fucking guy!” The assistant told me Ginsberg was unavailable. I asked if he could at least ask Allen if he’d ever written about his time as a disher. After that question was relayed, I heard Ginsberg shout, “I don’t fucking know! Tell him to read my books if he wants to know what I wrote!” A few weeks later, the fucker was dead and so was his chance to share with the world his reminisces of his career in the dish pits.
MARK: What was your favorite zine, back in the Dishwasher days?
PETE: Oh, I had lots of them. Just as others liked to peek into my world, I liked to peek into other people’s worlds, especially if their passion about it really shone through. I particularly loved Scam, Craphound, Guinea Pig Zero (GPZ), Temp Slave! and countless others.
MARK: I understand that you contributed to Guinea Pig Zero back in the day. What was it that you wrote about?
PETE: Guinea Pig Zero covered the world of paid participants in medical testing, a world I dabbled in a bit. I believe I wrote for GPZ a couple of scene reports about places I’d been. I recall one was about a facility in downtown Baltimore and another about a hospital outside Chicago. Maybe there were some others, I’m not sure.
MARK: When looking for dishwashing jobs, what were your criteria? Were you primarily looking for pay, or a good story?
PETE: Well, I was always looking to get paid. I lived off my dishwashing pay. But I was also always looking for interesting gigs, not just in hopes of a good story but both to satisfy my own curiosity about the gig and in hopes of the work being interesting for me. If I had just worked at one chain restaurant after another, after three or four such jobs I would have wrapped the spray hose around my neck. But instead I washed dishes at places I was curious about: on an oil rig, at a summer camp, at a salmon cannery, at a hippie commune, at a ski resort, on a train and so on.
PETE: I would have liked to have dished on a ship. I always figured I’d get around to it at some point, but I simply never did.
MARK: A reader of my zine washed dishes on an enormous ship off the coast of Alaska. Judging from his letters, I’d say you’re better off for not having attempted it. He’d go several weeks at a time not seeing the sky, stuck in the cramped kitchen of this floating fish processing plant, stooping over, beneath fluorescent lights. I suppose, however, you could have gotten on a cruise line. That might have been better. His deal, though, sounded like total hell. He saved a ton of money, though.
PETE: No, I would have never dished on a floating fish processor. I put in enough time (five summers) working at onshore Alaskan fish canneries to know what a hell that work can be without the added burden of being stuck on a boat, unable to quit at a moment’s notice. I had inquired into working on large cruise ships but quickly learned that those jobs were usually held by folks from poor African or Asian countries. A lot of those cruise ships fly under the flags of countries like Angola, which have little to no labor laws, which enable the companies to pay their dishwashers next to nothing.
MARK: Should I assume that you’re not behind the site DishwasherPete.com? How about Dishwasher Pete: The Motion Picture? Assuming you’re not behind either, I’m wondering if you have thoughts on others appropriating your name, story, etc. Is it something that concerns you?
PETE: The dishwasherpete.com website was originally set up in conjunction with the Dishwasher book’s release in 2007, but I’ve always maintained a minimal presence on the Internet. So when someone somehow took over the domain name and started posting things under the name “Dishwasher Pete,” I wasn’t even aware of it till a confused reader brought it to my attention. I’m not sure what the imposter’s intention is. Maybe he’s squatting it in hopes that I’ll offer to buy the site back from him. I don’t know and I can’t say that I really care.
As for the Dishwasher Pete film trailer: I had nothing to do with that either. That suddenly appeared on YouTube just before the book came out and it spooked me because it claimed to be a trailer for a forthcoming feature film about me. It was bizarre to see an actor reciting words I had written in some production that I had no prior knowledge of. At the time, I had my own hopes of a film being made based on the book so I had them remove that trailer from YouTube. But no officially authorized film was ever made about the dishwashing quest, and now that trailer is back online. It doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, I just watched it again for the first time in a few years and have to say that I like it. When I first saw it a few years ago, I was just so spooked to see myself portrayed in a production that I had absolutely no involvement with. But now I can say that I appreciate that the guys who made it did a great job.
MARK: I can’t find it at the moment, but I recall having once seen an exchange between you and someone who challenged your professional integrity. If I’m not mistaken, he took issue with the fact that you’d walk away from jobs with no notice. Is there, in your opinion, a dishwashing code of ethics? And, if so, did you adhere to it?
PETE: I can’t think of the exchange you’re referencing. But I had my own code of ethics, my own rules of the trade that I made up as I went along, like not drinking on the job until I was at least halfway through a shift, not working any job that required me to wear company garb, not working any gig that was farther than a comfortable walk or bike ride from wherever I was crashing, not working any job that required drug testing and the Fundamental Rule: not working anyplace where I couldn’t just up and leave when the urge to quit struck. Of course, at some time or another, I broke all those rules.
