Friday, August 7, 2009

on hospitality: work, service, life, and the collapse of everything

"The time is out of joint:--O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to bitch about it!--

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene V


So we have recently returned from the Great East Coast Road Trip. Which wasn't much of a road trip and really more of an effort to keep a 3 month old baby out of an airplane and its foul recirculated air. Anyway, on our first night we stayed at a chain motel booked on and had requested there be a crib in his room. Gina actually called the hotel (Days Inn West Broad, Richmond, VA) and spoke to someone who assured us that there would be a crib in our room. There was no crib.

We asked at the front desk when we arrived and she rudely informed us that there was nothing on her printout of our reservation and since she had only been in the hotel for a year, there was no way she could find where they kept the cribs. We headed up to the room to see if there was someway that we could jury-rig a bed from our luggage and those depressing hotel comforters. We eventually did. But first Gina got fed up with the prospect of having to and went back to the front desk to demand from the surly incompetent that she provide us with the crib we had ordered. After what I was informed were strong words and a competent manager on the phone it was discovered that this hotel did not, in fact, possess any cribs. Despite offering them to guests, allowing them to be reserved and counted upon, there were no cribs in the whole of the establishment and we were shit out of luck.

While Gina was downstairs finding all this out, I happened to notice that the trash had not be emptied since the last guest and, to cap off this absurd farce, there was a half finished bottle of Budweiser Select in the fridge. Needless to say I gave the hotel a bad review online, and we didn't stay there on the way back. [Note: the following night we stayed in a Days Inn in Port Wentworth, GA and it was far superior, so this is in no way a condemnation of the chain.]

Anyway, the whole experience got me thinking about hospitality, about service. About the hospitality and service industries and about the industrialization of hospitality and service. I have come to realize that we (the post-industrial West) have lost our sense of hospitality, the meaning of service. We have disassociated the act from its essence. I imagine that there are plenty of people who think of retiring to the country, opening a b&b and offering to the world their measure of genteel hospitality. But I highly doubt the majority of employees at chain hotels consider themselves innkeepers and I doubt that many who consider themselves innkeepers would want to locate their establishment across the street from the corporate headquarters of Altria [you know, that company that used to be Philip Morris].

Now, I am not going to discount the whole of the hospitality industry just because of one surly night manager, but it does raise some issues that I have been thinking about for a while. It isn't that people don't want to serve, don't want to offer hospitality, don't want to fill those jobs that exist to help others. It's that the positions have all become industrialized, sanitized, and sterilized in the worst possible ways. (And this from a man who questions the legitimacy of authenticity as a possibility in the postpost world.)

Everything has become a means to something else. There are no longer any ends. We work a job not for the job but for the paycheck, the paycheck for the rent on the apartment we keep because it is close to the schools or that coffee shop or its cheap, for the food that is completely divorced from the plants and animals that (might have) given rise to it. There are no longer any ends. A night manager at a chain hotel isn't an innkeeper, just a lady who found a job that pays that she can (almost) handle. And I don't really begrudge her for that. She wasn't the one who promised us the crib that didn't exist. She wasn't the one who turned innkeeping into the commodified disaster that it is. People take to the roads and airways, capitalism demands it whether for business or the pleasure of spending. People need places to stay. Those places need people to perform the menial tasks. Because someone who keeps an inn out of love doesn't want anything to do with this kind of hotel. And you can't really blame someone caught in the system for the ills of the system.

It's the "take pride in your work" nonsense left over from the protestant ethic that says "any work is good work" and "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well". I disagree. Why should a cog worry about how well the machine runs if the cog doesn't stand to benefit either way? I recently read The Hacker Ethic (hacker here used mainly as a stand-in for anyone running counter to the norm with a few nominal ties back to its computer roots) which makes the claim for doing what you love and that it has become more commonplace and more readily possible to get away with it. Personally I don't agree with the pride in your work nonsense. Not unless you really do love you job, are actually proud of what you do and the impact it has on the world. And I think that employers should recognize and accept that an employee can and will do a good job at whatever task they are assigned and performance is not necessarily related to whether or not one cares about what that task is. Pretending to love a job you hate is the worst kind of employee morale. What a god awful expectation. So it's not that I believe that beleaguered hotel night managers should have more pride in their work, should endeavor to offer the height of hospitality, but rather that people who are not prepared or willing or desiring to offer the height of hospitality shouldn't be hotel managers.

There is merit to the claim that some may raise that they do not hate (and in fact even like what they do, they enjoy their jobs, their homes, their lives and lifestyles) and that very well may be true. Some people are lucky. But there is a vast abyss between enjoying what you do and doing what you love. It's like that oh so catchy but oh so depressing Creedence lyric "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." Enjoying your life seems, in this case, to be making the best of a bad situation, adapting the ever adaptable human spirit to a condition imposed externally. The world got out of our control (if we ever really had any and I don't much think we did) and the dissociative power of capitalism ran away with everything. In the past, it was just work that was the commodity. The workers could rise up to take control of the means and modes of production. Marx had it easy. Nowadays life is a commodity. There is no use value left in anything, just exchange value. And it's goddamn depressing.

I suppose this also raises the point about what the American Dream has become, what the average person most desires from life. Given the profusion of celebrity magazines, celebrity tv shows, celebrity websites, celebrity gossip, celebrity impersonators, celebrity worship and the fact that people just want to be famous these days (who the fuck cares what for) it is no wonder that life has become the dreary means of accepting failure. If our dreams no longer contain "ends", if our deepest desires (what we would do if money were no object & if rejection were not on the table) are only to be recognized in public places and automatic entry into VIP rooms, no wonder everything else is falling apart. Does no one want to create anymore? Hell, does no one want to destroy even? No? Just to be and be famous? How mind-numbingly dull and insidious. I don't feel sorry for your misery, for your obvious failure, and less obvious failure to realize.

OK, so that is really the bleak "repent, sinners" forecast of the day's weather. And while I am no weatherman ...

It's not that there is no hope, there is. The Hacker Ethic and various other books are all about that hope. About that hope for normal people really being able to do what they love instead of having to pretend to love what they do. You can get out, opt out of the system and make a go at turning your life back to something with ends rather than just means. If you are lucky. Or have enough money, have exploited enough people, treated them as commodities for long enough to have amassed enough wealth to tell the world to fuck off. But it ain't easy even then. Opening up an inn or a restaurant or a coffee shop or a bar because you really love serving people that perfect cocktail, that amazing 3-course meal, that perfect cappuccino, that comforting experience of home away from home is no easy game. Ever. It has broken a great many people. But I suppose the options in the end become: choose one or the other and learn to live with your decision. Otherwise you are just another cog in an ever more boring machine that is long overdue for a tune up.

1 comment:

euterpe's bitch said...

honestly, i think maybe that bitch just called her husband or her friend bubba or whatever to agree with her that no such cribs ever existed, because if every other goddamned days inn we stayed in that trip had cribs, dollars to donuts that one did too, and fatty mc lazypants was too . . . well, lazy to get us one. if it hadn't been almost 1am, i might have gotten more aggressive still.