A hotel would be perfect … if it wasn’t for the guests

This is an advance review of Heads in Bed – A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), which will become available November 20, 2012.

Jacob Tomsky is his real name. In this book, he calls himself Thomas Jacobs. He spent more than a decade in the hotel business, and in Heads in Beds he lets it all out.

Since I teach philosophy, I was thrilled to learn that Tomsky majored in philosophy in college. So, you can add hospitality to the list of possible positions one can obtain with such a degree. His appreciation of that choice of a degree is somewhat lacking, however: “My degree was garbage stuffed inside a garbage can of student loans.”

Perhaps. But one thing is for sure. That degree shows through in his writing, which is outrageous, hilarious, enlightening, and filled with insight into the human condition. If, that is, you call some of the people he had to deal with on a daily basis “human.” He might disagree.

His career began in valet service in one of New Orleans’ finest hotels, and his talents soon came to the notice of management and, before you could say “Laisser les bon temps roleur,” he found himself working the front desk. A move to New York opened up new possibilities for him, in housekeeping and then, once again, at the front desk.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I suppose a lot of people will recognize themselves in it. After all, for many frequent travelers, the guy at the front desk is nothing more than a functionary. But, if you treat them that way, you might pay the price.

Heads in Beds is filled with tips about the right–and wrong–ways to get good service. One sure fire way is to treat the hotel staff like human beings (Thomas cites people who continue talking on their cell phones while checking in, as though the desk clerk is a non-entity).

There are some very bad things that can happen when you treat bellmen badly. Thomas relates how one bellman, when he was stiffed after taking fourteen bags up to an NFL player’s room, snuck in later and relieved himself in one of his bottles of cologne. The bellman smiled later that evening as the guest strolled out with his date smelling of … his brand name cologne (with the added bouquet of the new ingredient).

In the appendix there is a list of things you should never say, and never do, which is a sine qua non for frequent travelers.

One thing comes through in this book very clearly. Even though Thomas details the various scams that hotel personnel can engage in in order to get some of your money into their pockets, in tandem with the doormen and the bellman, he comes across as a hard-working, and even principled young man. He might not agree with this, but it’s hard to cover up when you are a philosophy major. For example, it’s not always about money. If you treat your wife with disrespect, or jerk your kids around while you are checking in, you will set Thomas off and you might just find that that room overlooking Central Park you were originally booked in now becomes a room with a view of the parking lot. Subtle, but effective. And you will never really know the difference.

And if you really honk off a bellman, he just might request a “key bomb” from the desk clerk. You’re going to have to read the book to find out what that is. And, once again, you will never really know the difference.

Through all of this, there is one thing that comes across very clearly. People who work in hospitality for a living, like all human beings who work for a living, are deserving of respect. They get it from one another, for the most part, even if they don’t get it from their guests. So, next time you feel entitled because you have decided to bless a hotel with your business for one night, and feel free to treat them as though they are your indentured servants, think twice.

You may just find yourself wearing a whole new scent of cologne when you walk out.

This is a very entertaining, and informative book. “Guests who really know tip the desk.” And, in spite of his disappointment over his choice of a college degree, his writing betrays more than just quick wit, apt description, and street-wise banter. For example, when he returns to New Orleans after Katrina for a long weekend he reflects on life itself.

New Orleans, the storm…the river; they all reminded me not to take anything for granted. It all washes away, and we are washed away with it. So when the ground is steady and the sky is clear, we should breathe deep until our lungs inflate against our ribs and hold in that one breath until we are light-headed with the privilege of being alive. The absolute privilege of being human.

The next time I check into a hotel and learn that the desk clerk majored in philosophy, I will drop him or her a twenty. Maybe I’ll get an upgrade, maybe not. Either way, it will be worth it!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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