In the summer of 1994, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant in the mall in Sheboygan. It was interesting, in that every employee had to learn each of the three primary jobs – cook, bartender, and waiting tables. That way, when someone called in sick, there was a larger pool of qualified people to convince to come in on their day off. The first day I went in to work, I was a mess because the night before was the last night I’d see my girlfriend for the rest of the summer – she was going to Europe for a couple of months. It wasn’t something I could talk about, because I was still petrified of people knowing I was gay back then. I wasn’t out to many people – just my closest friends, my sister, and my uncle. Then, when I walked in for that first day of training, I recognized one of the guys that worked there from the local gay bar. I could tell he recognized me, too, but we acted as though we had never met. We didn’t speak a word of where we’d seen each other before, not even between the two of us when no one else was around. That moment solidified for me the feeling of leading a double life in a way I’d never experienced before.
It was one thing not to be out to everyone around me, but generally that just meant I didn’t talk about certain things, or I stayed vague about the nature of a relationship. It was another thing to look someone in the eye that under any other circumstances I’d have said, “Hey, how are you?” and gone on to have a normal friendly conversation with, and instead pretend I had no idea he existed before that moment. In the end, I didn’t dwell on it for long, but the first few days were awkward. I didn’t know the guy well – don’t even remember his name, even after working with him. He was someone we saw at the bar, but didn’t talk to, for some reason.
He ended up training me on exactly how to wash the dishes when I worked in the kitchen. There was a real science to it. Three huge compartments in a metal sink came into play. The first was filled with water so hot it almost burned your hands, but not quite. It left them a screaming red, and I had to pull my hands out after every couple of dishes to tolerate the heat. The second was filled with warm water that had some rinsing agent in it. After scrubbing in the scalding water, I’d dunk the dishes in the chemically treated rinsing water, then dunk them into the third sink, which was full of plain old cold water. It was the final rinse station. As this guy trained me, he stressed just how important it was to dunk in the cold sink. He explained with the utmost seriousness that the cold water broke down any last soap bubbles left on the dishes faster than warmer water would. I thought that was crazy, but did as I was told. I mean, come on, I was washing dishes either way – who really cared what steps I had to take? Well, my secret gay acquaintance really cared. He went on and on about it. His relentless lecturing about cold water breaking down soap bubbles seemed so weird to me – why would anyone talk about it soooo much?
After I’d worked there a couple weeks, I finally felt comfortable enough with another employee to ask about the water thing, and found out that the secret gay guy felt so strongly about it because he thought he discovered this little known scientific fact on his own. His endless praise of cold water for rinsing was actually his pride in his attention to detail being verbalized – his intellectual ability to look at a common situation that would seem as though it had no room for improvement, and find some way to make it better. I was never convinced that it made any difference, but I had to give the guy credit for finding some warped sense of meaning in such a crummy job.
As I was finishing this post, I thought I better check to see if cold water does in fact rinse dishes better than hot water – I went to Google and began to type, “does cold water…” and auto-complete suggested that I might be searching for the answer to this question instead – “does cold water boil faster than hot water?” Seriously? That’s the most commonly searched for question about cold water? I give up.