Headlines From Our Twitter Feed

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Green House (An Essay About Hotel Work)

For about a year near the end of my four years of college, I worked
at a cheap hotel near San Juan, Puerto Rico which I shall refer to
as the The Green House Hotel. It wasn't quite a flophouse, but it
definitely had that air of seediness and hidden dirt so common to
cheap hotels. While working there I came across a very interesting
cross-section of people: bargain-hunting American tourists, prosti-
tutes, drug addicts, drug dealers, clueless European and Asian 
tourists, Puerto Rican families on long weekends, drifters, con-men, 
sexual deviants, criminals, undercover cops,adventurers and labo-
rers. And New Yorkers. Dozens of them.

The Green House was in the Isla Verde tourist district, with a
highway and some highrises separating it from the beach and the
fancy hotels and casinos. It was actually two small hotels, one on 
each end of a residential block. Each "half" of the Green House 
Hotel consisted of a smallish two-story building, each with its own 
swimming pool in the middle of a small courtyard. The guests che-
cked in at the "main" building and if their room is in the other buil-
ding, we had to shuttle the guest down the street in a golf cart. I'm 
sure there was many a non-local motorist who was puzzled by the
sight of a man dressed in a ship captain's uniform (usually me) dri-
ving one or two people and their bags down the street in a golf cart.

My job title was officially Front Desk Manager, although I never ac-
tually managed anyone. My main duties were checking in guests, 
answering the phone and helping guests with their luggage. In rea-
lity, I often had to unclog toilets, change beds, wash towels, fix tele-
vision sets and do a million other little things that came up for which
I wasn't being paid nearly enough. I made $6.00 an hour (in 1998).
 A pitiful sum, but fairly average for Puerto Rico. At least I was still 
living with my parents and didn't have any bills to pay, but the thought 
of my co-workers, who made about the same (or less), supporting 
families on such wages always made me shudder.

Out of the ten or so people who worked there (we only had
about 50 rooms total), I'm certain I had the worst job, second
only to the overnight desk clerk. I worked from 3:00 to 11:00
PM, Thursday to Monday. The housekeepers and maintenance
men left at five, so I basically ran the hotel single-handed until
11:00 PM.

The Green House Hotel was owned by an American, a white
Alabamian, possibly in his late forties, who went by the name
of Rick. He was of medium height and build, with blonde hair
that, while short, usually looked like it needed a cut. He would
often wear Hawaiian shirts and sneakers and had a sort of vague,
dreamy air about him, as if he was always mildly stoned. He
reminded me of a surfer past his prime, with a slow, Southern
way of speaking. He told me he used to be a tree surgeon and
apparently came to Puerto Rico many years ago, fell in love
with the place and decided to settle in the island. First he
bought the original Green House Hotel (the building with the
reception in it), then bought the other small hotel at the end
of the block and combined the two into one. He didn't seem
like a bad person; he was friendly enough and seemed easy-
going. Sometimes at night he'd come to the front desk and 
bring me food (take-out from Outback Steakhouse, usually). 
The food was appreciated, but it didn't begin to make up for 
the working conditions or the wages.

Rick lived in a pink, two-story concrete house next to the
main building, where his twenty-something Puerto Rican
girlfriend or some of his hangers-on would visit him. He had
a bad leg and often limped. In the end, I found out he must
not have been a very good businessman. A couple of his
employees, one general manager among them, embezzled 
money from the hotel on different occasions and then abruptly
disappeared. It wasn't that he was too trusting; as a matter
of fact, he was notoriously paranoid and kept the front desk
employees under surveillance with badly hidden cameras and
microphones. Despite this, he seemed to get ripped off fairly
consistently. My impression was that he was a somewhat
greedy man who wasn't smart enough to surround himself with
the right people or pay them enough so that they wouldn't
steal from him.

But what about the guests? Where to begin? Many of them 
were unsuspecting American tourists duped by the hotel's
brochure or misled by their travel agents. Their usual reaction
upon checking in and seeing the rooms was either quiet
disappointment or outright horror. This, of course, due to
the small size of the rooms, the bugs, the bare walls and the
hideous aluminum Miami windows, among many other things.
Surprisingly, we had a small group of regulars who loved the
place and spent their vacations there every year. This may
have been because we were close enough to the beach and 
the nightlife; plus, any half-decent hotel in San Juan will cost
you a ridiculously high amount of money.

Sometimes, we could get some real scumbags. On one occasion,
a man from the States was staying with us for a few nights. One
day I came to work and he was gone. I was told he had allegedly
tried to rape a female guest. The police took him away and he
ended up in prison. We held on to his luggage for about four
months. One day he came to the hotel--straight out of prison
--with a friend, in order to claim his luggage. While I opened the
storage closet to get his bags, him and his friend kept hollering 
about how he was framed and what a grave injustice had been 
committed. I don't know what actually happened, but I can't ima-
gine spending several months in a Puerto Rican prison, while 
not speaking fluent Spanish, can be very pleasant.

