The mikeroweWORKS Dirt Shirt
Mike Rowe Selling T-shirts Made With Dirt? Makes Perfect Sense.
Like many of her contemporaries, my great grandmother fought a never-ending war on dirt, and was by all accounts, deeply committed to keeping her family’s clothes fresh and clean. Her dedication to this eternal struggle was not born of a penchant for neatness or some other kind of obsessive cleaning disorder, but rather, a moral obligation. Daisy Williams was a godly woman, and believed that cleanliness really did reside next to her Savior. Consequently, Dirt was the Enemy, and my great-grandmother, a worthy foe.
Every Monday morning, Daisy could be seen lugging buckets of water from the backyard well to the big tin washtub beneath the apple tree. There, she would build a fire to heat the water, and return to the farmhouse for an armful of laundry whose stench could only be appreciated by the wife of a fisherman. Once situated at the tub, Daisy would plunge the soiled garments into the steaming water one piece at a time, and physically rub the dirt away with brute force. She used nothing but her hands, a scrubbing board, and chunks of lye soap she made herself from chicken fat and wood stove ashes. After rinsing and wringing, and rinsing and wringing some more, she hauled the sodden mass to a clothesline on the far side of the house, and turned her attention to the next load. According to witnesses, the dirty laundry never had a chance.
My great-grandmother’s assault on grime was as thorough and efficient as the available technology allowed, a fact that my own mother was fond of sharing with my brothers and me, mostly I think, to remind us that laundry day – for all its modern machines and powerful detergents – was still an epic battle, a Sisyphean struggle, and a real pain in the ass.
I thought of Daisy Williams last July, when I flew to Hawaii to meet a guy named Randy Williams for an episode of Dirty Jobs. Could we be related? There are of course, many Williams’ out there, so I suspected the odds were rather long. However, it seemed possible that Randy and I might share a bond more interesting than blood. According to his website, Randy was making something called The Original Red Dirt Shirt, and selling them to tourists with surprising frequency.
As you might imagine, this is the type of transaction that gets my attention. Why would somebody deliberately put dirt in a shirt? What would such a process involve exactly? And furthermore, why would somebody buy such a thing? Americans spend billions of dollars every year on powerful cleaning agents that promise to get the dirt out of their clothes. Now, somebody was making money doing the exact opposite? What would Daisy Williams make of such madness – especially from someone who shared her last name?
These were the questions most on my mind last July, when I showed up at Randy’s manufacturing facility in Kauai. And the answers I got were tailor-made for Dirty Jobs. Here’s the short version.
In 1992, Randy Williams had a business in Arizona that supplied a number of clothing companies with “blanks,” or plain white tee-shirts. One of those companies was called Paradise Sportswear, a modest little operation in Kauai that sold custom tees to tourists. Business was good in Paradise, but came to an abrupt halt on September 11th of that year, when a nasty Hurricane called Iniki smashed into Kauai and rolled over everything in its path. The destruction was severe and widespread, and included the entire inventory of blanks that Randy had just shipped. Each and every one was now submerged in a thick layer of grime and sludge.
This was a devastating loss for a small business on a tight margin, and to avoid bankruptcy, the owners would need to somehow salvage their soiled blanks. That would require a massive cleaning operation. They tried Tide. They tried Clorox. They tried Bleach. No luck. In the long history of cleaners, there was simply nothing powerful enough to get the dirty stains out of their blanks. Had my great-grandmother been on hand, she might have invented a magical soap of some kind, or beaten the shirts into a state of cleanliness. Sadly, Daisy was not an option. Somebody would have to think way outside of the box, and happily, somebody did. A question was posed – What if the dirt in the shirts was not the problem? What if the dirt, was the solution?
It was a strange question, but not entirely crazy. In Kauai, red volcanic soil is everywhere, and notorious for staining whatever it touches. In fact, it’s the reason why people in Kauai remove their shoes before entering the house. The stains don’t come out of carpeting, or for that matter anything else. So, what would red dirt do to the dirty white shirts? Could it permanently dye the ruined shirts a uniform color?
That was a big question, and there was only one way to find out. Setting the detergents aside, washing machines were once again loaded with the grubby blanks, but this time, they were accompanied by shovelfuls of red dirt. Twenty minutes later, when the spin cycle was completed, the owners of Paradise beheld a minor miracle. Their blanks had been transformed – each one now dyed the same shade of rusty, faded buckskin. And better yet, when they came out of the dryer, the shirts were weirdly soft, almost like velvet. Back in Arizona, Randy was following the situation closely, and blown away by what he heard. In fact, he flew to Kauai to see the fate of his blanks for himself and must have liked what he saw. Because eventually, Randy wound up buying the company, and started to produce Original Red Dirt Shirts himself.
Today, Randy Williams runs the filthiest Laundromat in the country – and one of the all-time perfect settings for Dirty Jobs. He has filled a giant room with industrial strength washing machines, and launched the greatest perversion in the history of modern cleaning. Randy’s machines work round the clock, making clean shirts permanently dirty.
It’s a remarkable business. His employees are happy and hardworking. And his relationship with dirt, while no doubt baffling to my great-grandmother, is identical to my own. We spent the day together, laughed through most of it, and wound up with a great segment for the show. Then when the cameras stopped rolling, we opened a couple of beers and had a chat, which brings me to the point of this story.
Randy was already familiar with mikeroweWORKS, and had some very nice things to say about it. He also liked the mrW Foundation, and the fact that there were no banner ads or pop-ups anywhere on the site. Then, he wondered if he could ask a personal question.
“Sure,” I said. “Fire away.”
“What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve looked everywhere. I can’t find a line of T-shirts with your name on them. How is that possible? You’ve been on the air for five years. What are you waiting for?”
Randy is not the first to point this out. Many of you have expressed a certain amazement at my inability to make this happen sooner, and I can offer no good explanation for the delay, other than my general tendency to ignore all good ideas until the last possible moment, or until circumstances conspire to make the decision inescapable.
- “Well,” I said, “it’s something I’ve been meaning to do. I just haven’t gotten around to it.” Randy raised an eyebrow, and looked at me the way you do when you’re waiting for a small child to realize something very obvious.
“I mean, I know that I probably should, and I’m sure that I probably will. I just don’t really know how to go about it.” Randy raised the other eyebrow, and leaned forward in his chair.
“Let me spell it out for you. I’ll make ‘em for you, from the same pile of dirt you shoveled from today. I’ll ship ‘em, anywhere in the world. All you have to do is tell me what you want written on them. You’re fans will love it. And it’ll help pay for your website.”
I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. So I said, “What about a hat?” Randy laughed.
“Why stop there,” he said. “How about a whole line of mrW dirty swag?”
So, we had another beer, sorted out the details, and shook hands. Just like that. Sometimes, it really is that easy. The right guy, the right product, at the right time. I mean really, Mike Rowe on a shirt made from American dirt? Was there ever any doubt? Why fight providence?
The next day, I headed off to the next job, and Randy got busy putting my name in dirt. Naturally, he’s been true to his word, and thanks to him I can finally offer you a shirt that reflects my true nature, created by a kindred spirit, with a story I’m happy to tell.
Introducing: The Official mrW Red Dirt Shirt.
Get yours today, and keep it dirty.
Just don’t tell Daisy.