I say I’ve never written before, but that’s not technically true. I used to do a roaring trade in complaint letters. I referred to it as my part time job as it earned me a modest living. For example: Niagara Falls hotel – no hot water. Game attempt to dodge responsibility: ‘Well madam, you are on the top floor and the pipes struggle to get the water up there. Payment: one night refund. Costa Rican villa – backed up toilet. Baseless accusation: ‘you must have flushed something down there. A wet wipe? A tampon? A lizard?’ Payment: one night refund. You get the picture.
But none of my pithy turns of phrase could match the best complaint letter I ever read. And I was on the receiving end of this one. First a bit of background.
I used to work at a hotel in NYC in the early nineties. The owners had acquired it from the city. It was previously an old indigent hotel and the deal they made was that some of the tenants would be allowed to stay on. They gave the façade a hideous art deco makeover in magenta and teal. However, they did nothing to the bones of the hotel – they just slapped fancy doors on the permanent residents’ rooms and left the squalor intact behind them.
I had no cause to go into the guest rooms except once. My friend Justine was visiting from LA and I got her a family rate room. I’m sure I should still be atoning for that ‘generous gift’ (ahem) to this day! We had a little hangout in the room and I was unprepared for how ‘dress on a pig’ it was. The radiator was definitely a building original (you know the kind you can sit on during a bitter school winter?). It was snarling and hissing like a scalded cat. How anyone slept is beyond me.
The hotel was located in a popular tourist area and we had a lot of 4-day weekenders from the UK (this will become relevant at the end). I worked at reception and our indigent residents would come down once a month to pay their nominal rent in some version of crumpled cash and change. At least one of them would have some kind of visible wounds. The other guests looked on bewildered.
In our neighbourhood was the building that housed a very famous 70s disco frequented by the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger etc. You know the one. It had gone through several incarnations and had just been turned into a gentleman’s club. The dancers who came from all over the country had a contract to stay with us too and they used to come and pay for their rooms with sweaty dollar bills.
Somehow, I managed to ‘get promoted’ to the owner’s assistant. This was not a good thing.
I was about to recount a couple of incidents that I didn’t realize at the time were illegal, although they seemed incredibly shifty – but what did I know? A job’s a job. Then I thought ‘let me just Google the guy – he’s probably dead [that small slander/libel issue]. Oh no. He is alive and well and in the same business. Proof positive that crime does pay.
You know that thing where any financial transaction over $10k has to be reported to governmental oversight to guard against tax evasion/money laundering? Well he knew it too! One of my every day jobs was to carry various bags of $9,999 around the streets of New York. I went to different local post offices to buy money orders in that amount. You couldn’t go to the same one each time – that would be red flag city. [Owner] would also divvy up the weekly profits in cash and brown bag it for his two co-owners. I discovered he was having an ‘amorous liaison’ with one of the aforementioned dancers when he sent me out to a travel agent to pay in cash for his and hers plane tickets to Florida so his wife wouldn’t find out! What a charmer!
Anyway, that’s enough of linking myself to thirty-year old misdeeds. On to the actual purpose of the post. One of my other joyous jobs was ‘Head of Customer Service’. It could also be called ‘Only Person in Customer Service’. It was a thankless task. My bum was never on my chair. There was a constant stream of dissatisfied customers outside my door waiting to yell at me (about the commonplace thefts from rooms among other things ). In person, it was excruciating to deal with, but complaints in writing were another story.
Of course, time has dulled the edges of this memory but I remember the ‘money quote’ very well. I received a complaint letter from a Thomas Cook (UK) travel agent written on behalf of her clients. I actually photocopied it and kept it for many years for whenever I needed a chuckle and I’d give anything to have it now. That woman should have been a writer. She was only passing on this couples’ horrible experiences but her presentation was so droll it was like reading Monty Python.
Apparently, as soon as the couple got into the room they were met by ‘a pair of large white men’s underpants drying on the radiator’ and when they pulled back the bed covers there were ‘dirty used tissues inside the bed’ (gag!)
But their main beef involved one of our dear bellmen. I will not name him, but he was my favourite. He was from a middle eastern country and although his English was perfect, he may have been experiencing a little cultural disconnect with actual British subjects! Whilst passing the time of day as they left the hotel, he felt it appropriate to mention that one of his jobs for that day was going to be laying some rat traps to try and deal with the rat problem! They were beyond horrified.
Much later they returned to the hotel as [bellman] was ending his shift. With all the disgust and English sarcasm they could muster they scornfully asked him how was the rat catching was going. His mistook their question for genuine interest, gave them a thumbs up and delightedly replied ‘Great! I caught two big 3lb-ers today!’
Of course the letter got filed in the waste paper basket because the owner didn’t give a f*#!, but I still think of that Thomas Cook agent and wonder if she enjoyed writing that Mona Lisa of complaints as much as I enjoyed reading it. Maybe it’s a British thing?!