It all started five years ago.
This guy, whom we shall call Bob, took a job that entailed sitting in a small cubicle with a computer and a telephone in a large office building in downtown Phoenix. About 40 times a day, that phone would ring and on the other end would be a discontented, irate, upset, agitated, frustrated person.
Sometimes the cause of this distress was justified, sometimes not, but it always had something to do with problems encountered in motels. Motels you have probably stayed in, eight or ten of the biggest midlevel-franchise chains around the country--but, at Bob's request, we shan't name them.
It was up to Bob to calm and appease these people, figure out just what it would take to bring them back to Earth in a considerate, polite fashion. In 300 seconds or less.
Bob--whose previous work experience included film-industry jobs, record-store manager, waiter and butcher--discovered, to his surprise, that he was quite good at this.
These days, he's still in the large office building, but has worked his way up to supervisor of a crack, patient team of 40 people who take the calls and make guests happy. Or try to. It's all part of the dicey world of customer service, better known as the complaint department.
"People go to motels for everything in life from conception to death and everything in between," says Bob. "Everything happens in a motel room, and you hear the best and the worst stuff. Everybody's got to call and tell you about their wedding-night problems, prom night, spring break--all the rites of passage go down in a motel. And we get the stories."
Bob is a thin, bespectacled Marlboro Light smoker in his mid-30s with an unlined face. He's funny, he's sarcastic, he's understanding and he used to be a butcher. But you already knew that.
For someone who's spent five years of workweeks on the receiving end of other people's gripes, he's amazingly serene. "We do have stress-management training courses. I've been sent to stress seminars," he reveals. "Different people handle it in different ways; I've seen people in the bathroom throwing water on their face, shuddering."
But even the pro has been rattled. "The one that got me the worst was this little old Southern lady who called me 'asinine,' she called me 'hateful' and 'asinine.' I couldn't believe she had said that to me, because I don't think I possess those qualities.
"And I actually had to look up the word 'asinine' just to see the full definition and make sure she wasn't even partially right. That one really shook me up."
But who can blame the public?
You're out on the road, tired, beat, and all you want is a clean room and fresh sheets. Is that so wrong? Of course not, Bob agrees.
"We want to put people in a room, make sure they've got a place to sleep, make sure the room is sanitary; we want 'em to get a nice shower in the morning, we want it to be quiet if possible. But if there's railroad tracks a quarter-mile away, or if the weather's bad, there's nothing I can do about that. We don't guarantee we can make you perky for worky the next day."
Some folks, to hear Bob tell it, are just looking for trouble. Some are downright pests, and others defy definition.
"A lot of the complaints are so incredibly petty--you get the guy who intentionally puts a gum wrapper under the corner of the bed, or under the corner of a cigarette machine, and comes back every day to see if the housekeeper has found it.
"I got one yesterday that was unbelievable. This woman in Florida had left her mother--who has 'a touch' of Alzheimer's--in the care of a housekeeper at a motel and was paying her $50 a day under the table to kind of watch her. The woman called me from Connecticut and said the housekeeper had taken off with her mother. What happened was the woman didn't come back, and the housekeeper didn't know what the hell to do. There wasn't anybody there to take care of this woman with 'a touch' of Alzheimer's, so she [the housekeeper] took her home.
"What did [this woman] want me to do? Find her mom? Punish the housekeeper?"
Bob continues. He is on a roll.
"A guy wanted a 50 percent refund from his $50 rate because his girlfriend was, as he said, raped. They used the 'sexual assault' term when I called the property. His allegation was someone had broken in the room, raped her, and he wanted 25 bucks back. When I called the property, they said, 'Yeah, she was just down here, she looked about 16. She didn't say anything about the alleged incident; she was standing at the desk eating potato chips.'"
One more tale: "There was a woman who had checked into a motel to die; she was a terminal cancer patient. Her room was opposite a county morgue, and the view from the room was that of bodies being carried in and out all night. She complained about the view."
Virtually anything the human body can emit in the course of an overnight stay has ended up in a motel room. Unfortunately, those nocturnal puddles do not always disappear after housekeeping does its thing.
"Blood on the sheets is usually the big problem," admits Bob with a sigh of professional remorse. Yet, of the 300-plus three-digit computer codes Bob and his people use to define and file the wealth of complaints that come their way, there is no "emissional breakdown."
"We don't really have complaint codes for different types of stains on the sheets, but we should," he says. "It's a little bit of everything; we get 'em all. We used to joke that it'd be a good idea to travel around with a vial of blood and a bottle of come, splash 'em on the drapes and get a free room everywhere you go," he says, not laughing.
And, though everybody can identify poop when they see it, not everybody can say it. "A woman called and told us there were 'fekes' on her sheets," offers Bob, carefully enunciating a word that sounds like "feck-ease."
"We get a lot of mispronunciations. We had a 'ball movement on the sheets' come in in writing. Though what do I know? Maybe it was a> ball movement."
There are letters.
Though most are addressed to "Sir," "Gentlemen," or "To Whom It May Concern," it's all the same. Those are just different ways of spelling "Bob."
A family from Denver purchased a "Flintstones Water Glitter Ball"--your basic snow globe--from a motel in Texas. It turned out to be a really special souvenir. "We put it in a downstairs bathroom and started noticing a smell that was a cross between spoiled potpourri and/or sweet-smelling sewage," the alarmed parent writes. "We noticed that these were produced overseas. Is there any chance they are full of a contaminated liquid, because the smell is truly terrible?"
