Dishwasher: A San Francisco Story

Abraham Woodliff
16 min readDec 13, 2019

Sushi King is the name of the Japanese restaurant I work at in San Francisco’s Japantown. It’s a tourism hub for anime enthusiasts masquerading as its own neighborhood. Once upon a time Japanese immigrants did inhabit this neighborhood on their entry into America in hopes of a better life. The real estate costs of Japantown assure that that is no longer a possibility for anyone, Japanese or not. Japantown is surrounded entirely by The Fillmore District, a once black enclave that is now home to neglected public housing, murals to influential former residents of the neglected public housing and so many millionaires and business catering to millionaires that you almost forget you’re surrounded by neglected public housing.

(image courtesy of KPIX)

My name is Tony Wu. I’m Chinese. I don’t live in Chinatown. I live in Ingleside. It’s a place where real San Franciscans live and tourists never venture into, so naturally, you’ve never heard of it. The rest of the staff at Sushi King are also Chinese, except for the chefs; they’re Japanese, a minority in Japantown. It doesn’t matter to our customers, some of which try to speak Japanese to our staff, despite many of them being from China. It didn’t matter. This is America. Nuance is scary. Enjoy the ramen, the anime-themed ambiance and the lie that this is what Japan is like. I’ve never been to Japan, but I assume 6 blocks of ramen, sushi, Attack On Titan and Hello Kitty merchandise doesn’t offer the full experience. Now, if we could incorporate the 100-hour-work- week, the staggeringly high suicide rates, the fingerless gangsters or the enforcement of extreme conformity by way of social exclusion into the tourism experience, maybe I wouldn’t be so jaded at the adoration for a land of a rising sun they’ve never seen.

I’m a dishwasher. I wash dishes. That’s why I’m called a dishwasher. In a world filled with ambiguous titles meant to obscure the fact that you’re not truly essential to a company’s operation, my title offered no such ambiguity. I washed dishes, so they called me a dishwasher. I shared the same title as machines that did the same thing as me. There was no doubt in my employer’s ability to replace me.

“Tony, we need you at the register,” Patrick said. Patrick was my boss. His father owned Sushi King. We never really saw his dad, the Sushi King, very often. He was probably too busy counting cash atop his sushi throne in his sushi castle and fucking his sushi wife in her big, fat sushi ass.

Patrick had this annoying habit of assigning people to the register at will. I hated working the register. It’s not that I disliked people, it’s just when people transform into customers, they’re no longer people, they’re customers, and trust me, there’s huge fucking difference between a person and a customer.

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“Okay, give me a second. I gotta dry my hands.”

“Quickly,” Patrick replied with a tone that poorly hid his impatience.

There was a massive line. Every weekend it seemed that there was some kind of event that took place in Japantown. On this particular week, unfortunately, it was one of the biggest of Japantown’s annual events: The Anime Expo.

Demographically speaking, it’s a sociological anomaly. You have traditionally beautiful women dressed up as cartoon characters and men who are either pencil-thin or excessively obese with all the grace and social ability of a bull in a china shop. And the bull just so happened to be on the autism spectrum.

Smooth criminals.

The first guy I rung up was the smoothest.

“Your palms must sweat a lot,” He said as he anxiously stared over at the girl beside him with anticipation of some kind of validation. She didn’t give a verbal response. Only a placating nod, not signal of an agreement or disagreement, just an acknowledgement of the noise that came from his throat.

I stared at him for a moment. I wasn’t offended. His alpha male attempt, well, his alpha male attempt within the context of being in line at a sushi restaurant while he poorly cosplayed had backfired. I gave him his total.

“That comes to $38.54. Are you paying with cash or credit?”

He dug out a crumpled assortment of cash from his pocket: a twenty, three fives, seven ones. Before I could even verify that he had given me enough to cover the bill, he grabbed his tray of food, spilled soup on his sushi, blurted “keep the change,” and quickly walked away. I kept the change.

Smooth criminal.

My fingers were pruney from the dish pit. Which, I admit, despite it being entirely normal, is a peculiar sight when exchanging money with a stranger. I’m 31, my hands are age appropriate. However, after bussing tables and washing dishes for a few hours, my body remained suspended to the standard time continuum, but my hands are taken on an accelerated journey through time to movie theater discounts, xenophobia and erectile dysfunction by way of nature’s greatest resource and hand-specific time machine: H20.

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I was apathetic as I rung up customers. The faces blended into one excessively hungry, undefined mess of humanity. Ramen and Sushi. That’s all anyone really bought. That’s all anyone really knew. My elderly and I hands became more efficient at swiping cards, stuffing cash and passing plates as my mind left and I became the ideal worker: a body without a soul.

