“What do you do for a living?”

In this article our friend Frank walks us through his job in a way that gets at the bigger picture.

“What do you do for a living?”
by Frank Edgewick

At a party, someone asks, “What do you do for a living?” I answer, “Get yelled at by wealthy people.” The answer is rehearsed and so automatic that I usually forget that it makes people laugh in surprise. It is a perfectly accurate response. I work as a Guest Services Agent – that’s front desk clerk to you. But I’m a scapegoat and whipping-boy cum switchboard attendant in an ill-fitting suit – a house slave with good grooming and a sunny demeanour.

Now, that sounds like whining and to be honest, it is and I do really like my job at least as much as I hate it. But the whining reveals some of the aspects that make my job very specific and unlike many others, but like a growing sector of service work.

The switchboard part crossed with the whipping boy part means that while I don’t get the satisfaction of completing many tasks. I work as conduit distributing information and facilitating cooperation. A typical happening is to have a furious meeting attendee spend five minutes shouting at me about coffee not having been delivered on time. My response must be ‘I will check on that for you, I’m sorry that it’s not meeting your expectations’. Avoiding sarcasm is difficult, but a skill we learn. I then radio the banquets department who inform me that the event contract states that coffee isn’t due for 15 minutes and is still brewing. This doesn’t help either of us, although it does mean that no one will catch hell in a formal way later and that this jerk yelled at me before talking to his own organization’s planner. It also means that he or she may stare at me in the same no-coffee rage for another 15 minutes while I act like nothing is going on.

There’s a lot going on here, but we can unpack it. When it is busy, I am like a lead player in a funk band, conducting the information links for our cooperation with my body. We each have our repertoire and bring those loops and riffs in and out, building crescendos and resolutions. At desk, I may only get to play it until the build and then I have to go work on something else, but the song goes on in the backrooms of the hotel and on the conference floor until it’s played out.

This also points to another aspect of my work – it is totally ephemeral. At it’s simplest, I get butts into beds, but then they get themselves back out and go on their way. The only residue of my work is good memories or bad. Unlike a housekeeper or a cook, I can’t even make someone sick by doing a bad job, I can only infuriate them. My work expires as it is performed and yet the way I perform is key to profitability in business based on habits.

A typical day involves a few hundred guests, a dozen packages, half a dozen lost items, five or six banquet events and coordinating with at least one or two dozen coworkers. On such a day, I’m fully immersed and it’s hard effort to see beyond the encompassing immediacy. It’s disconcerting and this fully immersive role makes people care way too much about the job. And yet, by pushing us beyond what we thought we could, our job shows us how much we are really capable of doing. The level of coordination we make happen has taught me that workers run every business already, implicitly. In my sector, it’s our ability to cooperate that makes our work valuable to the owners. The question is to build our struggle so that we can continue to run the economy, but now for our own benefit rather than theirs.

That’s the coordination side of the job, but the whipping-boy part sets the tone as well. I really do expect to be shouted at a couple of times each day. More if we’re busy. I used to work taking care of a mildly autistic boy who would fly into rages at provocations like wind or socks. The skill set I developed for dealing with his irrational rages serve me well everyday at front desk. Something changes otherwise polite people into greedy assholes when they stand on the other side desk (something called relative class position!) In any case, the sector I work in is premised on not treating such people as basically unwell and pitiful but rather as valuable customers to be satisfied through shilling. It has been a race to the bottom for human decency, with each hotel tolerating more and more abherrant behaviour until shouting at someone over coffee is normal. More than normal, it is part of my job. But my job is not just to solve the problem, but to provide the emotional services necessary for that person to recover composure and remember the incident as one of good service. As much a scape goat who takes the beating for our collective inability to do the impossible, I am a geisha whose smiles and compliments provide emotional release and coddling to members of the bureaucratic caste. A long standing joke about any unreasonable guest who is angrily disappointed by better than reasonable service is that “he must have expected a handjob to be included in the rate.” And yet, as I was writing this on a slow day at work, a consistently calm and friendly hotel guest walked by and I greeted him by name. He said “Thank you for remembering” – Aside from any professional reasons, I honestly do remember him because he is consistently reasonable. And I do hope he comes back.