A man and his 80-year-old mother in Virginia Beach were kept waiting a bit too long by a "saddistic" [sic] front-desk clerk. The man writes: "I'm sorry I didn't get her name, but I can describe her as less blonde than the other girl there then, larger framed, and fuller faced (she reminded me of a girl in one of the 'Charlie's Angels' episodes who became involved with a porno movie maker who killed her old boyfriend, the last scene her [sic] climbing on board a Greyhound bus headed back to Memphis). That's if you're interested in identifying her and have the full set of 'Charlie's Angels' episodes (this one had Shelley Hack in it which narrows the field down to those few episodes she was in).
"What that employee of yours did was simply cruel given my Mother's age."
Who can argue a point like that? Not Bob. He sits there pondering the letter, shrugs, speaks. "This guy might actually be cool."
Then there is the woman who had a dirty room. Read as Bob did:
"As I reported to the manager when I checked out, the room was very dirty, and the housekeeping staff helped themselves to my food. I might not have noticed the food, but whoever ate it chewed sloppily and left partially chewed cracker bits on the floor," she writes. And it gets better: "Also on the carpet near the sink area were someone else's fingernail clippings, clu>mps of hair and lots of dust. Every corner of the room was filthy and made me question the general sanitary conditions of the hotel."
Bear in mind--as Bob does--that these are all serious complaints, and not funny in the least.
Somebody with a really neat sense of humor placed four pages from Big Butt magazine in a Gideon Bible. Seems there was a Southern Baptist convention going on in this particular hotel, and when one of the attendees retired to his room and opened up the good book for a little inspirational reading, he was confronted not with Psalms, but with a large, full-color snapshot of a woman's rear end and these words:
"Dear Big Butt,
My hairy ass crack is my boyfriend's delight. He says he can't live without the smell, and I sit on his face every night so he can get a good whiff."
There's more, but it's doubtful that the stunned, churchgoing guest read on; he thrust the offensive pages into an envelope and mailed them off to Bob.
"A lot of times people will leave this stuff among the pages of Gideon Bibles," he explains. "Certainly, none of our hotels have programs to install Bibles in the rooms; we're not proselytizing our clientele. But some of the hotels have let religious groups come in and put Bibles in them." Which, in turn, have things put in them by presumably nonreligious groups.
Lots of other stuff comes in the mail, all found in hotels and motels nationwide, and Bob's got a load of it for show and tell. He offers up a small jewelry box containing a large black spider: "Look at the size of this thing!"
He's got an entire bathtub drain mechanism someone has carefully liberated from the tub--"This guy must have had some tools"--wrapped with long, dark, stringy hair. He holds up a bar of gnawed soap. "I think they said a rat was chewing on this."
There are a number of envelopes containing face and hand towels streaked with dust wiped from the tops of doors and the insides of lampshades--"people feel compelled to clean; I guess they were in the military or something."
And once, a bag of bugs crossed his desk. "Someone had sent a bag of little water bugs or roaches, about a quarter of an inch long, and right in the middle of it they had put an attorney's business card," says Bob. He no longer has it. "Some of the big brass were touring the office, and it got confiscated. I had it up on the bulletin board. They didn't like that."
But when the list of horrors is read and done, let it be said that Bob placated most of these folks with the magic words, "refund check." And, believe it or not, certain individuals see their way to complete forgiveness, eschewing even the tactful payoff.
"There really are some decent people out there," marvels Bob. "People send us checks back all the time; they'll say 'Well, it already got taken care of, thanks.' That just blows my mind."
The videotape is labeled simply "Video of Room #129, Fort Worth, Texas." It came Bob's way, filmed and narrated quite effectively by a disgruntled guest. The opening scene takes place in a bathroom at 7:56:35 AM; a finger points to the floor as a vaguely foreign voice speaks.
"The floor is all dirty." And it is.
"The countertops are all dirty," says the voice, as the finger highlights the all-too-obvious filth. Then, at 7:57:10 AM, the cameraman takes us into the bedroom for a truly demonstrative moment.
"There are holes in the sheet." Sure enough, there are. The lens pulls back to reveal that the hand from the bathroom is attached to an entire man. He lifts the sheet so that it is backlighted by a lamp, sticks his silhouetted fingers through the holes. Wiggles them. Then, with roughly the same "Oh, the humanity!" intonation used by the radio announcer at the Hindenburg disaster, the off-screen commentator cries, "Oh, my goodness!"
Then, at 7:58:03 AM, a pair of feet emphasizes that the "floor is uneven. I almost stumbled." The video litany of offenses finally culminates with a searing shot no one could easily forget. It is the d>esk clerk? The manager? Whoever--we see a middle-aged man, perhaps of Indian extraction, staring over his glasses into the camera. He is motionless, guilty, caught in the mother's glare of the unblinking, accusing lens. The disembodied voice speaks:
"This is Dennis, who didn't want to give up his last name."
The screen goes black.
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At this point, you probably have a pretty good idea of what Bob has done for a living over the past five years. And you may be asking yourself, "Why?"
"The bigger the deal, the more passionate a deal people make out of these little-bitty problems, the more it makes me feel normal," he clarifies. "A friend of mine was just going through my high school yearbook, and I had forgotten about how every other person that signed it wrote, 'You're a really weird dude. Good luck!' And they meant it, too. I feel really grounded with this job. And you do get satisfaction out of helping these guests, the legit ones as well as the crazy ones."
He closes with a final, allegorical tale:
"A lot of these hotels have 'fun packs' and 'happy packs' filled with [dolls of the] Flintstones, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Simpsons, and guests freak out if they can't get the little toys. Call my office, we're made out of that crap! We send 'em a pack with some crayons and a coloring book, some stickers, and all of a sudden the whole trip was worthwhile.
"'You saved the vacation, Bob!' It's the weirdest thing in the world."