Food: ‘I'm too old for this. But…': The joys of working as a 50-something dish hand

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Stooped over a scullery sink, a bottomless trough, elbows in soupy water, scrubbing oversized pots and frying pans, saucepans, mixing bowls, with plates and coffee cups rising high, the lunch-hour rush, another load in the dishwasher, I think of how lucky I am. It's no glamour job. Not sought after. But for now, for a while, I am happy to be a dish hand.

How I got here might be a cautionary tale. The choices we make. A few wrong turns, a misstep, some bad timing, and now I work between four sinks - in the kitchen, front-of-house - stacking plates, hands wet, at the bottom of the food chain, a tea towel slung over my shoulder.

The job wasn't advertised, and I hardly intended to be here, but here I am. It happened like this: a woman I've not met - a sort of guardian angel - knows the owner of a much-loved Melbourne cafe, knew she was looking for a "dishy", and she knew of my predicament (applying for jobs, getting dead-ends) and thought I might fit the bill. I said yes, then baulked.

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Riding a bicycle there, I turned back, wracked by fear and pride. I'm too old for this. Too tall. Detergents will ruin my hands. I've never done it before. It feels a bit, well, "lowly" for this stage of life. But a man in need of rent money is a man who might do anything.

Two days later, I text the cafe owner (her name is Jackie): "I like the idea of working at your cafe, and think I could contribute, and I'm interested because there is care and nurturing there, but I'm all at sea."

Do a paid trial, she said, see if you like it. I did. And ever since, I've found a little home and an eased mind at a place called the Galleon.

The Galleon cafe is like few others. In a hard-edged city, it's a room of togetherness; welcoming, warm-hearted, timeless (38 years and counting at its current location, with Laminex tables and upholstered vinyl chairs that refuse to date), sailing with aplomb through all the whims of hospitality.

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Partly it's the location, off the main-drag chutzpah of salty St Kilda. Partly it's the place. But mostly it's the people.

Any given lunchtime, it's full. Musicians, tradies, footballers, artists, mums, young lovers, backpackers, families - all of humanity walks through its door. A white-haired couple sit in a booth, do a crossword. Peals of laughter ring from a table of students. A baby in her mother's arms looks wide-eyed at the scene.

It's a daily gathering that creates its own beauty, both physical, but mostly of the soul, of purpose. I catch glimpses of it, hear its happiness, but usually my back is turned to the crowd, hands deep in a sink.

I tell my two boys I've taken a job at a cafe washing dishes and the eldest winces. But I know they're happy for me, they can see it's taken a weight off, they know I'm trying. They need to believe their father will do all he can to find a way through what he's gotten himself into. And I know I need to set an example: in humility, in holding my head high. I cry in private. When they're not with me.

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In our kitchen at home - more washing up, another sink - I show them there's dignity in mundane labour, honour in manual tasks. I tell them how I've milked cows, stacked supermarket shelves, worked in a timber mill, laboured for builders and bricklayers, been a roustabout in shearing sheds, how their dad isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty, how this life of ours will turn. Where we are will not be forever.

At the cafe, I find little joys in the doing. In the careful dance around others, in the service, in helping, being useful, a gentle touch of an elbow, a smile, in knowing I have a role: the whole operation depends on clean cutlery, crockery, kitchenware.

When at its busiest - the room a chorus of conversations, the wheel spinning - my mind wanders, finding Zen in washing dishes.

I think of how privileged I am to be here, working with these people, admiring what they can do. I think of this bigger-smaller life I've found, of self-respect, gratitude, belonging.

We're all in this boat together, and at the Galleon, it's a ship of kindness. A sweetheart barista (the bosun), charismatic wait staff (deckhands), and the all-women chefs who've taken me under their wing (my captains).

And there I am, below deck, at the sinks, bent over, forearms in muck, scouring pots with steel wool, a six-foot-something, 50-something dish hand. Doing this job - its heavy lifting - so others don't have to. Doing it with all my heart, as best I can, with quiet and unspoken thankfulness.

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