The emotional aspect of the job can really take a toll of people and I’ve seen new coworkers go through relationship problems because either they pass on the shit they take or because they are too tired to keep taking the shit they have in their relationship, or they are too tired to show they care to people who matter. The last is luckily the least common and not taking shit at home is a good thing. People passing things on to partners is the least forgivable aspect of the job. I’ve been lucky in that I have good support and a lot of experience, so I’ve managed to avoid it, but it can be a problem and we do try to support each other to leave the shitty parts at work. Even so, the fact that a job can ruin the life we’re told it’s meant to support makes me know in my bones that this system has to go. We know we are thoroughly colonized and knowing that our bodies ache and our hearts ache and our heads spin at the end of a day can be overwhelming.

At the same time, I have seen people really blossom with the pressure of being on the spot. A new hire this year was so timid that she had trouble greeting guests and gave directions so tepidly that no one would believe they were true. In the months since then, I’ve seen her get stronger and gain confidence on the job and with guests. In doing so, she’s also progressed from being terrified of the supervisors to talking casually about risking a write-up for breaking a dumb rule and sticks up for herself consistently when she is scheduled poorly – knowing of course that we have her back. Seeing this change has been particularly satisfying. Sometimes, even in our shitty situations, it’s possible to be a part of someone’s growth. It makes you know that we can get through this together and that by fighting side by side, we get better than we were.

There is a lot more to tell about my job, about how stupid it is for guests to mess with people who know their credit card number and where they sleep, about all th little ways we all fight back, about my wonderfully diverse coworkers, about how scared people are to fight and how sad it makes me when we lose before we even throw a punch, about negotiating solidarity between xenophobic white workers and our wildly multinational back-of-house coworkers and many more things. Those will have to wait. Whipping boy, scapegoat, geisha, conductor and house-slave, I’m a Front Desk Clerk and in my ill-fitting suit, I can see that like your mail-cage and classroom and sandwich line, my desk is on the front-line of the class war.

8 Responses to ““What do you do for a living?””

  1. Oh my god, this is amazing. I’m also a front desk agent, and it feels so, so good to read the words of someone who is in my position, trying to do the work I’m trying to do.

    Just today, at work, I had a man who was waiting for a room to be ready (3 hours before check-in time) who actually pulled a chair from the coffee shop into the lobby, so he could sit and watch every move I made until his room was ready. I was about to fucking lose it. I’ve had supervisors stand behind me and time, with a stopwatch, how long it takes me to do a checkout! Alienated labor, anyone?

    But it is amazing. amazing to see changes in the work environment when you try to change the dynamic. I’m lucky to have a few pretty enlightened folks working with me, who totally get it. I’ve seen my desk, over the course of a couple years, go from an environment where workers distrusted one another and were just trying to get ahead, to one where we all KNOW we got each other’s backs, and we all hold our supervisors accountable to our needs.

    Our position is still one of relative powerlessness, but it feels DAMN good to have genuine, pissed off commiseration from the folks around you when you get a write-up that is completely bullshit.


  2. I really like this post a lot. Nothing more to add for now except that this post should have had a link to this other piece that Frank wrote –

  3. […] from who showers residents to the facial expressions required of Certified Nurses Assistants.  The second piece is by a hotel worker who describes his experiences as a modern day “house […]

  4. Frank Edgewick Says:

    Reading this feedback makes writing this a whole lot more worrthwhile.
    @nat kelly – if this made a difference to you, I am so glad for having written it. Customers can really make tor break a day. The thing that I’ve noticed is that when I’m out front on the desk, the best predictor of whether or not a jerk is able to ruin my day is how well my coworkers and I are doing at sticking together and keeping the boss in-line. I used to get thrown under the bus and blamed for stuff or singled out when I was at a hotel with little organization, but since being in a tightly organized department, the bosses know that they’re going to just have to take it from customers and that we won’t tolerate being berated in front of guests and coworke

