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Confessions and pointers of a luxury hotel employee

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Heads up! We've got a book about heads this week, "Heads in Beds," by Jacob Tomsky (Doubleday, $25.95).

But first a brief dissertation on what I like to call the "insider" novel, which has been around for centuries. One of the first is "Moll Flanders." In which Daniel DeFoe gets inside the life of a prostitute and con artist to tell readers what goes on in the life of Moll. Tons of such novels have followed. Think of Arthur Haley, who wrote of the innerworkings of a luxury hostelry in "Hotel," as well as a wintry slide on the runways of Minneapolis' Wold Chamberlain in "Airport."

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Speaking of Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis made a living writing insider novels which he painstakingly researched. We learn about med school and doctors in "Arrowsmith," the theatrical world in "Bethel Merriday," real estate agent in "Babbitt," evangelicals in "Elmer Gantry" and more on hotels in "Work of Art."

More recently, a spate of non-fiction books has appeared, in which employees and former employees lay down their aprons and talk about what it's like to be a chef, a waiter, a stewardess. Anthony Bourdain made it big a few years back telling readers how to deal with New York restaurants, based on his experiences running a famous New York Bistro. (Ex. Don't order fish on Mondays because it hasn't been fresh since Friday.) Then came ...Steve Dublanica, who wrote "Waiter Rant," about what irritates and/or pleases New York waiters. (Example: niggardliness/generosity)

As a former hotel employee I jumped at today's book, "Heads on Beds," whose author went to work parking cars at a luxury hotel in New Orleans because, having earned his college degree in philosophy, there were no other jobs open to him. (He's bitter about that.) The auto valet works hard at his new job -- taught by the blacks and Hispanics he works with. He learns fast and is promoted to front desk clerk and on to a management position in "housekeeping."

Along the way, he tells readers of his adventures and misadventures with two bit customers who should know better, cunning employees who give him good advice that he doesn't take. One elderly car parker tells him not take a promotion to "management" (housekeeping). "Try to get on as a bellman. They're the ones who make the real money."

Not all hotel customers are awful, just some of them. One famous actor checks into his suite and tells the old black housekeeper not to bother cleaning his suite. The suite is fine, he says, you just sit down for an hour and listen to me play the piano.

As with any insider non-fiction, there are lots of tips for readers about beating the system. If you know the system, argues author Tomsky, you can beat it. Sometimes, he says, it's cheaper to go with a luxury suite than a standard room. Just make sure you drink all the drinks provided and eat the complimentary meals. After a day or two, the extra tariff will begin to pay for itself.

My favorite technique comes in the chapter about the overpriced minibar in your room. He says if you get a charge on your bill and you haven't used it, call and refuse to pay. They'll cancel the charge because they have no way of knowing if you've used it. Same goes for if you HAVE used the mini bar. Just tell them you haven't and they'll erase the charge. His most egregious example deals with how to rob your mini bar. When you check in make sure you get a non-smoking room. When you get to the room, light up a cigarette and smoke it in the room. Then open the mini-bar and put everything in it in your suitcase. Then call the desk and say you got a smoking room and demand that you and your suitcase be moved.

Caveat: This technique will not work on some of the new hi-tech fridges that WEIGH everything in them.

And how to beat that? If you want a drink, pull out a miniature of Jack Daniel's, drink it down. Fill the empty bottle with water and put it back in the fridge within 30 seconds, after which time the scale will register an absent miniature of whiskey in accounting.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.

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