Here’s the thing about being a waitress or waiter or bartender—a “server” in restaurant industry parlance: It’s seriously hard work that often goes unappreciated. Andrea Clarke ’14 knows this first-hand; she’s spent several summers working in server roles at various Baltimore establishments, from Applebee’s and Greene Turtle to an airport Hilton. When she was asked to come up with a story idea for her summer internship at WYPR in Baltimore, she thought about all the people she’s met who make a living by waiting on customers.
“Some of my best life lessons I learned in the weeds, whether from a very rude co-worker or a very supportive manager. So it was great to give a voice and show appreciation for these people who usually aren’t given a second glance,” she says. “The idea for my story came from personal experience, but also a reverence for blue-collar, unglamorous work. And it turned out my guess was correct: There is a lot of talent hidden in these often mundane jobs.”
Clarke, an English major with a minor in drama, sought the internship at WYPR (88.1 FM) because she thought radio would combine her interests in performance and storytelling. She obtained funding through the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows and spent three months at the station, shadowing producers, transcribing interviews, and learning the ropes of non-profit radio. (A Nina Houghton Fund grant also enabled her to intern at 98 Rock, a for-profit station, for part of the summer. Alisha Knight, who is an associate professor of English and the department’s internship coordinator, worked closely with Clarke to arrange both internships and supervised her projects so she could earn academic credit.)
Aaron Henkin, co-creator and producer of WYPR’s The Signal, a weekly program focused on Maryland’s arts and culture, asked her to come up with a story idea. “We decided that my strongest and most engaging story was about the waiters and waitresses in Baltimore City and what it was really like. I would be answering the question, who is really serving you?”
Clarke interviewed six people from a diverse group of restaurants. “The response was amazing and quite honestly humbling,” she says. “I had people crying, laughing, telling me things that happened.”
In one of the most moving stories, a waiter (whose rich Greek accent and wonderful descriptions give you goosebumps) recounts how on a busy Saturday night the phone rang, and his sister was on the other end, telling him that their mother had just died. His voice grows husky as he describes being so stricken that he crushed a glass in his hand. Then, because he was the host, he headed for the door to greet customers. “I had to smile at them,” he says, “because I could not reveal to them what was going on within me.”
In another story, a waitress tells of six thoroughly drunk out-of-towners who decided to take every ketchup bottle in the place and squirt the contents on themselves, the booths, the floors, other customers, the windows. “There was ketchup everywhere,” she says, “but they did give me a sixty-dollar tip.”
Clarke learned how to set up and use audio recording gear, then learned the software to edit five hours of interviews down to eight minutes of story. “It was challenging because I became so invested in these people, I wanted everything to be heard,” she says. “They placed a lot of trust in me. I felt a lot of pressure, but it was good pressure. I knew I had a great story on my hands.”