MARK: I’m assuming that, when you started, you really intended to wash dishes in all 50 states. However, you only worked in 33. Why did you stop? Do you remember the moment you made up your mind to call it quits?
PETE: I stopped because I was tired of it and because I was in love and because I wanted to go to school and study urban planning. The end was very clear. During the summer of 2001 I was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and hadn’t been able to find a job. I grew so desperate that when I saw a newspaper want ad calling for dishwashers at a Cracker Barrel, I excitedly raced to the place. But as I was heading into the building, I watched one obese customer after another enter the restaurant and I just thought, “I don’t want to work in this shithole cleaning up after these people.” The quest ended at that moment. Within days I was 3,000 miles away with my girlfriend, within months I was in school studying urban planning, and within a year, I was living in Amsterdam.
MARK: Were there readers who were pissed at you for stopping?
PETE: I don’t recall anyone being pissed. But then again, I more or less stopped answering—or even opening—my mail. So I think, if anything, readers might have been confused why I had disappeared.
MARK: I can’t recall… Did rumors float around at the time about what had happened to you?
PETE: I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention myself. As soon as the quest ended, my focus turned elsewhere. For the following five years, until I started working on the Dishwasher book, I gave very little thought to the zine or the quest.
MARK: Do you feel superior to Sufjan Stevens? He announced that he’d be releasing albums on all 50 states, and, after releasing records about Michigan and Illinois, he stopped. He didn’t even make it to his third state.
PETE: Is that such a bad thing? Does anyone really need to hear more than two albums by Sufjan Stevens?
MARK: So, I guess that I can mark that down as a “yes”… Has any “50 state” project, to your knowledge, ever been successful?
PETE: I’m sure plenty have been successful. Since the Dishwasher book came out, I’ve been asked by several authors to write blurbs for their 50-state-quest books. But I’ve turned them all down because their projects all seem so inauthentic, as if the book contract was signed before they even began whatever it is that they were documenting in the book. With my quest, it was my life. At first, I barely even told anyone I was doing it. I didn’t even start writing the book until five years after I’d washed my last dish. So the book was never the ultimate goal. I was just living my life.
MARK: You’ve never made a secret of the fact that one of the reasons you embarked on your journey to wash dishes in all 50 states was that you didn’t want to be “tied down.” I’m curious as to how you deal with that impulse to keep moving now that you’re settled down and have a child… Is the urge to keep moving no longer pushing you? Did you get it out of your system?
PETE: Yeah, I suppose I got it out of my system. Or maybe more accurately, I found what I was looking for. I no longer have an urge to keep moving, but I think that’s mostly due to arriving in Amsterdam in 2002. I’d never been to continental Europe before, my focus had been very America-centric during the quest years. Yet, within just a couple of days of arriving in Amsterdam, I felt like I didn’t need to ever go anywhere else. During the more than a decade that I spent roaming around the U.S. on the dishwashing quest, at every place I went, I was always wondered, “Could I live here forever?” I spent a lot of time in a lot of major cities and in countless college towns and on farms and up in the mountains and in Alaskan fishing villages and wherever else. And throughout all that time, I never really felt comfortable sticking around any of those places for very long. But I’ve been in Amsterdam now for more than a decade and I enjoy aimlessly riding my bike around just as much now as I did as on my first day here.
MARK: In the past, before going to Amsterdam, you’d considered putting down roots in Pittsburgh. What was it that you liked about Pittsburgh, and why was it that you ultimately decided to move on?
PETE: After travelling all over the country for so long, I figured Pittsburgh was the best fit for me. I loved all the old neighborhoods and houses and figured that it was a place where even a dopey dishman like me could afford to buy a house, especially if it were one on a hillside that was accessible only by a municipal stairwell. I did find one of those that was empty and even negotiated with the owner for a price of $25,000. But as cheap as that sounds, I didn’t have a penny to my name. Eventually, though, I dropped the Pittsburgh plan. One reason was because it was such a hassle—and so lonely—to ride a bike there.
MARK: What took you to Amsterdam in the first place? Had you gone with the intention of finding a place to settle down, or was it something else?
PETE: After I quit the dish quest and had gone back to school to study urban planning, I wanted to spend a semester abroad learning how other countries designed their cities for cyclists and pedestrians and public transit users. So I found such a program at the University of Amsterdam. But after being here for just a few days, I knew I didn’t want to ever live in the U.S. again.
MARK: What can you tell me about your most recent book, In the City of Bikes.
