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heads in beds

28 december 2013

Heads in Beds has drawn inevitable comparisons to Kitchen Confidential: just as Anthony Bourdain's metaculinary classic told you things you didn't want to know about restaurants, Jacob Tomsky's recent hospitality exposé will tell you what you don't want to know about hotels.

But just as I wasn't put off eating in restaurants by Kitchen Confidential, I doubt I will stop staying in hotels because of Heads in Beds. In fact, while I was reading Tomsky's book, I remembered that I needed to book a hotel reservation for next summer, got on the phone, and did (and was extra-nice to the front desk agent).

One of the consoling things about both books, despite their accounts of drunk-and-disorderly chaos behind the scenes, is that a customer who simply wants service, and isn't fixing to be a pain in the neck about it, is perfectly OK by the staff of the given business, and generally treated politely and given what they came in for (shrimp, sleep).

Bourdain rarely mentions customers at all, except to spew venom on vegetarians and folks who order well-done steaks. Once the food leaves his hands, who cares how it goes down. Tomsky, naturally, has to exist under the same roof with his customers the whole time they're consuming his service, so the relation is a little trickier. Heads in Beds is in part an account of how he punishes them, even pre-emptively, for a litany of sins. (The memoir ends with Tomsky still working at the front desk, but I wonder if that's still the case now that his writing career is in full gear.)

I've never felt punished in a hotel, and if I have been, I doubt I'd pay any attention. But then, I'm not the kind of guest who stays in a hotel in order to enjoy the hotel. I want to walk around San Francisco or Budapest and spend as little time as possible in the hotel. The more I remember of the accomodations, the worse time I had.

Tomsky, though, is a veteran of the luxury trade, where $100 tips are standard. Excess on the part of both clientele and staff is the order of the day. Tomsky aligns a personal descent with a socioeconomic ascent: not that he's making a lot more money as the book goes on, but that he serves richer and richer customers for a more and more predatory and pedantic management.

The management of the "Bellevue" (as Tomsky dubs his New York employer) is pedantic because its predations depend on ousting union employees and replacing them with interchangeable, powerless beginners. The book is an interesting take on organized labor issues in the US. All the caricature reasons to both love and hate unions are packed into vivid anecdotes. Many American workplaces are headed in the same direction as Tomsky's hotels – even universities and hospitals, long the bastion of independent and secure professionals. Managers prescribe every interaction with customers, aiming at reducing jobs to automatic followings of protocol (when they can't be eliminated in favor of "technology" altogether). Nothing is worse for these management groups than senior folks who are entrenched by union status or tenure.

And of course, entrenchment breeds abuses of the privilege, many of which Tomsky recounts here. But he gets on the reader's good side by assuring us that he's on a good hotel guest's side. The personal touch in service, Tomsky insists, isn't entirely bullshit. It involves mutual backscratching (those $100 tips), but it establishes customer loyalty and enlists those facial muscles that make it easier to smile than frown. Management doesn't want to hear about that. They want heads in beds, or gallbladders out of bellies, or rearends in seats. They want to make obscene profits, sell out, retire at 45 and spend the rest of their lives wrangling with luxury-hotel desk agents. One sees how the cycle reinforces itself.

Tomsky, Jacob. Heads in Beds: A reckless memoir of hotels, hustles, and so-called hospitality. 2012. New York: Anchor [Random House], 2013.