And then I saw her. My soul returned and my efficiency decreased with complete disregard for the faceless, fascist universal dictator we lovingly we refer to as Money.

To say I found her beautiful would be an understatement. Her eyes held the vastness and mystery of the ocean. Her hair perfectly framed her face. Her lips suggested a legitimate case for intelligent design as they seemed to be created with an emphasis on seduction.

I remember thinking to myself “how dare you come here and ruin my life with your presence.”

She just stood at the register.

I didn’t want to stare directly into her eyes. They seemed to possess a capability to gaze beyond your physical body and observe your essence. The prolonged silence only exacerbated my anxiety.

“What can I do for you?” I asked in a dismissive tone so cavalier that it seemed suspicious. Nothing says you care more than tones expressed purposefully to accentuate your lack of it.

She stared at me. Stared through me. Her eyes rendered me transparent.

“Listen, if you’re not going to order something or if you’re unsure of what you want, please move so other customers can make their orders.” I said.

She parted her lips and looked at me with a confused expression.

“What are you even doing here?” She asked.

“What does that mean?”

“You know what that means. What are you even doing here?”

“I’m… working.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m working. Are you okay?”

She smiled and coyly replied, “are you?”

I paused. I didn’t know who this woman was. She was beautiful and clearly insane. It almost felt like she was trying to flirt with me. I just stared at her. My heart rate elevated.


She grabbed me by my collar and pulled me toward her with a strength that her small frame concealed. She pressed her lips against mine. I went with it. It felt like it was meant to happen. She bit my lip as I pulled away from the kiss.

“Who are you?” I asked.

She stared into my eyes with the intensity of an earthquake and said “let’s go.”

Despite the fact that I knew it was reckless, we did go. I just walked away from the register and through the crowd of hungry patrons who were as confused as I was. I didn’t know why I followed this woman, I just did. I followed my heart through the judgmental eyes of the crowd. Patrick rushed out of the backroom and shouted “Tony, what the hell?” I didn’t give him an answer to that question because the Hell was obvious. This was the Hell. I wasn’t trying to escape to Heaven. I just didn’t want to be in Hell anymore. She tightly gripped my hand as we walked out of Sushi King together.

Not every revolution needs to begin or end with a beheading. Sometimes just acknowledgement of the fact that the king is just as human as you, but on the right side of pretense, is more of a punishment than anything else could be.


Hand in hand, together, we escaped the crowded central plaza of Japantown and strolled down Post Street. We talked and laughed. Our movements were in unison as if one soul had inhabited two bodies. I wondered if this was what true love was. A popular theme in media is the idea of ‘love at first sight.’ Was this what had occurred?

“Are you from ‘The City?” I asked.

“I’m from you.”

I took that as a sign that she wasn’t from ‘The City.’ People who are really from ‘Frisco’ rep it. No ambiguity. People who pass through ‘The City’ in their attempt to cultivate an identity or the masses in search of tech wealth are the ones who gave vague answers. It didn’t matter. Her smile was hypnotic. I looked into her eyes and felt I had known her my entire life. Our bodies may have never met, but our souls had been on speaking terms long before the encounter at Sushi King. This was the only truth that mattered.

We made it to the intersection of Post and Fillmore. Since I knew she probably wasn’t from here, I had an idea.

“Wanna see something famous?”

“What, like the Golden Gate Bridge?”

“Nah, that’s too famous, too far and there’s always too much traffic. Have you seen the ‘Painted Ladies’ before?”

“Even if I have, it’d feel like the first time if it was with you.”

So that’s where I decided to take her.


We strolled down Fillmore. The money needed for a degree in sociology seemed superfluous to me. Why go to college and waste years of your life in an attempt to learn about the contrasts of society in a classroom when you can witness it all for free in the Fillmore District?

We passed yuppies, millionaires and homes worth more than the annual GDP of developing nations; we passed hustlers that congregated on blocks around corner stores as they sold anything they could sell under the watchful eye of Jazz musicians immortalized in murals celebrating the area’s former status as the ‘Harlem of the West.’

I felt well-informed and important as I pointed all the significant spots on Fillmore Street to her. I pointed to a food vendor that was known for selling greasy onion rings.

(album cover for Andre Nickatina aka Dre Dog’s “The New Jim Jones.”

“That was mentioned in an Andre Nickatina song.”

She looked up at me and smiled. I took it as a sign that she didn’t know who that was, but then she surprised me.

“I smoke chewy like a mutha’ fuckin’ nut!”

