People get granted all kinds of gifts in life. Some can run fast. Others can cook well. A lucky few can sing like birds. Many of you are good with numbers. I can hold my breath longer than most people I know. Roberto, who you can find behind our front desk, has a gift for customer service. It comes naturally to him, he says. It’s easy for him to be with people, to spend his days helping all of you transition into your time in Silicon Valley. He believes that this is the gift that he was given.
Though he’s only been with us since 2008, Roberto has been working in hotels for the last 15 years. He has a string of household names in his past; ours is his first adventure in non-corporate hospitality. A super-professional, he will say very adamantly that he does not compare hotels. But if you push and push and really make a nuisance of yourself, it’s possible to learn from Roberto what we always suspected to be true anyway: The big chains don’t care as much as we do. Officially, as in their policies are just less supportive of customer service. Which, especially for someone who feels that their specialty in life is customer service, is just not as satisfying an environment to spend a working life in. Score yet another point for small business in America!
There’s an ad for Dos Equis beer, maybe you’ve seen it, that stars a tall, dark and handsome man with a not-quite-place-able accent and a lot of stories of adventure. He is, according to this ad, the most interesting man in the world and we’re all supposed to want to be him, or to at least know him, and Dos Equis supposedly a step in the right direction. I fear this guy is probably a narcissistic adrenaline junky, though, and I would like to propose an alternative ideal: The most interested man in the world. Someone, that is, who finds joy and nourishment wherever he is, who is curious and enthusiastic and not merely a jaded experience collector. My candidate for the title? Ed, our weekend bartender.
Let me defend my candidate, first, by saying that there is nothing that I have seen Ed do that he did not do meticulously and beautifully. This includes, but does not stop with, installing a bay window, playing guitar, drawing, reading complex philosophical texts and hiking. If I weren’t so afraid of clichés, I’d call him a renaissance man. To avoid that I will just say that Ed applies every bit of himself to everything he does and he seems to do it out of a desire to suck every bit of knowledge out of every new situation he’s in. He takes nothing for granted, rushes through nothing and he does it all out of genuine interest.
What makes the most interested man in the world superior to the most interesting? Well, given that you and I will probably be neither but will get only to maybe be friends with one or the other, it’s good to remember that, of the two, it’s the most interested man in the world who will pay attention to you. And, because he’s paid such good attention to so many others, he’s got a diverse, complex perspective to bounce back at you. Nice choice for a bartender, no?
To talk to Iris, who’s worked behind our front desk for close to a year now, about her schedule is a bit troubling at first. I spent the first few minutes of our conversation thinking that I should probably try to get her fired, hard working and friendly though she may be, because if she’s not going to take care of herself, then someone else should try to. I know that sounds mean, but listen to this: She works three jobs, one full-time, two part-time. Her full-time job is supervisor at a kid’s camp. Her other part time job is doing promotions for the San Jose Earthquakes. She’s in school. She writes for the school paper. And she’s on a soccer team. I couldn’t even find a pattern and it sounded like compulsion to me. Which only exposes my own lack of imagination because actually Iris has got it all figured out.
It turns out she’s preparing herself for a career in sports journalism. Hence the newspaper work, the job with the Earthquakes (our local professional soccer team), and the AA she just received in communications. In the fall she’ll start at San Jose State with a major in TV journalism. The soccer team she plays for even fits this story. She took a job at the hotel so that she could ease her way out of the kid’s camp job. She’s working hard, it’s true, but her goal is very clear, she’s laid out a pretty solid path for herself and she’s not afraid of the hard work it’s all going to take. I’m sorry I thought of getting her fired because, truly, our ability to get motivated, strong people like Iris to spend a few years with us, as they work their way toward their dreams, is maybe our biggest secret weapon.
Every month, as you know, I write to you about one of my coworkers. That means that once a month I sit down and talk to someone else about their life, their interests and their job. I’ve been doing it for a while now, so it’s getting to be kind of a lot of people that I’ve chatted with like this. And in all this time, Michelle, who works behind the front desk, is the first one who said that she was excited to talk about herself and her life plans.
