Checking in: Jacob Tomsky (who went to high school in Asheville) offers a fun, fast-paced and sometimes scandalous behind-the-scenes look at the hotel industry. His memoir is a good read for anyone who’s ever worked or stayed in a hotel. photo by James Slater
Jacob Tomsky returns to Asheville with his hospitality industry memoir, Heads in Beds
who: Jacob Tomsky
where: Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café
when: Thursday, Nov. 29 (7 p.m., free. http://malaprops.com)
Welcome aboard. Of this seemingly innocuous phrase, author Jacob Tomsky muses, “Does every new boss in every new job say this? Or just hotel gigs? … As if getting hired were similar to stepping onto a yacht, which it isn’t (unless you’re boarding the yacht to clean the toilets).” And so goes Tomsky’s snarky-smart debut, Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality (Doubleday), just released and already wracking up major press, including a New York Times review, and interviews on “Good Morning America” and “20/20.”
Tomsky (who went to high school in Asheville and now lives in Brooklyn) culled his book from a decade or so of on-the-ground work-turned-research in hotels. He began his hospitality career as a valet parking attendant when he was just out of college ("Valet 4 Life, motherf—kers," he crows as he gets promoted); but even as he climbed the ranks through front-desk and management positions, what he really wanted was to be a writer.
The end justifies the mean, though Heads is equal parts love letter to and calling out of the guest service industry. So much that Tomsky admits he was “really secretive about the whole thing,” not even sharing the book with his closest hotel friends prior to its publication. “There will be a lot of bellmen and doormen at the book release and they can all decide at once whether or not I did a good job and represented them well,” he says.
While Tomsky doesn’t spare egos in his tell-all (he does change names, including those of the properties where he was employed), he does take up for those who have the least authority. The person changing your sheets, the person carrying your luggage. And he delights in sharing trade secrets like the “key bomb” and the assigning of room 1212 (in a Manhattan hotel, that room is forever bombarded with phone calls as other guests attempt to make local calls in the 212 area code).
“I am a god of instant karma. Instant. No waiting for it to kick in. … If a guest makes a racist comment about a cabdriver, the backlash comes now,” Tomsky writes at one point, while working as a front-desk agent.
Heads (completely addictive from page one) gets better as Tomsky grows more miserable in his role. The more resentful he becomes of his employers, the better he works the system and the worse he behaves. “People get really sick of this job,” he tells Xpress. “The only reason I stayed was because I was constantly working on my writing and the hotel kept paying my bills.”
But, also, he was good at his job. Tomsky attributes his acumen in part to growing up in a military family. Moving around a lot made him a shape-shifter, able to fit in with and anticipate the needs of all sorts of people. And, as he writes, “Once a hotel whore, always a hotel whore. I had been like some prostitute trying to get a secretarial position. …Why don’t you stop messing around and get back to working the corner, huh?”
Without giving away the ending, Heads leaves Tomsky still employed. In fact, he finally escaped the hotel business after signing his book deal. But the idea for the memoir (a collection of lists, tips and observations in its original draft) came to him while he was still working at the front desk. “There was a moment where I had all these insane guest stories and celebrity stories. Also, I was standing in a lobby where people were checking in, checking out, getting their credit cards declined, arguing with a manager, trying to find a lost bag,” he says. “I was like, ‘I understand everything that’s going on, from both the guest’s and employee’s perspective.’ At that point I started to take notes.”
Tomsky says that writing the book was both cathartic and nostalgic — and he does wonder what hotel management will make of his leaked secrets. Want to know how to get out of a cancellation fee or empty your minibar for free? Read Heads. “I’m not telling you to steal,” Tomsky says. He’s just telling you how it could be done.
Though, if too many people try Tomsky’s tricks, it could backfire: “If this books gets some decent exposure, there will be some dubious front-desk agents,” he says.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.