The Bedsit People. Part 3.

Lots of first times lately. First time I hear the word concierge. First job, first paycheck.

First time I wear a suit and a tie. They didn’t have a suit my size, so they gave me one the next size up. It’s so baggy that it makes me look like an idiot.

On top of that, the collar is so stiff that it stabs the back of my neck like a knife. My glasses are wonky. The cheap and ridiculously pointy shoes that I bought not that long ago have started to wear out. There are holes in them and I’ve had to glue the soles back together.

My boss makes me shave and cut my hair. I don’t always remember to shave and the hotel director has even mentioned this to my boss. If I ever get out of here, I swear I’ll never do this kind of job again.

People ask me what does a concierge do. Well, we are your best pal during your stay. We’re knowledgeable, attentive, multi-skilled individuals who will book your cabs, get your theatre tickets, answer all of your queries, listen and laugh at your inane jokes and travel anecdotes.

We don’t do any of the boring Reception stuff. None of that checking people in and out, no admin tasks, no routine paperwork. Guests don’t come to us to complain about odd smells or the size of their rooms – that’s for the receptionists to handle. We’re the good guys, the friendly faces, your guide to fun and comfort.

You can ask us what you want, or let us tell you what you need. An American guy came up to me recently and said “what can I do?”. Another guy asked me “what is nice around here?”.

We know London like the back of our hand. What are you looking for? We’ll find it for you. Fast food? A large gym? Abbey Road? Big things? Arabic channels on your TV? The best taxidermist in town? We got it.

We’re on minimum wage, £5.80 an hour, but on top of that, there are tips and commissions, which is really the selling point of the job.

We get something out of most enquiries, which come rolling in all day. All kinds of requests. We keep luggage in our clock room and most guests give us a £1 or £2 tip when collecting their bags. We charge a fiver for plug adapters that Giuseppe gets from some dealer for a tenth of that price. Families book their open-top bus tours here, and for each ticket sold in cash, we keep a fiver. Single men and couples alike can also get their events tickets from us; theatre, gigs, football, rugby, whatever. Awkward business men timidly ask for escort directories or strip clubs. 

There’s cash to be gained from every single one of these operations.

There’s our official top scalper and punter, Don. He’s a quiet, really tall man from Manchester, always wearing a flat cap and a Harrington jacket. He is well known amongst concierges in the local area. You can call Don any time of the day and he’ll be in his car, going from Hotel to Hotel. He’ll get you tickets for anything you can think of, no matter how big the event is, how sold out it may appear to be, or how short notice it is. And of course, we get a hefty 15-20% slice in cash for any of these sales.

In the second drawer down of our desk, conveniently hidden from outsiders’ sight, we keep the envelope. That’s where we keep commissions in cash earned throughout the day, including the 20% from pre-paid minicab bookings that we arrange for the guests.

We use our minicab company to send guests to airports and train stations. All the hotels in the area have their own seedy mini cab guys. Whichever one of us arranges the booking gets a generous fee of between £5 and £20 depending on the journey.

We would only hail a black cab from the street if guests need a short ride into town, and therefore nothing to be gained from it. Of course, the black cab drivers know what’s going on, and in their inherently angry demeanour, they’re not happy about it.

Any front desk staff in central London knows about the long war standing between the black cab and the minicab drivers and us concierges that use them from all the local hotels. The war is almost a literal one. Often the black cab drivers come and swear at us from their cars. You can hear them making nasty comments under their breath, throwing the occasional racist remark. They approach our desk to confront and threaten us, screaming “You’re stealing our money!”.

Sometimes, when we hail a black cab for a guest, they refuse the job, hollering from their windows stuff like “Why don’t you call one of your fucking minicabs?”. Other times they would come into the hotel to use the public toilets, and piss everywhere on the floor and walls as some kind of pitiful revenge.

The minicab scheme is only one or many to get some extra dough on the side for us. At the end of the day, the cash from the envelope is split equally with whoever was working that shift.

Every other week I’m sent out by the others to a number of local restaurants to collect the other envelopes. These contain the commissions in cash earned from booking guests in their premises, usually a fiver per head. There are agreements with five or six restaurants in the area.

I particularly like going to the local Italian, Ristorante Messina. As soon as I walk through the door, the manager, Signore Russo, greets me with a big grin and takes me to his office in the back. I think he likes me, being the new boy in the job. I get the special treatment for being half Sicilian. One of the waiters brings me a shot of limoncello, I loosen my tie slightly, and while he counts the money I feel like a wise guy on a 70s gangster movie.

