Heads in Beds

The crinkly handshake…that’s what it’s much about. Not all. Courtesy, respect, and  patience are important, but for an upgrade or late-checkout privileges or a free bottle of wine, it’s the twenty primed in your palm that gains attention. A Ben — and you know him — generates serious service, but a Jackson will not be ill received.

Much of the beauty of Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds, the story of his years as a hotelier, presents this exchange not as a scam but as a dance; you give him some of your gwap — call it the redistribution of wealth — and he will hold you close and make you feel good, all from a deeply professional distance.

But first there was college, where Tomsky studied philosophy — which may have influenced this book more than he imagines — though he feels lost upon graduation. “Perhaps you’d think one main goal within the philosophy degree itself would be the ability to argue unequivocally why a philosophy degree is not a complete waste of time…. Garbage. My degree was garbage stuffed inside a trash can of student loans.” (Listen up, young scholars.) “So someone, some asshole, suggested I earn some money in hospitality,” and the story begins. He takes a job at a hotel in New Orleans as a valet; later, he moves to the front desk, learns how to conduct himself with decorum and a sense of class, and never without perspective: “Hotels are the brothels of today” — broadly and spiritedly speaking.

He moves to New York City — to the Bellevue — and cuts loose not just about the clientele, who are not anything more than you would expect from the New York City crowd, but about how to grace yourself the minibar, cop a free movie, strangle a late cancellation without a fee. Insider dope, and fun to learn how it works. Then about how disgusting guests can be, like animals at train station toilets. And,  more poignantly, how in any given room, behind any given door, someone’s life is on fire.

There are also the customers he likes, a small army of recidivists who arrive and depart like clockwork — including Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame, mooning about in his sad-happy fog, a handler at each elbow — and there is the ambience of the lobby, coaxed from cologne and rhinestones. There are hundreds of short stories he tells of hotel life, and under the sass, there is the pride that comes with doing a job well: “No agent will pocket a tip and just say thank you, not one who has a soul…. We have to earn our tips. I will do whatever I can to make you happy.”

When the Bellevue is purchased in a private equity buyout, you learn how something good and old-world, even if threadbare, becomes something raped of character, denied its means to deliver service and show its style, and through layoffs leached of the accumulated wisdom that doormen and bellmen and the host of staff have gained in the name of hospitality. Tomsky gets fired himself — he is way too independent an operator — which gives him time to start writing a book. He regains his job when the hotel workers’ union — and it is a wonderful thing to see so purposeful and effective a union — sticks its finger in private equity’s eye and retrieves him his position.
I couldn’t find a Hotel Bellevue in New York City, but Tomsky is out there somewhere, behind the desk and worth the finding. Don’t forget to bring along Mr. Jackson.