It wasn’t long before I understood why she was so willing. Michelle is on a clear path that she believes in very strongly. She’s doing a degree in criminal justice at San Jose State with the intention of becoming a juvenile probation officer. It’s a decision that she came to after asking herself how she might best be of service to the world and though she knows it won’t be simple, she seems to know, also, that she’s making the right choice. And she seems happy.
Does this sound familiar? I wrote something very similar just a couple of months ago about our bellman Louis, who’s in pursuit of a job in the prison system. Well, I’m not one to gossip, but let’s just say they do know about the synchronicities between them.
Oh, and one more little Michelle anomaly: When asked what she likes about, her job her number one item, reported with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, was getting to organize papers.
Stephen, who’s now working behind our front desk, first interviewed for this job fifteen years ago. If you’ve seen him, you’ll now be thinking to yourself that he can’t possibly be old enough for that, and it’s true that he was only five at the time, but little Steven announced himself to our general manager, all those years ago. in such an unforgettable way that when she next encountered him, a young man of working age, she immediately offered him a job. He had lived on her street, you see, and she reports that he was the cutest little kid she had ever come across. Blond and covered with freckles, not unlike Dennis the Menace, he would come over everyday and ask to play with her son, Jerry, who was sixteen. Fifteen years later she was still so touched by this, and trusted whoever that little kid had grown into enough, to ask right away if he would be willing to come work for her.
Talking to him, you know she was right. He’s soft spoken but open, looking forward to his life. He laughs easily. He’s taking a break from business classes to do an EMT training, with the idea of opening up a pathway to becoming a firefighter. He’d like to move to San Diego, where he has two half brothers and the sun always shines. Basically, he’s a really nice and very sincere guy, just like he was a really nice, sincere little kid. He is exactly what she expected him to grow into.
Please, though, people, this is not an invitation to start sending your children to our general manager for evaluation.
One of the scariest parts of this financial crisis, for me, has been thinking of the individuals who, if not made it happen, at least allowed it to happen. Lenders who targeted low-income families, bankers who took risks with abstract interests that were the livelihoods of real people, and all of them thinking only of their own profits. Is this what became of the American dream? Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps at whatever cost, assuming that only a select few will get the privilege of wealth and that it’s each man’s responsibility to either win or lose that race.
It feels good, then, to talk to our bellman, Luis. With the whole world open for him to choose from, and parents encouraging him to find what he needed, he decided to train to be a corrections officer. Having visited prisons since his schooling began, he agrees that he’s heading into a rough life, but his experience has led him to believe that the insides of those institutions need more compassion and that he’s capable of doing the job, so he signed up to learn how. It’s not just that it’s not the most financially rewarding job that makes that such an admirable choice, it’s that he has decided to live, everyday, in a place of emotional stress, because he did some research, then looked at himself, and decided that this was needed and that he could handle it. If more of us Americans exercised our much-touted freedom like Luis, maybe the world wouldn’t be such a big mess today.
Sunshine first turned up around this hotel as a small child. She was six when she moved to the Bay Area with her mother, a tiny, nearly mute girl who you sometimes felt was trying very hard not to smile, no matter how pleased she was. Her official title those days was “boss’ niece” and we saw a lot of her because her mom had come to stay with her sister, our boss, for a bit.
A lot of us that knew her back then are still here, which feels nice to report. Still, I’d say we were all pretty surprised to learn that enough time had passed for her to turn into a beautiful young lady, and a perfect addition to our front desk staff. Bits of childhood shyness have stayed with her; she’s not yet willing to offer lots of herself out to the world. But she’s much more generous with her smile these days. Plus there’s this: When we first met Sunshine, she was called Analise. She says she never liked that name, it never felt good to her, so she found one that made her feel good. This was a bold move. To change her name, a girl would have to have a strong willingness to find her own path in the world, even if she wasn’t so eager to talk about it with everyone who asked. We’re all curious to see where she’ll be in another 10 years. We’re thinking it’ll be pretty interesting, and that we won’t know a thing about it before it happen. As for us, I guess we’ll mostly still be here!