“Oh my God, you do know!” And almost as if I was obligated, I finished the line.

“You gotta gram bag, hit the zags and roll her up,” I said giddily.

“Cuz a…”

She paused. We both knew why she paused. We both laughed. And then we were quiet. The silence wasn’t one that signified an awkward pause. This was a contented silence. The type of silence that was a pleasure to share. It was the type of silence only few could truly understand because only few have ever experienced it. It was the satisfactory silence of knowing that words were no longer needed. The connection was solidified and all that was left to do was bask in the esoteric wisdom that soulmates do exist. No conversation required. We both just knew.

image: limewave

In what seemed like an instant, we made it to Alamo Square: the park where tourists would congregate to either begin or end their time in San Francisco with a bit of Full House nostalgia. I let go of her hand and pointed to the ‘Painted Ladies.’

“There they are.”

“Touristy or not, they’re beautiful,” She said.

“I know. But that’s the problem, everyone knows. Everyone knows about everything now. Nothing seems special in San Francisco anymore.”

“You’re special.”

My heart fluttered. I kissed her. The kiss wasn’t sexual in nature. The kiss was thankful. Thankful for freedom. Thankful for her. Thankful, that in a city of a million faces and a billion ideas, I stood out.

Neil Armstrong needed science and a rocket to leave the planet. All I needed was her.

We walked along Steiner Street to the stairs that led into the center of Alamo Square. We made it to the top and stopped for a moment. The play structure that greeted us rarely hosted playful children, just adults who day drank and did anything they could to live a lifestyle reminiscent of the advertisement that brought them to San Francisco in the first place.

None of them seemed special. They looked like extras in the same bland romantic comedies that come out every year

You know the ones where a high-powered career woman and a man, usually in some kind of creative pursuit, fall in love after they meet in line at a chic bakery where the ruggedly handsome, yet tragically poor man has a rough exterior, but a soft interior?

Eventually they have passionate sex in the wealthy woman’s loft (always a loft) with exposed brick and skyline views of <insert prominent American, possibly European city (accent optional) here.>

But then they have a petty fight, usually a class-related conflict where the man felt uncomfortable after he attended some party with rich people and got embarrassed after he told her rich friends that he worked as a janitor and did street art on the side, but then they bump into each other at a farmers’ market where poor people never are in the first place, but somehow he was there because in the perfect world of cinematic fantasy, the poor can afford fresh produce and they fall back in love.


These people all looked like they saw these movies and decided to take their evidently bottomless bank accounts out of their boring Midwestern hometowns for a coding job and a starring role in the big city that won’t ever come.

But then again, who was I to criticize them? My hatred wasn’t truly for them, but for the fact that our coexistence seemed impossible, not because of anything they individually did, but because their presence equated to my removal. I cleaned their dishes, they changed the world. I’m not factored into the change they envisioned, but none of that mattered in the moment. I was free.

I led the way to a bench with a direct view of the ‘Painted Ladies.’ We sat together. San Francisco was still beautiful. It was just too hard to appreciate its striking beauty before. It is hard to appreciate anything when you’re hunched over a sink with moist, wrinkled hands 8 hours a day. A dish pit is a dish pit, whether you’re in San Francisco or Alabama.

“I know we’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful as you are to me.”

I reached for her hand, but there was nothing there. I looked over and reached again, but nothing.

I was on the bench by myself.

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I couldn’t have been on the bench alone. I had to know if this was some kind of joke that she had played on me.

I approached a man who was drinking from a bottle of expensive looking wine, partially covered in a brown paper bag that I passed when I first made my way to the bench.

“Excuse me, you saw me walk to the park with a girl, right?”

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“Uhh, no. You just walked up alone with a smile on your face. Seemed like you smoked a bag of some good tree. By the way, if you need any more, I got you, bro. No shady shit either. All legit shit. My boy, Broderick has a weed delivery start-up called Buzzdoor… Because we bring the buzz to your door. Get it? Ha!”

“I’m good, man, but you’re sure I was alone?”

“Yeah, you were alone. Anyway bro, to download the Buzzdoor app all you gotta do is go t..”

“I’m good. I don’t smoke.”

“Well, if weed isn’t your shit and you need some blow, there’s no app… Yet! Ha! But I know a guy in The Castro, gay as fuck, but his coke is pure Columbiano, my dude. But you look like you might be a ‘China White’ kinda guy. Haha! I’m kidding, bro. I’m actually really PC, but this wine brings the ‘sav’ roasts out of me.”

I turned around and walked toward the stairs. She wasn’t fucking real.

She wasn’t fucking real.

