Be Our Guest

A longtime hotel employee pulls back the curtain on the business of hospitality.

Illustration by Lilli Carré.

The novel sensation that unites any trip—business or pleasure—is how quickly the hotel becomes home. You swipe your keycard, flop face down on the bed, root around the minibar for snacks you won’t eat, and assess the shampoo situation. Within moments you’ve memorized the contours of your suite as though it were a childhood bedroom, and you treat it as such—leaving laundry in piles and neglecting to turn the TV off.

This is common sentiment. Wayne Koestenbaum refers to the hotel’s “sluttish core,” and Geoff Dyer, in his fantastic essay on sex in hotel rooms, writes that in a hotel “you become a non-person and are granted an ethical equivalent of diplomatic immunity.” (Although maybe not if you’re Dominique Strauss-Kahn.) That ease is of course thanks to the teams of polyester-suited employees whose job is to maintain this adolescent unreality. The systemic sleights of hand that make up hotel life—many of them nefarious—are chronicled in Jacob Tomsky’s new book, Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality. Tomsky’s M.O. is profane populism, and with it he cracks open hotelier extraordinaire Cesar Ritz’s maxim that “people like to be served, but invisibly.” In so doing, Tomsky offers up insider tips, galling confessions, and just enough smut.

If Kitchen Confidential dissuaded you from ever ordering mussels again (remember how they “wallow in their own foul-smelling piss”?), then Heads in Beds will make you question the sparkliness of complimentary flutes of champagne (shined with furniture polish) and pause before spraying your own cologne (potentially tainted with an employee’s vengeful urine). Never again will you wonder why, when visiting New York, the phone in your room rang off the hook: You were rude when checking in and given room 1212 as punishment—people forget to dial 9 to get out.

Tomsky, who worked his way up from valet in New Orleans to Manhattan front-desk agent, is part shaman (“I was infinite. All things to all people.”) and part Patrick Bateman (“Service is about minimizing negatives and creating the illusion of perfection”). “Hotels are methadone clinics for the travel addicted,” he writes, and indeed, the book follows him to Europe and back again. However humiliating and tedious his duties, Tomsky remains resilient. What seems to buoy him despite rude patrons, incompetent managers, and deluded celebrities is the promise of outsize creative returns. Constant cordiality is taxing, but there’s no arguing the fact that the infinite stream of guests makes for good fodder—Faulkner too worked a front desk, after all, and Nathanael West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts during his night shift.

Tomsky’s anecdotes are endless: a co-worker learning to drive stick shift on a guest’s overnight ticket, a Pepsi exec who rents a block of rooms for a convention and demands that the Cokes be removed from all the minibars. And the fun facts are bountiful: Hotels’ no-show rate averages 10 percent, which means hotels try to always book at 110 percent capacity. “Putting a head in every bed,” writes Tomsky, “is called a ‘perfect sell.’ ”

The book, which charmingly has no 13th chapter, is cut through with detours, many of them more interesting than Tomsky’s actual memoir. Early on, he gives a microhistory of hotels in America, which were nonexistent until after George Washington embarked on his first presidential tour and insisted—for the optics—on staying at local taverns rather than with friends. He was disgusted with his lodgings, and a new industry was born. Later, we get the origin story of the wheeled suitcase and a riff on how it “instigated a catastrophic change,” turning now-obsolete bellmen into “anachronistic hunters” who “roam the plains of lobbies across the world, starving for a kill.”

At his best, Tomsky is at once fratty and industry-specific: An occupational hazard of hotel work is “getting a Samsonite to the balls.” But he can also be unexpectedly literary, as when he compares hotel hallways to ghost towns, “doors wedged open by abandoned carts, not a houseman to be found.” Mostly though, he’s the guy who saddles up next to you at the hotel bar and doesn’t stop talking.

Though almost cartoonishly obscene, Tomsky is not particularly prurient. He speculates that one frequent guest is a prostitute and talks about finding “bondage gear still attached to a towel holder that had been ripped out of the wall.” He mentions purposeful robe slips and “guests who must have heard me knock, guests who seemed to climax at my embarrassment.” But otherwise, he’s less excited by imagining guests’ sexual appetites than he is enraged by their rudeness. It’s possible Tomsky is just desensitized, having spent his entire adult life proximate to people who are aroused, if only circumstantially. But it’s a shame that the book isn’t sexier.

Tomsky’s freewheeling swagger—“Kidnap me, duct tape my face, drop me out of a plane, and I promise you I will land in a parking lot adjacent to a hotel and in less than a day I’ll be wearing a suit, assisting guests, earning a nice check, and making friends at the local bar”— can feel, at times, like overcompensation for the fact that his life has not much changed. He still works at a hotel, and as in any tragicomedy, escape seems impossible. Heads in Beds is not a redemptive tale, nor is it told with much distance. Mostly—though tacitly and maybe unintentionally—it’s about the degree to which youthful inertia can determine a whole life.

Author Jacob Tomsky.

Author Jacob Tomsky.

Courtesy of the author.

For a brief moment, Tomsky considers quitting the racket and getting a job in publishing. But no luck: “I had been like some prostitute trying to get a secretarial position, only to have the interviewer come around the desk, get uncomfortably close, maybe lay an inappropriate hand on my knee, and say, ‘Look. You’re a whore. You’re a good whore. Why don’t you stop messing around and get back to working the corner, huh? Come on, baby, it can’t be that bad, can it?’ ”

Tomsky abridges his book at the end, offering a series of explanatory “appendixes” (sic?): “Things a Guest Should Never Say,” “Things a Guest Should Never Do,” “Standard LIES That Spew from the Mouth of a Front Desk Agent,” etc. And while the précis is fun, it’s arguably self-defeating: It’s like getting all the good bits from Tomsky’s surely-hoped-for Today show appearance, while rendering the previous 234 pages a bit moot. But the duration—and the abrasiveness—is necessary. All of the incremental injuries that Tomsky suffers are accrued on account of our pleasure. Heads in Beds is a humane book, if not in its motivation, then in its effect. Read it, and you will never not tip again.

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