Young busboy learned a lot on the job

City Diary

January 08, 2003|By Scott Calvert

"YOU MOP well," Wayne Brokke told me one morning in the summer of 1987.

It wasn't the grandest compliment I'd ever heard, but I ate it up. I was 15, a rookie busboy, hungry for praise as I swabbed the floor of the Soup Kitchen restaurant at Harborplace.

Wayne - he was always Wayne, never Mr. Brokke - was the owner. That made him my first boss in the real world.

Not long ago, Wayne hung up the ladle and closed Wayne's Bar-B-Que because of poor sales, ending an era. Wayne is a Harborplace original who in 22 years ran three restaurants.

Word of his departure returned me to those busboy days - to the endless hours setting tables, clearing plates, hauling garbage, kibitzing with the many gay waiters, including the "queens" who'd belt out tunes.

I learned a lot from my employment debut after my freshman year at City College.

If you work hard, it feels good to earn honest pay even if you smell like a trashcan. If you mess up - say, by dumping water on a diner's head, as I did twice - don't run; apologize and move on. If, like most straight 15-year-olds, you've not spent much time with openly gay people, doing so helps to blunt society's stubborn homophobia.

And if you work at a place called the Soup Kitchen, expect panhandlers to come looking for free food. That confusion ended when it became W. Brokke's.

Wayne offered a kind of management tutorial. A bear of a man, he greeted everyone warmly, praised hard work. But when problems arose, his smile froze. When big problems arose, his face turned crimson; think Godzilla in a Hawaiian shirt. The man was passionate.

And kind. When I called him recently to tell him the mop story, he said he was weepy. By his count he'd hired 6,000 people. I was hardly the first to express gratitude, but I was touched that he was touched.

Happily, I never tested his patience. A busboy nicknamed Moose was less fortunate. He once brewed a pot of coffee but forgot to put the pot in the machine. He didn't last long.

The work was back-breaking. We were on our feet for hours, especially during lunch or dinner. A steady stream of tourists and conventioneers came to dine by Baltimore's pretty waterfront, then only a few years into its renowned revival.

My job required serious multitasking and periodic espresso shots. Even while watching over the dining room, we had to climb up to the loft for Bloody Mary mix, or get the bar more ice, or run the trash out to the big compactor on Light Street.

But there were rewards. Waiters were supposed to tip us 15 percent of their tips, and most seemed fairly honest. Many nights I rode the No. 3 bus back home to Original Northwood with a wad of $50 or $60 in my pocket. My all-time best take was $125, a gold mine at 15.

Non-monetary perks went beyond the pride of a job well done. If you schlepped a crate of lettuce for a chef, you might get a crab cake. You just had to hide in the walk-in fridge to eat it.

Some things I did were wrong and, to me now, unthinkable. For starters, I lied on my application. I needed experience to get a job, but without a job how could I get the experience? I took a dubious way out by making something up.

On the job, I sometimes dipped into prepared food in the walk-in. A fellow busboy once went to town on a whole pineapple. To satisfy my teen-age urge to drink, I stashed Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers in my backpack, to be consumed later.

I confessed my thievery to Wayne the other day. He was disappointed but proud I'd come clean, finally, and had realized it was wrong. He learned that lesson as a boy when he was caught stealing an eraser.

Mostly, my pal Jeremy and I behaved. And there were fun times. We had a front-row seat for Fourth of July fireworks and arriving Tall Ships. Long before the downtown ballparks, the convention center did big business. Whether it was the astrophysicists or actuaries, all seemed to eat at the harbor.

Quieter moments - a rainy Monday night, say - were the best. We'd banter with co-workers, gay and straight. They'd tell jokes and bemoan the waiter's life. Some sang.

There was Skip, a.k.a. Tia, the nighttime drag queen. And Don, forever crooning sappy songs. Sadly, a kind waiter named Tom later died of AIDS - yet another life lesson for me.

After a few summers, I left for college. Now I am back as a reporter covering the waterfront. Only now, when I walk down the busy promenade, a touchstone from my youth, and a mainstay of the city I knew, is gone.

Today's writer

Scott Calvert has been a reporter for more than eight years, three of them with The Sun. He was born and bred in the Original Northwood section of Baltimore.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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