I was on the bench alone.

I am still alone.

I looked around one more time, just to make sure and there was no sign of the woman who saw me and freed me. The only familiar ladies that stood before me were the painted ones and the day drinkers, as they waited on their co-stars who seemed to run perpetually late.

A tear escaped my left eye and streamed down my cheek as I descended the steps back to Steiner Street. My head hung down. I crossed Steiner onto Grove until I reached Fillmore.

I passed the hustlers, the yuppies, the onion rings and the immortal Jazz musicians

I passed the cafes, the corner stores, the wine bars, the concert venues and the projects; but this time I knew I was alone. And nothing is worse than knowing you’re alone.

As I made it back to the intersection of Post and Fillmore, I held my hand out. There was a part of me that expected her to grab it. I wanted to feel the warmth of her hand interlocked with mine again, but she didn’t grab it because she never did. She wasn’t there. She never was, yet I had some sort of sentimental attachment to that specific spot.

The spot where I had fooled myself into thinking she was there. I didn’t want to leave it, for there was still an ounce of hope in my heart that she or the insanity that manifested her would return.

A hopeful ache.

I snapped out of my daze and thought about my job. I wondered if I still had a job. Patrick would have had every right to fire me. The quickest way to be kicked out of the sushi kingdom is by crossing one of the crown’s heirs and my recent hallucination probably qualified as such an offense.

My stomach dropped as I approached the Japantown Plaza. Despite all that had happened, or didn’t happen with me, everything looked as it had when I left. Anime nerds from all four corners of Northern California had swarmed Japantown in their best and worst costumes. Food vendors and cheap anime merchandise peddlers were all over the place and everyone seemed content, if not satisfied in their fandom or profits made as a result of someone else’s.

I took a deep breath as I approached Sushi King.

Before I went inside, I looked around and I had hoped to see her again, but, as always, she wasn’t there. So I walked into the restaurant that I had thought just an hour prior I had permanently rid myself of.

It was even more crowded than before. Christina, Patrick’s 15 year old daughter, was ringing people up in my absence. She looked stressed. Her father was too hard on her and would make her fill in when employees called out sick. Just the same as the Sushi King himself had done to Patrick when he was a teenager. It appeared that Patrick was going to make a fine Sushi King when his father eventually choked to death on a caviar-coated California roll. Patrick and I made eye contact.

“Tony, can you come into the back so we can speak for a moment?”

I was about to get yelled at. I’ve been yelled at before, though. So I knew what to expect from the interaction that awaited me.

“Tony, what the fuck? Do you even want this job?”

I didn’t respond, but I assumed he meant that as a rhetorical question, considering I had just manifested a love interest out of thin air and abruptly left mid transaction, but due to economic considerations and potential mental health inquiries, I kept my mouth shut.

“You just stared at a customer, starting laughing and walked off! What is wrong with you? If you didn’t want to ring people up, you could’ve just said so.”


“So, do you want this job or what?”

“I do,” I said.

“Then fucking act like it! What even happened back there?”

“I had a panic attack and didn’t know what else to do except laugh, I guess? I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life and I was overwhelmed because of the crowd.”

“That’s great and all, Tony, but you’re an adult and when you’re an adult you gotta swallow shit. You think I’m not anxious? My father and I deal with San Francisco passing laws making it hard to run a fuckin’ lemonade stand, let alone a full restaurant, now I’m forced to pay $16.50 minimum to employees who just decide to have panic attacks and leave whenever they please.”

“I’m sorry, Patrick.”

“Well, how about you show me you’re sorry by washing these dishes, they’ve been piling up while you were contemplating whether you felt like working or not.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. If you ever pull some shit like that again, you’re fired,” Patrick said as he stormed out of the kitchen into the dining area.

PHOTO: Angie Mosier

I walked to the sink and put on my apron. In that moment, it felt like the heaviest thing in the world. I felt like I had just placed a boulder on my back and now I’d be forced to carry it for as long as I physically could.

I picked up the first plate. I scraped the uneaten food off, turned on the faucet and watched the water go down the drain…


Thanks for reading. If you enjoy my writing, please share it. It really does mean the world to me. Even if you don’t share it and you don’t like this story, I still appreciate that you took the time out of your day to read a story written by a guy who makes stupid memes.


Abe Woodliff

This story will be featured in WRITING 4 PEOPLE BY REFINERIES (working title), WHICH WILL BE OUT LATE 2020!



Abraham Woodliff

Bay Area native, Hip Hop nerd, literature and poetry enthusiast, freelance writer, gamer, caffeine addict. Follow me on Twitter.