It’s been 12 years since Anjelica, one of our most senior housekeepers, first came on board with us, and she’s happy. And the reason we know she’s happy is that she’s still here. Seems simple, I know, but think, for a moment, of all the people you know who stay in unhappy situations. It’s one of our most common modern clichés, in fact, to feel trapped and miserable for years, but just keep staying. Our world is full of victims of sociology and psychology and bad decisions and laziness. Anjelica is not one of those people. She was unhappy in her native Guatemala, so she left. She had two young sons, whom she had to leave with her mother, but she left with confidence and was successful and now they’re here with her. When she first arrived 15 years ago, in a foreign land with a foreign language, she had a series of jobs that she did not like. As she did not come to America to continue being unhappy, she left those too, one by one, until she finally landed here with us. It took her three years to find this hotel, and, though she’s careful to say that one never really knows what life’s bringing next, she plans to stay as long as she can. We don’t often recognize the power we have to choose the lives we’re going to live. Anjelica is one of the people who does, and she’s happy.
In contrasting Russian tubercular patients against their European counterparts at an alpine sanatorium, Thomas Mann’s Herr Settembrini talks about a “liberality, [a] barbaric extravagance in the use of time [that] is the Asian style.” I think this is a great description of Matt, who works behind our front desk. Matt, who is taking a casual, if somewhat overextended, stroll through his college course load, says that he knows he’ll finish someday. Sure it’s been seven years, but all of life is still ahead. A year ago his truck broke down and he borrowed another from Jerry, our director of sales and marketing. Jerry didn’t need his truck, so Matt relaxed. He got his own fixed yesterday, saying that he meant to fix it right away, but that the year had just sort of gone by. And our dear general manager thinks this initial breakdown was more like a year and a half ago. But what’s a few extra months?
This was not a compliment Herr Settembrini was giving, and Matt is not Russian. So, what is my point? Well, how about looking just a little further east and, instead of calling Matt’s potentially Asian-influenced style “procrastination”, as he himself calls it, thinking of it more along the lines of something like Zen? To me, a “liberality…in the use of time” sounds like a pre-requisite for doing things like living in the moment and accepting yourself. Matt keeps loose goals in his eyes, but stays, also, open to the things in life that just come up. And he’s not afraid to drop a class when they do!
The only real problem I see, to be honest, is convincing Matt himself to stop hanging his head when he says he doesn’t really know where he’ll end up. Maybe he’s a little non-Western in his life vision, but he’ll certainly enjoy his path.
There’s a little staffing oddity here at our hotel and this month I’d like to try to tell you about it. His name is Kaz, he’s a rapper and he works for our hotel out of his bedroom in Los Angeles. It’s fun to write and it’s even true!
Ok, but while we do have a rapper on our staff, we don’t actually have an on-staff rapper. What Kaz is, is the sole member of our off-site sales team. I spent some time with him on the phone last week. What I wanted was to try to understand how his job works, as he’s not here with us every day and I’m curious. Notice how that curiosity is still in the present tense. Interrupting Kaz is not an easy task, especially when he knows that he is meant to be the subject of a conversation. There’s so much he’d like to share and it’s fun to listen and I know I’m not the best interviewer in the world, but after it was over I found that I had neglected nearly all of my questions and had instead just enjoyed the experience of Kaz.
I have some details, though. I’ll share some with you and we’ll see how far it gets us into understanding him and his position. He tells me he has all the parts of a suit except the jacket. He tells me that he buys packages of miniature candy bars, has his girlfriend wrap them in cellophane whose color matches the nearest holiday, and then hands them out to admins. I think he chooses the admins based on a list sent to him from us, rather than at random. He tells me that people are often surprised and delighted when he shows up in their office wearing almost all of a suit and carrying festively wrapped bite-sized treats. He says that he has a phone meeting every morning with Jerry, our director of sales and marketing, and that he is generally in bed for that meeting.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I understand Kaz’s job any better than I did before I talked to him. I do know that I laughed a lot on the phone that day, and that I felt good when I hung up. I’ll say this, then, whatever the structure of his position, if this guy is a part of our sales team, I know we are stronger for it.