Opinion » Column | Sept. 25
This month, while everyone was returning to the quintessentially Princeton setting of ivy-covered castles (or, in the case of Wilson, ivy-covered bomb shelters), I was also returning, along with a number of others, to a setting that holds little in common with everything ivy: the Wilcox/Wu dish room.
Three-and-a-half hours a night, two nights a week, I join my fellow student workers in a deceptively simple task — cleaning the dishes that hundreds of our classmates have used, so that they can be returned to the servery to be used by hundreds more. It’s a dirty, often monotonous job, though lightened by the attitudes of colleagues who can find humor in a mutilated fork or the surprising ricochets of a poorly thrown plate. More important for Princeton students, it’s a four-hour break from the pressures of the academic world. But I derive the most joy from the work itself. I can lose myself in it, caring for nothing but defending the dish room against the endless line of dirty dishes coming down the conveyor, or, more meaningfully, against our perennial foe, gastroenteritis.
And here we reach the heart of my job satisfaction: Dishwashing is only truly meaningful when I put it in the context of the dining hall outside the dish room. Each night, several hundred of my classmates can enjoy a meal. The meal means food that nourishes their brains for classes and their bodies for athletic feats; it means company that sharpens their minds, morals and wit; it means time off from schoolwork (albeit shorter than my four-hour paid study break); it means eating as part of an undergraduate community 5,113 times larger than each individual student.
And I, in my own small way, help provide that.
This is not capital ‘S’ service. It’s not what we mean by “Princeton in the nation’s service.” It’s what economists mean when they say “the service sector.” This is not the ideal of service; it’s the gritty reality. This is the world of P-O’d customers, of pranked McDonald’s drive-through workers, of hard-working men and women who come home every night smelling like French-fry grease or beer or artificial butter-flavored popcorn taste-enhancement product. It is also the world of ever-smiling baristas, of the Dairy Queen worker who confronts the customer who swiped a $20 bill from a blind man, then slipped the blind man $20 out-of-pocket, of the kind, old groundskeeper adored by every child at my elementary school. Such mundane service, without expectation of recognition, is often the kind that is most meaningful, to both server and recipient.
And it is this kind of service that is not discussed or honored at Princeton. This is not serving in an exotic location through Community Action, Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders — it’s picking up thousands of beer cans along Elm Street after the P-rade has turned it into a sticky river of Bud, Miller and Heineken. I did just that during Reunions this year, after having gone through the P-rade twice while the same alumni whose detritus I would bag mere minutes later cheered me and my plaid band uniform forward. I felt connected to other Princetonians during the procession, but it was only afterward, as a cog in the machinery that keeps Reunions running sustainably and practically, that I felt myself a part of Princeton. Previously, I had only been celebrating with the community — now I was acting as its agent.
Ambitious world-shakers and nation-builders that we are, we will without a doubt have much opportunity for significant work “in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” both now and after graduation. But during our four years here, we would do well to pay as much mind to serving our fellow Princetonians here and now. Mundane though they may be, tutoring, clerical work, Reunions tasks and yes, washing dishes, connect us to Princeton and to each other. It makes this place something more than a site for the exchange of money for skills and for knowledge — it makes Princeton a community.
Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.