Just some random thoughts about Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, a “confessions of a hotel employee” memoir. You can read proper reviews of Tomsky’s book at the NY Times or Slate. It’s a fast, entertaining read and I heartily enjoyed it.
1. The audiobook version is great. It’s read by the author, and he’s a good talker who can communicate the humor and snark in his story. I had read some print excerpts of the book before, and I think he might come across as a little more, I dunno — hostile? in print than he does when you hear him. It’s a very snarky, tongue-in-cheek book, but I didn’t think it was mean-spirited.
2. That said, I didn’t care for the ethnic accents Tomsky imitates when describing encounters with foreign guests. The book was engaging enough that I let it go, but it is really obnoxious. I understand the print version actually renders in Engrish the speech of some Japanese tourists. That’s racist!
3. The consumer protips in the book boil down to two basic instructions. One: BE NICE. Even (or especially when) something goes wrong. You’re basically at the mercy of the hotel staff during your stay, and they have a high level of control over your experience. They can do things for you, or to you, that you won’t even know were done on purpose. Unlike other service experiences, like a restaurant or hair stylist, you’ll be in this place for a long time — hours or days — with basically your entire life in the hands of the staff. If there’s any service situation where it’s in your best interests to treat the employees well, it’s a hotel.
4. Two: TIP GENEROUSLY. As much flak as Tomsky’s gotten from hoteliers for telling readers how to cheat the minibar and get free in-room movies, this book is a huge boon to hotel employees, if for no other reason than that it’s almost like a book-length argument for tipping hotel employees. Tomsky’s anecdotes about valets, doormen, bellmen and housekeepers desperately hustling for tips — and being stiffed on a regular basis — are both evocative and deeply shaming.
5. Shame aside, Tomsky lays down a compelling rationale for why one tips at hotels in the first place. The guest and the employees have specific roles within the massive service-generating machine that is a hotel. The role of the employee is to provide service. The role of the guest is to provide money.1 This is the essence of the relationship. The relationship works best when both parties give generously and there’s a quid pro quo — the guest gives money, the employee gives service, and in a hotel the ceiling for how much the staff can do for you can be breathtakingly high. The relationship breaks down, however, when one party doesn’t hold up their end. If the hotel’s taking care of you, but you’re not taking care of the hotel, or vice versa, it’s a bummer. Ideally, both parties uphold their end of the social contract, and everyone’s happy.
6. As in any service industry tell-all worth the price of admission, Tomsky relates some entertaining stories of celebrity encounters. In some of them, the celebrity is unidentified, presumably in order to avoid lawsuits. This makes for a fun puzzle game of “Identify the Secret Celebrity.”
I spent a lot of time trying to identify one celebrity from a wacky anecdote wherein the Famous Actor requested five of the hotel’s silver potpourri bowls, which Tomsky provided at great effort, only to discover that the Famous Actor only wanted them to eat cereal out of. Later, when the Famous Actor has to extend his stay but has to change rooms because his room is booked, he forces the hotel staff to move all of his stuff, and doesn’t help or even acknowledge or thank anyone. What a dick!
I’m pretty sure I figured out who the Famous Actor was, though. The clues: (a) he was famous during Tomsky’s teen years; (b) he’s best known for his teen movies; (c) he was making a movie in New Orleans during his stay. Tomsky is 34, so he would have been a teenager in the early to mid 1990s. Tomsky started working in this hotel not long after graduating from college, and this incident happened fairly early on in his career, so this probably happened in the early 2000s.
Going through a list of films shot in New Orleans around that time, and checking the cast of some prominent productions for actors who were famous in the early 90s and known for their “classic teen movies,” I came up with John Cusack, who starred in 2003′s The Runaway Jury, set and shot in New Orleans, as a promising suspect. But is John Cusack known to be a somewhat eccentric asshole? Apparently, yes. Based on the clues, I’m 90% sure it’s Cusack.
7. I identified another jerky celebrity guest as Tim Burton, but it wasn’t very hard.
8. I’m trying to figure out the actual name of the hotel Tomsky worked at, that takes up the bulk of his narrative. He refers to it by a pseudonym, “The Bellevue.” Some clues provided: it’s an old, historical hotel in Midtown New York, that was once fairly grand but faded over the years; he claims it’s a couple of blocks from Times Square; it was bought by a private equity firm and (poorly) renovated, staying open during the renovation; Elton John had some part of his 60th birthday celebration there; Brian Wilson lived there. I’m working diligently on this, and hoping someone more familiar with New York figures it out, but all I got is Google and it’s a dead certainty that Tomsky gives at least a few phony facts about the place, or else it’d be too easy to identify (I think the false clue, or one of them, is the “two blocks from Times Square.”) My current prime suspect is the Helmsley Carlton House (bought by a private equity firm in 2010, then renovated), but I’m probably wrong. Well played, Mr. Tomsky.
9. There’s also a “nice” celebrity story about a famous actor identified as “Mr. H.” I’m just taking a wild guess that it might be Dustin Hoffman, since he also starred in The Runaway Jury and is rumored to be a nice guy in person. (Plus, the man once saved a complete stranger’s life.)
10. Something not directly related to the hotel business that I got from Tomsky’s book: he gives probably the most concise and illuminating description I’ve read anywhere about the character of New Yorkers. Tomsky says (I’m broadly paraphrasing) that New York chips away at you, day after day. Eventually, it chips away everything extraneous, all the bullshit, until you’re reduced to your core self — whoever you really are. But if you stay there too long, it continues to cut away parts of you until you start to feel diminished, and you have to get away or find some way to deal with it. I’ve never lived in New York City — only visited once — so I have no idea how accurate this is, but when I think of New Yorkers I’ve met, it seems to describe them pretty well. New Yorkers have a reputation for being pricks, but I’ve found that to be untrue. The ones I’ve met have come across as pretty genuine people who have zero tolerance for bullshit or time-wasting. Anyway, I’ve never thought of New Yorkers the way Tomsky describes them. Interesting!