One night a guest called the desk and asked for extra towels.
When I brought them to him, he took the towels from my hand
and gave me a marihuana cigarette as a tip, in lieu of cash.
He was probably in his thirties and staying with a woman who
at first I mistook for his wife or girlfriend. As it turned out, he 
was gay. I came to this conclusion after he asked me if he 
could take some pictures of me standing by the hotel pool.
Thinking the request was innocent enough, I naively agreed to
be photographed, although by the third pose and the sixth or
seventh picture he took I grew suspicious. Who knows, my
picture might have ended up in a gay magazine somewhere 
and I don't even know it. Perhaps the caption below the photo
would read, "This is Paco. He is a hot-blooded latino looking
for fun in the sun". At least he didn't proposition me, although
I was propositioned for sex a few times, by guests of both
genders. Apparently, I'm devastatingly attractive while in

Another time, a man being investigated by the U.S. Customs
Department was staying at the Green House. Customs agents
came to the hotel and asked Rick if they could stay at the
hotel and pose as hotel employees in order to secretly watch
their suspect. So for a few days we had four or five employees
milling about the front desk, which must've looked extremely
odd. Eventually the agents left without arresting anyone and I 
never found out how it all ended or even what the suspect was
being investigated for (since it was U.S. Customs, I'm guessing 
he was a smuggler or black-marketeer of some sort). The lead 
agent was a pretty nice guy and gave me his rather impressive 
looking business card before they all left.

After Hurricane Georges battered the island that summer,
we continued to operate the hotel without any power for
two weeks (we were open during the storm, too; I rode it
out on a couch in the lobby). Not too many guests stayed
after the hurricane was over, with the exception of FEMA
workers, a few loose weirdos and a small group of about
four prostitutes from Ponce. Apparently they drove up
to San Juan so they could dance at the infamous strip
joint/whorehouse known as the Lucky Seven. They spent
about a week there, at the end of which they had evidently
made enough money out of screwing construction workers
at the Lucky Seven and quietly left. Needless to say,
they paid cash, one day at a time. 

Thieves breaking into the rooms and stealing guests' belon-
gings was not uncommon. The police knew us pretty well
due to how often we had to call them. Evidence of drug use
in recently vacated rooms was laughingly common. But it wasn't
all bad. I met some great people while working there, mostly
guests. They were almost all New Yorkers. There was Eric,
who was instrumental in guiding me when I moved to New
York City several months after I graduated. Vanessa was
another New Yorker who I went out with a few times while
she was staying with us. We stopped talking after one
night in Manhattan she stood me up when she was suppo-
sed to meet me somewhere and never so much as called.

There was an East Indian couple that I rode Hurricane
Georges out with in the lobby. The woman wrote for News-
week; they sent me a nice postcard from New York City se-
veral months later. I sent them a Christmas card, not reali-
zing that they probably weren't Christians and didn't celebrate 
Christmas. There was this old couple from the Midwest who 
were annual regulars at the hotel. They stayed in a tiny room 
by the front desk for a whole month, rented a car and would 
drive off, alone, into the island, exploring parts of Puerto Rico
I'd never seen myself despite having grown up there. I found 
it astonishing that two elderly Americans who spoke no Spanish 
could pull that off. If you've ever been to Puerto Rico and gone
beyond the tourist areas, you know exactly what I mean. The 
lady wrote me a letter about a year after their stay in 1998 and 
informed me her husband had passed away. They were very kin-
dly and upbeat, and they taught me how to bake a potato in the
microwave by wrapping it in a paper napkin, which was new to

Once in a blue moon, someone either wealthy or prominent
or famous ended up at our decidedly unimpressive hotel,
almost always due to either some terrible misunderstanding
or the fact that all the other hotels in town were full. One
night at the 11:00 PM shift change, Joshua came to relieve
me. Before I could leave, a stunning young woman with
straight dark hair, high cheekbones and a curvaceous body
walked in (after we opened the gate to the lobby, which was
almost always locked; even in a good neighborhood down
there, crime is always an issue). We recognized her as
being Maripili, a local TV personality and model. I forget why 
exactly she had to stoop to staying at The Green House Hotel,
but Joshua checked her into a room which had a window facing
the side-street. Before she went in her room, she gifted us sig-
ned copies of her sexy calendar. 

Once I graduated from college, I promptly quit my job and
moved to New York City a few months later. I was glad to leave
the job, as I had grown very tired of serving as desk clerk, phone
operator, reservationist, housekeeper, electrician and cop, all
for six bucks an hour. In New York, I worked at the front desk of
a luxury Manhattan hotel. I wore a suit and tie and made $17 an
hour. Despite the social and economic differences between the
clientele of both hotels, I saw many disturbing parallels with
the Green House: the drugs, the hookers, the secret, sordid lives
lived out in a hotel room far away from home. A few years later,
I was back in the island and decided to stay at the Green House
with my two cousins for a weekend. It was one of their birthdays
and we thought we'd go out on the town every night, get
intoxicated, then go back to the hotel to sleep it off during the 
day. The place looked more or less the same. Our stay must've
not been too bad since I remember startingly little of it.

I have a Bachelor's Degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.
I doubt I'll ever work in a hotel again if I can at all avoid it.

No comments:

Post a Comment