Part of an ongoing series exploring the (sometimes) lighter side of a life spent working in a hotel
by DEVEN MATTHEWS
“I want you to know, I found the hidden camera in my room.”
It was 6:30 a.m. I had been on my shift behind the front desk for about a half hour. I was in that weird stage of the morning between having arrived at work but not yet fully functioning in “work” mode. The caffeine hadn’t kicked in and I was still somewhat groggy only having been out of bed for an hour, so the comment didn’t sound too foreign. But I then realized what had just been spoken. Fortunately, the voice was speaking to me through the receiver of the front desk phone, so there was no need to suppress my look of confusion.
In my confused state I stammered out, “excuse me?”
She repeated herself, now enunciating the important words: “I have found the hidden camera in my room! Who is watching me? Is it the police? The FBI?”
My mind raced like a cyclone at the words. The night auditor hadn’t passed along any information regarding a guest who was searching for hidden cameras in her guest room. I understood the absurd comment yet wanted to verify that I had heard this guest correctly.
Anyone who has worked in customer service has been trained on the “customer-service voice.” It combines a cheerful tone with language consisting of phrases such as “Certainly,” “I’ll be happy to assist you,” and “It would be my pleasure.” Generally, these statements are said through plastic smiles that strive to create a genuine sound of joy, but it’s all an act. So, with my plastic smile firmly in place and in my best customer service voice, I stated, “Ma’am, I can assure you that we do not have cameras in the guest rooms.”
This was true. It’s against the law to put cameras in the guest rooms. Hallways and public spaces are free game, but never in guest rooms.
“Well, I found it!”
I figured perhaps she had mistaken the fire sprinkler in the room for a camera, and that perhaps if someone could point it out to her, she would identify her own error. Still confused, I replied, “Ma’am, if you would like, I can send someone to your room to investigate your discovery.”
This was a lie. Except for the cook and the one server in our restaurant, I was the only employee in the hotel. Engineering wouldn’t arrive until 7 a.m. and housekeeping usually rolled in around 7:30. And any sign of management wouldn’t exist until at least 8.
If this woman called my bluff and demanded that someone come to her aid it would be me trekking to room 124. My heart sank at the thought of having to leave the front desk deserted this early in the morning, knowing I would return to a phone ringing uncontrollably and a line of guests waiting to check out, requesting the shuttle, or asking for directions. Fortunately, fate smiled upon me.
“No one is permitted into this room. Do you hear me? NO ONE! You have been spying on me throughout the night and now you’ve involved the authorities. This is a disgrace. There’s no way anyone is allowed in this room. Do you hear me? Anyone!”
The slam of the phone caused me to wince and quickly pull the phone away from my ear. Hanging up, I typed “124” into the computer and saw that her checkout date was set for that day. Good, she’ll be leaving soon. I filed this interaction away in the file of my mind labeled “things not to worry about” and went on my way trying to fully awaken for the day.
THE SAGA CONTINUES
At about 7:30, my phone rang. I answered and cheerfully recited the scripted “front desk,” which actually could have been interpreted as “who is this and what do you want?” This time, I felt I had done a pretty good job forcing the pleasantries.
It was her.
“My son, has he called for me?”
This time slower, as if I didn’t hear her the first time, “Has my son called for me? I have been waiting for his call all morning, and you haven’t patched any of his calls through to my room!”
This was the prehistoric age before cell phones, when the hotel’s main phone was the vocal gateway to the hotel.
Again, I was puzzled and taken back. This was not a request for towels, or a late check out, or even a request to stay another night.
“Ma’am,” I assured her, “there haven’t been any calls for you this morning. Any call that comes into the hotel rings on this phone. If anybody asks for your room number or your name, I will transfer the call directly to your room.”
“I don’t believe you! I think you’re watching me and keeping me from conversing with my son.”
I opened my mouth to reiterate what I had said earlier about cameras in the guest room and the procedure of forwarding guests their phone calls but was interrupted by the familiar loud slam once again. I dismissed her again and went on with my day.
At 9 a.m., my phone rang again.
The main phone system at the front desk was equipped with a caller ID system which would be archaic by today’s standards. However, the digital “RM 124” sign on my phone revealed that the person on the other side of that ring was my guest who had found the hidden camera in her room and was awaiting her son’s phone call.
Plastic voice: “Front desk.”
“Why haven’t you patched my son’s calls through to my room?”
“Ma’am,” I began, “I apologize, but nobody has called and asked for either your name or your room number. I have been the only employee at the desk since 6:30 this morning, and I guarantee no one has called for you. Please be assured that if anyone does call for you, I will transfer the call immediately.” With each word, I could feel my plastic voice slowly falling off, and my voice of reason taking over.
“It’s my son. He’s supposed to call me. You are intentionally not putting his calls through to me.”
Confused silence. I knew I was dealing with an unstable guest. All I could do was apologize and repeat that if her son called her, I would patch the call through to her room.
She once again hung up on me, and I decided that someone else beside me should be enjoying the show that was unfolding in room 124. I told my general manager about the phone calls, and he agreed that we should just ride this out until noon – check-out time. We also determined that should the guest call and request to extend her stay, the answer would be negative.
My phone rang again at 10:30 and the digital “RM 124” graced itself on my caller ID.