PETE: It’s very much a sequel to Dishwasher despite the subject matter being different. The first book ends with my arrival in Amsterdam and this book begins with my arrival in Amsterdam. It’s a humorous socio-cultural history of cycling in Amsterdam with my own personal story of being a cyclist here infused throughout it.
I began writing In the City of Bikes originally for an American publisher and for an American audience. But the more research I did for it and the more interesting material I uncovered, the more I began to realize that it would probably more of a book for the Dutch. So while the American version of the book was met with good reviews and I’ve heard from plenty of Americans who say they’ve enjoyed it, the Dutch translation of the book has been received in the Netherlands far more enthusiastically. The Dutch have been amazed that it took a foreigner to explain their own culture and relationship and history of the bike to them. And it’s been rewarding to know that I’ve contributed positively to the society where I intend to spend the rest of my life.
MARK: What’s your creative process like? Do you write every day?
PETE: I write in some capacity every day, even if it’s journal writing, keeping track of the things my son says and does. On most days, I go to the municipal archives or to one of the libraries of the University of Amsterdam or to the main Amsterdam public library. Even if I’m not presently researching something, I’m still comfortable using those spaces as places to write.
MARK: And do I understand correctly that you give bike tours in Amsterdam?
PETE: Yeah, I have my own little one-man tour company. I enjoy taking tourists around and explaining Dutch bike culture to them. Usually they’re appreciative bike nuts from the U.S. The tours are supposed to last three hours but I struggle to fit in all I have to say during that time because I have a lot to say on the subject and usually folks ask dozens and dozens of questions.
MARK: How do you look back on your zine publishing days?
PETE: I recall them fondly but I do miss the type of communication that occurred back then. A major factor of that whole period was that so much of the communication between zine editors and between zine editors and their readers occurred via postal mail. I received and wrote thousands of letters.
The type of communication that occurs on Facebook and Twitter and such doesn’t interest me. People express themselves by clicking a like button or by forwarding some line that someone else wrote. I don’t get it. And folks can’t send a message that’s longer than a few sentences or that’s not intended for the whole Internet to read. I miss the longer, more direct, more personal letters that I exchanged back in the day.
Not so long ago I was back in San Francisco, clearing out the last of my belongings from my mom’s basement, which were boxes filled with thousands of letters I’d received in 1990s. It was remarkable to look through them and see how long the letters were that I’d receive from friends. It was also interesting to see how much the letter writer’s personality came through in his or her handwriting, choice of paper, choice of writing implement, art on the envelopes, etc. One of the many letters that I was fascinated by was one sent by a friend who is an artist. The letter in question was filled with all sorts of cool comic drawings. Coincidentally, this same friend sent a Facebook friend request later that same day. I wrote her a long message all about my experience going through the old letters earlier that morning, about what long letters we all used write, about the personality that shone through them, etc. And she wrote back one sentence saying, “Yeah, funny.” And that brief, impersonal communication just about summed it up for me.
Anyway, yeah, I miss the type of communication I shared with so many others back in the zine days.
MARK: I was told not to let you go without asking you about mac and cheese.
PETE: The Macaroni-and-Cheese-Box Collection dates back to when I returned to San Francisco from Kentucky in 1987. I had brought with me seven brands of macaroni and cheese that I’d never seen in S.F. My friends and I had a tasting party, cooking up the contents of one box every night for a week. And each night the box cover would be cut out and pasted on the wall. Then, during my travels, I continued to collect macaroni and cheese box covers. I’d buy them, eat the contents, and laminate the front of the box. I exhibited them all around the country. Eventually the collection grew to contain more than 325 different box covers from more than 200 different brands (none of which were Kraft, whose taste and high price I never liked).
The collecting came to an end when I moved to Amsterdam, where the phenomenon of cheap mac and cheese is unknown. These days, I’m not even sure where the collection is. I think Chloe still has it after the last time it was exhibited on the walls of Reading Frenzy.
MARK: I know it’s an unfair question, but, generally speaking, which are better… zine friends or dish washing friends?
PETE: Uh….let’s go with zine friends. I’d say I’m in touch with more zine pals these days than dish pals.
MARK: And finally, if you could dish in just one more state, which would it be, and why?
PETE: Well, the fantasized grand finale to the whole quest was to take place in Hawaii, the only state I’d never been to, though I’d received a lot of offers from Hawaiians to come crash on their couches. So if I could hit just one more state, I suppose it would be Hawaii if only to play out that storybook ending I’d dreamed about. But I’m not losing any sleep about it these days.
[To purchase Pete’s new book, In the City of Bikes, just click here, and pick up a copy from our mutual friends at Reading Frenzy… And, if you like what you’ve just read and want to know more about the golden era of the underground press and the people behind it, be sure to check the other interviews in the History of Zines series.]