The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dishes will never be done

How? We just ran the dishwasher this morning! (iStock)
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The world is in disarray. The economy is crumbling. The news is bleak. The kids are stir-crazy. The parents need a break. Everyone is tired of the vigilance needed to dodge the virus, which doesn’t tire.

And the sink, I am sorry to tell you, is full of dirty dishes. Again.

A side effect of the fact that we’re all eating three meals a day (plus snacks) at home — with school cafeterias and restaurant kitchens and fast-food garbage bins no longer absorbing their share of the aftermath.

Dirty dishes are the least of all problems. The very least. And so easily fixed: soap, water, a little mindless scrubbing. Come to think of it, how dare we lament this simple chore in light of everything else. And how dare you nod in recognition!

Still, a sink perpetually brimming with dirty dishes is a proxy for all that is tedious and tiresome about life at the undramatic edges of this crisis. It is incessant, like the quarantine. Repetitive, like our days at home. Demanding and messy, like the tasks that fill those days. And somehow fraught with shame and judgment: Who can claim to have their act together if they can’t fit their Brita pitcher under the faucet?

The dirty dishes are the least of our problems, yes. And still the one we’ll avoid until we’re eating cereal from a beer stein with a butter knife.

Perhaps all the other problems have somehow made this one weightier. That’s how it’s felt to Benji Kaufman. “You’d cook and then deal with the doom and gloom of what is our life right now. So doing the dishes wasn’t what we wanted to do,” explains Kaufman, a 27-year-old actor and logistics manager who lives in Burbank, Calif., with his girlfriend. There was a time, many moons ago, when Kaufman and his girlfriend ate two, maybe three meals together a week. Now it is three meals a day, seven days a week. Twenty-one meals. After every meal there were dishes to do, but it never seemed urgent. After all, they weren’t going anywhere.

It went on that way until there were no bowls left for the two humans, the cat or the dog. They had to run the dishwasher twice to reach the bottom of the sink. And of course, by the time that process was complete, more dishes had been sullied.

Inspired by the agony of defeat, Kaufman decided to make a TikTok video about it. The video begins with Kaufman closing the door to a loaded dishwasher. Then, when he glances back at the sink, a new cup has appeared. Every time Kaufman looks at the sink, the dirty dishes multiply and his horror grows. By the end of the 24-second clip, he is hunched over at the counter, crying to a SpongeBob SquarePants song.

“How can I have control over my life?” he told The Washington Post. “I don’t even have control over my own dishes.”

Up the coast, in Seattle, Gwendolyn Wood feels Kaufman’s pain. Wood, 27, is a graphic designer who, before the pandemic, volunteered to be the designated dishwasher to even the domestic scales with her much neater roommate. She would do the dishes nightly, like clockwork. Then Wood’s boyfriend moved in, adding to the dish count. Then the quarantine destroyed her daily rhythms and supercharged her tendency to procrastinate. “It’s like, well, I goofed off on my phone,” she says, “and now I have to work, so I can’t do the dishes now.”

Wood’s dish routine is now upside-down: Wash the plates and utensils you need for the meal, eat, then leave the dirty dishes to sit until it’s time to eat again. The sink is the new cupboard.

In a recent watercolor painting, she depicted the effort it takes to face down another sink full of dishes. It’s a twist on the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who is sentenced by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain, letting it roll down, and then pushing it back up. In Wood’s painting, Sisyphus is pushing not a boulder, but a plate.

David Robertson, a father of five in Manitoba, Canada, swears — swears — that in the past two months of seclusion he hasn’t once seen one child open the dishwasher. It’s like they don’t understand its function.

“No matter what they’re told,” says Robertson, an author, “they’ll leave their dishes on the counter on top of the dishwasher.”

So close, and yet, so far. Perhaps they know that if they actually open the dishwasher, they’ll encounter the scariest sight of all: racks full of clean dishes that need to be unloaded.

Thus the entreaties of the parents and the recalcitrance of the kids has become a wearying cycle all its own. Have Robertson and his wife started saving their breath?

Long sigh on the phone from our neighbors to the north.

“We won’t stop trying, but we also at the same time know that it’s not going to happen,” he says. “So I don’t know why we’re torturing ourselves.”

And the Robertsons are lucky: They have a dishwasher. Yes, in some households Sisyphus owns a tow truck. They press a button that says “start” and hear the sound of a spray that seems to whisper, “Go. Sit. We’ve got it from here.”

The rest must hand-scrub every hardened drumlin of melted cheese off every plate, then play Jenga with a drying rack that is never dry anymore.

No glory in it, but perhaps a brief swell of accomplishment. Our lives are stalled, but that plate — gleaming and ready — is a modicum of progress. A box, checked. A weight, lifted.

Callum Grant, a Chicago-based member of the Blue Man Group, recently worked up the nerve to face down a sink full of dishes and afterward took to Twitter to commemorate the achievement: “#COVID19 How did I help? How did I contribute to the greater good? What were the painful sacrifices I made? .... I did the #dishes … again.”

Kaufman might envy such a moment of pride, sarcastic though it may be.

Speaking by phone at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, he updated The Post on the current state of affairs: “The sink is full. The dishwasher has clean dishes in it that have been clean for two days now. We haven’t gotten ourselves to unload.”

He has heard that there are people out there who wash a dish immediately after use and put it in its proper place.

“Every time we do the dishes, we both say, ‘Okay, from now on every time we use a dish we’re going to rinse it immediately after and put it in the dishwasher,’ ” Kaufman says.

Sounding a bit resigned, he adds, “I can let you know if that ever happens.”