(Plastic voice) “Front desk…?”
“I just want you to know that I have disabled all of the cameras. Also, I will be down to check-out in about an hour. I would appreciate it if you had my receipt ready for me.”
My plastic voice was no longer a necessity for genuine happiness overcame my personage. She was departing. With honest sincerity I replied, “It would be my pleasure, ma’am. I’ll have it ready for you.”
I notified my boss about room 124’s departure time and went about the business of the day.
JUST A LITTLE PATIENCE…
My mind could not deviate from the guest in room 124. Was it a mental illness? Perhaps dementia? What life events drive a person to this state? I thought she must be lonely. Maybe metaphorically waiting for a call from her son who had not reached out to her in some time. At any rate, none of my interactions with room 124 thus far had prepared me for what was to transpire during her departure experience.
At about 11:45 a.m., the guest in room 124 approached the desk. She was a squatty woman about 4 foot 6 inches who walked with a limp, which required much effort on her part. With each step, her upper half rotated in a large circle. Her hair was the color of newspaper and hung around her make-up-free face. She seemed confused by her surroundings, as if she was walking into our lobby for the first time.
“I’d like to check out.” I knew immediately that this was the guest from room 124.
She never looked directly at me – rather, her eyes darted from item to item in the lobby, as if she were taking mental inventory of where each piece of furniture was located. She spoke to me like a stranger, as if the conversations about hidden cameras and unconnected phone calls from her son had never taken place. Perhaps she didn’t recognize me as the voice on the other end of her phone, and she thought she had been speaking with another employee all morning?
(Plastic voice) “Certainly, ma’am, I have your receipt right here.” I handed her an envelope with the receipt inside. After scanning the deserted lobby to make sure no one was watching, she opened the envelope and removed the receipt, then unfolded and looked at the paper. She then made eye contact with me, and very solemnly asked, “Well? Don’t I get a reward?”
I decided to play along. The only thing on the front desk was a large bowl of colorful hard candies. I thought this would be a fun ice breaker.
“Sure,” I retorted. “Help yourself to a piece of candy.”
Silence. I think it was at that moment that she realized I had been the voice on the other end of the numerous phone calls that morning. She folded and slid her receipt back into the envelope from which it came, while saying, “You know, I never did receive that phone call from my son.”
(Plastic voice) “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
After a long, awkward pause she said, “So, do I get a reward or don’t I?”
Confused, I asked her, “A reward for what?”
She suddenly got loud. “They got him! They came in and took him away, all because of me!”
My plastic voice had been robbed from my throat. I was utterly confused regarding her story, and I asked for details. “Who came and got who?”
“The police! Didn’t you see them?” she asked, incredulously. With a click of her tongue and a sag of her shoulders in frustration, she went on. “I was sitting right there eating breakfast this morning, and I recognized him from his picture on TV. I called the police! They came in and arrested him and took him to jail!” She paused and looked at me with wide eyes. “The whole thing happened right here. Weren’t you watching? Didn’t you see it happen? They got him! I called the police and they got him!”
Breakfast had indeed started at the hotel at 6:30 that morning, the same time I began my shift, and from the desk, I had an unobstructed view of the entire restaurant where breakfast was served. I hadn’t left the desk that morning, even to use the restroom. These facts combined with my history with her that morning led me to believe she was fabricating the entire event. But my curiosity wouldn’t let it rest.
Her eyes widened, then slowly closed into tiny slits, as she told me who the criminal was: “Joseph Riley.”
In utter confusion I asked, “Who’s Joseph Riley?”
The woman took a step backward, placed both hands on her chest, and audibly gasped. Then as loudly as she could, she shouted, “You don’t know who Joseph Riley is?!”
I shook my head and said, “no.”
Experiences like this often come to a crashing halt, the way a speeding car filled with those crash test dummies might collide into a wall. This was that moment. The moment when you pull out that small block of wood, and your entire Jenga construction comes crashing down onto the coffee table.
With eyes now bulging from their sockets, the guest looked at me in all soberness and shouted, “He’s the man who kidnaps people and turns them into dolphins! He’s kidnapped my son! I’ve been waiting all morning for my son to call me and tell me which beach to go and pick him up!” She pointed her index finger at me. “Thanks to you, I now have to drive up and down to the coast and look for him myself!” That said, she stormed out of my hotel, and off into the world.
And the final piece of room 124’s crazy puzzle came sailing home.
ALL WALKS OF LIFE
A hotelier never knows who the guest really is on the other side of the door. Most of them are regular folks like you and me, traveling for business or recreation. You interact with these people, learn from them, and often make friends along the way. In unexpected places the best of friends can be made, and in my life, the hotel has been the scene where some extremely warm memories with the guests have been created.
The dolphin lady was a memorable moment that will never vacate my mind. She’s out there somewhere in the world, probably still searching for hidden cameras while waiting for the phone to ring.
Deven Matthews is a hotelier who has worked in the hotel industry for more than 23 years. A professor of hotel management at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, Deven enjoys instructing the future managers of Las Vegas hotels. He holds a master’s degree in business management and is fascinated by all things hospitality. When not immersed in hotels, Deven enjoys playing the piano and spending time with his wife and their six children.