The downside of working a breakfast shift in a hotel restaurant is that I have to wake up at an hour when the rest of the city only rises to pee with dubious aim.
The upside is that I leave work while everyone else is trudging back from their lunch break. I smile sincerely then, walking in the platinum sunlight, knowing I’m no longer beholden to hotel policy.
“Apologize. Accommodate. Take ownership.”
That basic mantra is drilled into us at every opportunity. Showing any level of disapproval is the kiss of death in hospitality. Guests will complain, receive a mountain of complimentary shit, and you will be reprimanded at least, fired at most. You’re confined to either yielding to virtually every demand made of you, barring anything injurious, or disapproving so strongly you melt down, cursing every one of the sons of bitches who don’t seem to understand that gray hair should forbid you from childish behavior.
We opened two hours early the other day, to accommodate guests participating in a marathon. Most were vocally appreciative, and their appreciation was, in turn, appreciated by me. Being a psychology grad helps me to keep in mind that, generally, people are basically good. Being a hotel employee, though, also reminds me that some people are complete fucking shitty assholes.
There was the guy who barked his room number at one of our managers, an elderly lady with a very motherly disposition, then refused to sign or give his name. He was furious, you see, because it didn’t make sense to him that a latte requires steaming milk. “It’s only coffee!” he informed us, shoving another guest out of the way.
There followed then a guest who derided me for not putting the guy in his place. Clearly, it seems, nametags and polyester server’s clothes translate to an air of authority.
And there was the woman who refused to take a table number, because she would be “sitting right in front of you.” In hindsight, her running shorts and tennis shoes made her remarkably distinct amongst the other eighteen-quadrillion marathon runners crowding the counter. Explaining that I wouldn’t be bringing her food only confused her. “But you’re the one who rang me up.”
I mean, I get it. The pseudo-sexual thrill of imposing your will on another is harder to resist for some than it is for others. In a uniform, behind a register, I may as well be a somewhat glitchy automaton.
Later I made my way to a local Starbucks, and while tapping away at my laptop I was recognized by a guest, the one who thought I should have dispensed a moral lesson to the hothead.
“Why do you guys just take that?” he eventually asked.
“It’s a personal decision,” I told him. “The hotel requires a three day walkabout of its employees. When we come back we report to management how we intend to approach the matter of unruly guests.”
Not surprisingly, he figured out I was bullshitting him. He seemed put-off by it. “Hey, I’m only asking.”
“But why would you need to?”
“Don’t you have any self-respect?” I immediately decided I didn’t like him then. “I could never let someone behave like that around me!”
“You’re so full of fresh ideas! Would you like my job? I’m more than happy to set up an interview for you. We’re starved for servers.”
He chuckled, unsure. “Do I look like I need a waiting job?”
“I dunno. You’re awfully inquisitive about mine.”
“I’m just saying you should expect to be treated like a human being. Why are you giving me shit about that?”
“You’re right. I didn’t buy the entire Marriott Corporation to continue the mistakes of those who came before me. I should step up my game.”
He got up in a huff. “I’m sorry, jeez.”
“Feel better, big guy?”
My hero shook his head and walked out, his message to wage slaves magically not beholden to those who sign their checks ignored. I wondered how long it would take him to realize his audience didn’t actually exist.
Truthfully I felt bad about growling at him, but I was cranky and the guy had pushed me, even if he’d done so without realizing it. Did he think the sixty-year-old woman in the business suit behind me was my subordinate? We get verbal reprimands if we call them “customers” instead of “guests,” for Christ’s sake.
Some in management like to push the idea that we’re always representing our workplace, even off the clock, but seeing as I neglect to put on a dog leash when I leave for the day, I can’t really see how this philosophy can be enforced. Not that I haven’t been threatened for being less-than-courteous to another guest who recognized me outside of work.
“Hey!” the guest had said, all smiles. He held out a hand to shake mine. “You made my coffee this morning!”
“Poured it, actually,” I reminded him, “but surprisingly that’s the more intensive process.”
He laughed like we were buddies. Not three hours ago he’d rolled his eyes and asked me how long it took me to count to ten. He was “only ordering a coffee,” you see, a process he helpfully explained took less than ten seconds. I told him the cappuccino he’d ordered would take at least thirty to sixty seconds to prepare, since that’s the time it takes to steam the milk. He rolled his eyes again and said: “Well Christ, what for? How complicated is it for you to pour a coffee?”
“It needs to build foam,” I told him. “Would you just like an espresso shot?”
“I want what I ordered!” He was awfully unconcerned with the pitcher of boiling milk I was holding in my hand.
“Yes, sir!” I said. “Coming right up!”
In his eagerness to add to the insult, he’d snatched the drink from me, sighed heavily, and muttered “Jesus” as he waddled outside.
“Must be great to work there!” he beamed behind his blue sunglasses. “I would kill to be around that much coffee!”
“I can believe that.”
I waited for the “WALK” signal.
“So how long have you worked there?”
I regarded this man, who only regarded me as being worth respect once I was in clothes like his own. I looked back across the street.
“You like it?” He had laughter in his voice. Good-natured, like you would be with a friend.
“Fuck no,” I told him. There was a pause, and then bawdy, but unsure, laughter.
“I guess you guys are relaxed around there, huh?”
“Why do you say that?”
He shrugged. “Not many hotel workers curse in front of guests.”
“We’re not at the hotel though, are we?”
He paused. “What?”
“I’m not on the clock. I’m not even on property. Who do you think you are?”
He leaned in, and calmly asked me if I liked my job.
I started to fume. “I just answered that question, you fucking idiot!”
He threatened to contact my manager. You know, to tell him that a random man off hotel property who resembled an employee he off-handedly remembered wasn’t nice to him. I shrugged.
“You’re pretty shitty at your job, you know,” he added, needing the control a molded coffee counter had afforded him.
“Oh, I’m great at my job. But I’m off the job now, you see. So go fuck yourself.”
I outpaced him as we crossed, his curses gradually lost to traffic noise.
I remember a guest’s condescending tone as he explained Starbucks concepts to one of our baristas. I assume he figured we only maintained a We Proudly Brew kiosk because we hadn’t yet acquired the mastery necessary to maintain a full-service Starbucks stand. While he added cream, I made a point of referring to Starbucks as “the new McDonalds,” and voiced my hope that we could close early enough to grab a coffee at Dunn Bros.
Once, at a bar, I had a lady who recognized me from work ask me to make sure we brought extra towels to her room in the morning. I told her all my towels were back at my apartment, but she could probably get some in the hotel she was staying at. She didn’t seem to get it.
I don’t mind being reminded of where I work. But out of that uniform, off that property, it should be clear that your ability to exert your will over me has concluded for the day.
We’re neither separated in our roles nor complete in them. We work, we move on, we live. We will break our backs to service you, but your pedestal descends when we swipe our time card through the clock. Outside, all footfalls on the sidewalk sound the same.