It is an odd job for odd people. On a good day, I can go home with £100-£150 in my pocket, and I rarely ever have to take money out of my bank account for my daily spendings. I don’t think anyone else in the hotel, let alone the public, knows the extend of what goes on behind the concierge desk, and that makes these secretive group shenanigans feel like you’re part of an illicit organisation or even a cult.

A feeling strengthened upon my discovery of a strange organisation called The Golden Keys Society, a collective of concierges of which my boss is a member. It’s a bit like the freemasonry of hospitality. You can tell which concierges are members of the Society because they wear a golden enamel pin of two crossed keys on the collar of their uniform jacket. I have asked my boss several times about it, what being part of the Society entails, how do you become a member or what do they do, to which I always get vague responses.

We are six Concierges in total. Giuseppe, Jules and I only coincide on the same work shift for a few hours every other week, always on a late evening. These are always the quietest times for us when most guests are out and about in town and the front desk staff can relax a bit.

Our short moments together are always entertaining. Giuseppe and Jules have a unique relationship, friendly for the most part, but also tense, if we think of how much cash in hand money is at stake when sharing a shift.

They are both the old school kind of men, in their late 40s, possibly early 50s. Needless to say, I’m several worlds apart from these guys. As far as we’re aware, Giuseppe has never been married. Jules, on the other hand, is in a terribly unhappy marriage, the deepest secrets of which he is always keen to confide to me.

In a way, Jules and Giuseppe dislike one another but they are open about it, creating a strange yet sometimes tense camaraderie to which I act as a kind of jovial mediator. Being more than 20 years younger than them and still free from any of the burdens of adulthood, I think they see me with a certain degree of resentment, particularly when I put in my pocket my share of the day’s earnings. However, I also feel that they’re grateful for having someone in the team that’s not quite like them.

I have never encountered people like these two before, and working with them both at the same time is usually pretty entertaining. They have some kind of agreement to let each other slack off work, whereby Jules sits in the stockroom at the back, away from the guests, hangs up a huge London street map on the wall, puts his feet up and studies The Knowledge. His dream is to become a black cab driver and he’s been studying for over a year. Quite ironic considering our issues with the cabbies. As someone who was trying to become “one of them”, the other black cab drivers would spare him of the abuse we receive, but he benefits from the minicab commissions just the same.

Whilst Jules does his thing at the back, Giuseppe stays at the desk in the hotel lobby, looking up the most disparate things on the Internet, from the cheapest places to live in Eastern Europe, to betting odds and porn. And, while they both keep themselves busy, I just wander around the quiet big lobby until one of them finishes his shift and I take over the desk.

I’m not sure which one of the two I prefer to spend time with. Jules is mostly okay, but he has his good and bad days. He’s quite the paranoid, nosy kind. He loves to gossip. When he’s not at the back studying maps, he’s busy chatting away with the reception manager or the maintenance guys.

Sometimes he would start talking to me about his marriage, about how much his wife annoys him. Recently he started an affair with one of the housekeepers in the Hotel, who he agrees to meet in one of the vacant rooms during our shifts. This means that I’m left on my own at the desk for approximately half an hour before he returns from his encounter, usually looking red-faced and slightly ruffled. Then, in exchange for what Jules calls his ‘little secret’, I get to leave the desk and have some time downstairs with Bruno in his office, flicking through his copy of Mojo magazine, eating pizza and drinking some lost property wine mixed with Coca-cola on the sly.

A sleepy gaze takes over the hotel lobby during those long, quiet evenings. The hours pass slowly whilst standard lounge music, softly discernible in the background, mixes up with the distant sounds of a TV screen. Morning shifts are always buzzing with movement, guests checking in and out, suitcases everywhere, the director walking around with an air of bravado. But these also the best hours of the day to get tips.

I was the only concierge in the team living in the Staff House until Giuseppe turned up one day with his motorbike. It surprised me that he was wearing his work uniform on a day off. All he had with him was a small but heavy cardboard box, and some clothes stuffed into a plastic bag.

He settled in the room next to mine, a considerably larger space on the third floor of approximately 100 square feet. Up until then, he had been living in a small house share in North Wembley, with two large Indian families, and paying £250 a month for a room the size of a large cupboard. So when one of the rooms in the Staff House became available, he jumped at the opportunity.

I was aware of Giuseppe’s idiosyncratic behaviour from his ways at work, but it wasn’t until now that he’s in the Staff House that I fully realised the dimension of the man’s eccentricity.