    As for being powerless, I think that we feel that way because we put up with so much crap, but that we run the show at the end of the day. There are things that you can do on desk to fight back as a team. Selecting guests is a pretty good start – you know, going the extra mile for the guests that you want to see and offering flat, minimal bureaucratic treatment to assholes, pitching abusers on the grounds they upset other guests – that sort of stuff. If you work with people you trust, it’s really hard to trace. With the boss, you can always play dumb and ask a lot of stupid questions – I have a coworker who does it naturally, calling the boss at home on the weekend and it really does keep them too busy to worry about performance or satisfying jerks. If you keep the gross provocations down and are nice to the good regulars, your comment flow will be positive while shifting the clientel. It’s not a one person activity, so you need a high level of trust and secrecy to get it done. I think you can probably come up with more and better options for your situation – but my point is that sandwiched between guests and managers, we can fight back and even take the iniative in our stuggle.

    Of course, more formal organizing helps too, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

  5. Frank, that’s an interesting idea. Our struggles so far have been mostly directed at the company and management – we’ve been struggling to make our desk more ergonomically friendly, to have more control over our schedules, etc. The guests are the constant aggravation, but I’ve never really thought about organizing resistance to the guests as a way to struggle back. Can you give some specific examples of ways you’ve seen this play out?

    Our mgmt is all about making the guest God. Hotels are involved in this horrible rat race to the bottom of the barrel, competing to see who can be more obsequious to gain more customer loyalty and get more of those ever-important positive customer surveys. A lot of that shit happens right at the front desk, since we have the ability to take off charges, comp different things etc. Our current manager is all about “going above and beyond” to make the guest experience positive, which basically just means giving cranky demanding rude people anything we can to make them happy. And it is really, constantly degrading. On my own, I’ve done tiny bits of resistance, like refusing to be friendly towards those who are being jerks. I know that sounds terribly lame, but something as small as NOT saying “have a nice day!” and smiling when you close a guest interaction is a pretty risky gesture. I’m excited by the idea of organizing our whole department to respond with non-friendliness to jerks.

    If you’re interested, I’ve written a couple of things about my job, largely related to gender.



  6. This is an outstanding peice, one of the best I’ve read in a while. The closing line really sent chills down my spine, to think that in my classroom here I’m part of the same class war you’re waging at your desk. I think the discussion ya’ll are having about strategies for resistance on the job is really promising too, becuase it pushes for more control over the job, not simply for higher wages and benefits (as important as those demand are, and we should fight for them, they don’t address the problems of alientation and humiliation ya’ll are discussing here which are huge). We reposted your peice on the Black Orchid blog here in Seattle, alongside one of our members’ own writing about working in a nursing home here: http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/the-american-worker-part-ii-service-industry-workers-speak-up/. We are inviting workers in Seattle or elswhere who want to do writings like this to contact us, we’d love to publish your work. Nat if you want to write something up, we’d love to continue the discussion 🙂

  7. Frank Edgewick Says:

    Brilliant. I’m super happy to hear that other people found it worthwhile and am very happy for the repost. More people should post more stories and personal essays – if we are going to build a culture of struggle, we have to offer ways for people to see themselves as at the centre of that struggle as it’s protagonists. I understand there may be more work stories coming through Recomposition, so stay tuned.

    I also am a big fan of both of your blogs – I got linked to fMh a month ago, scratched my head and enjoyed the article, but didn’t see nat’s articles until tonight. I love the one about working bell. I used to work with a young, very witty black guy who would always say he was working as the “Bell – Who You Callin’ – Boy?” There’s a racialized dimension to hotel work that is interestingly tense as well. I think the kinds of tensions you’ve been writing about are productive ones and I hope you keep it up.

    I liked Jomo’s article as well – it points out some of those same tensions as above, but from first person perspective. I think there’s a number of good lines of thinking that would be great to follow up. I love that you all are building up from the Johnson Forrest Tendency. I really enjoy CLR James and Marty Glaberman – I also highly recommend the piece hosted on this site by Stan Weir, “Union Leaders Who Stay on the Job” – it’s brilliant and gives a great idea of how workers were fight their struggle back in the 1940s.

  8. […] a first person perspective on everyday experiences at work, like the ones by Maddie Drefyus and Frank Edgewick. Libcom has a number of other first person accounts of work. We plan to reprint some more of them […]

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