Corruption

Dressed like a hit man...

For several years, I worked security for a famous Portland hotel which, for reasons soon to be obvious I will not name. Although it did not pay very well, it was an interesting job and every day brought a host of unique and sometimes even bizarre situations.

In a hotel, particularly one as steeped in time and tradition as this one, almost everyone has specific duties that keep them focused in on a narrow little slice of the experience. The housekeeping staff are busy with the fundamental task of keeping the place running, the kitchen staff exist in a chaotic netherworld resembling nothing less than one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno. The Front Desk employees are trapped for hours behind their ornate wooden barrier and the Valets are… Well the Valets are the Valets.

As Security, my role was a bit more nebulous. I was the only person around who often seemed to be without a specific task, although I would console myself with that famous line from Milton, “Those also serve who only stand and wait.” In my double breasted suit, I did not resemble a guard so much as perhaps a Concierge or maybe I sometimes hoped, a hired killer.

It was not my job to carry bags, or arrange taxis, although as I wandered about the place, I often did. No, it was my job to watch. It was my job to blend in with the elegant background and to notice things. I’m a fairly large and I took a certain pleasure in suddenly materializing when a problem situation began to develop. Then, as now, I specialized in the drunk and crazy, nurturing a quiet and polite demeanor in which, I would lean forward and say softly, “Sir… I believe it’s time for you to go.”

One night, while patrolling the basement, I came across an inebriated gentleman in an area that was not open to the public. I approached him in my best manner and asked if I could help him. He replied that he was lost. Using my astute abilities as an observer, I gave him a quick once over, noticing his long, rather unkempt, graying hair and beard, and his sun burnt face with protruding brown eyes. He had on a nice coat, but his shoes ragged and dirty… I always paid close attention to people’s shoes, a homeless person may get a new jacket from one of the shelters, but their shoes usually give them away.

Phil…

I made a quick judgment call and decided this lost wanderer was probably some local drunk who had staggered into the Hotel looking for a place to rest, or a bathroom to use. “Sir,” I said, “You know, I think I might be able to help you…” I went on to explain to him that it appeared that he might have had a little too much to drink and that in his own interest, I would like to help him find his way back home. I asked him if he had money for a cab and he said he did, so I escorted him up to the street and arranged a ride for him.

The gentleman seemed perfectly willing to go along with my plan and I told him, in a friendly manner that I really wanted this night to end well for him. As he got into the cab, his vision seemed to clear for a moment and he asked, “Are you Security?” “Well… Yes I am.” I said. Then he asked, “Did you just kick me off the property?” I responded that I didn’t really like to think of it like that, I was just doing my best to serve him and make sure he had a good experience. Well, he thanked me and rode off into the night.

About an hour later a very well dressed gentleman showed up from the adjacent and very expensive restaurant next door and asked, “Have you seen Phil Knight? We’re having a business meeting next door and he went off to go to the bathroom and never came back…”

I figured that either I was fired, or because I had been so nice to him, I might end up working for him, but the next day when he came back for his black Mercedes convertible, it was obvious that he had no idea who I was, which I suppose was all for the best.

So working in the Hotel often seemed like standing in the middle of a stream with a fishing rod while all the characters and lives flowed around me. Inside your mind, you find this calm observant place where you can watch from. I call it Backing Up. It’s a habit I picked up in my years in Japan, where I pretend that I am backing up just a little from my own face and looking out through my eyes as if they were windows.

I see the man in the bar trying to put moves on the young blonde there and it seems so painfully obvious. I see the fat rich men arriving with their stunning young wives following them along like poodles on a leash. The men look proud and the women look bored with an expression of distaste that seems almost tattooed on. Nothing for them is ever quite right. The rooms are never good enough, the food is often sent back, as if in the selling of their souls, nothing ever tastes quite right again. I can see them in the cage of their own making, always searching for whatever it was that they thought they wanted. It never being enough.

There was a distinct difference between the public front of the Hotel and the inner workings. It was very like a stage where the front is sumptuous and rich with ancient hand carved walnut walls and the back is a warren of crumbling brick and ancient substandard plumbing. In the front it is elegance and charm with a hushed sense of grandeur while in the back, it is a hive of angry cursing cooks, over worked and under educated support staff, and arrogant, dismissive administration.

As I patrolled, or stood and watched, I began to notice little things that didn’t seem to make sense. I think the first thing I noticed was one day from the roof, I looked down and saw one of the valets parking a car for a customer on the street so many floors below. He jumped into the customer’s car and then pulled just around the corner into an empty space, got out and then ran back to the front door. At the time, I didn’t realize what I was seeing.

The Hotel offered secure parking. For a fee of $22 the valet was supposed to take your car, drive it to the bank next door and park it in the secure basement. When he retrieved the vehicle, he would pay the gate staff $6, leaving $16 which was to be given to the Hotel. If the client was just there for dinner in the elegant and expensive restaurant, then the hotel would stamp the ticket with a complimentary stamp and pay for the parking itself, again for $6.

It was the first of many scams I began to notice among hotel staff. The valet would take $22 from the client and then instead of driving next door to the secure lot, he would park it on the street and pocket the $22. Each customer key was kept in a small brown numbered envelope with the name of the customer, a description of the car, and the location where it was supposed to be parked. That envelope was the receipt the Hotel used to balance the books at the end of the day.

The valets brought their own envelopes and when they pocketed the parking fee, they would throw that envelope away. As time went by, I began to notice more and more situations that I didn’t understand. I would see something, like noticing at the end of the day that the valets, who also parked in the basement next door would drive past the gate with just a wave, when I thought that all employees got the same discount that the Hotel got, $6.

Eventually, I went to the administration and asked what I should do. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not my business. I was there to protect the Hotel and that the staff was an internal issue. During the ensuing year, I noticed more and more, and not just the valets, but things with the housekeeping management, with the bellmen, the Concierge. I saw money exchanging hands, I saw property going home, I saw men with bags of merchandise selling items to the valets on the front steps of the Hotel. Staff even told me about certain scams, one very sweet young man told me he wanted to be honest, but the job had turned his soul black.

Then, after a year of watching, the administration set me loose. I don’t know why, but one day they said they wanted me to crack down on the employees. One of my own Security team had left our contracted company and gone to work for the hotel as a valet, telling me he could make much more money parking cars. I had warned him that the job would corrupt him and he had promised me it wouldn’t. His dram was to eventually become a police officer and I told him that the Security job would look better on his resume, but he said that the money was just too good as a valet.

The day after I was set loose, I was walking with this ex-security friend down to our cars in the basement and I told him I had been instructed to crack down on the theft from the hotel. He told me flat out that it was impossible. That this was tradition and it would never change. Then he got in his car and I got in mine and I followed him out of the garage. He drove through the gate first, and then when I got to the lady in the booth, I asked her how he had paid his parking fee. She told me, “Valets never pay.”

The next day at the end of the shift, when he drove up to the parking window, I was standing inside the booth with the ticket taker. After a clumsy search of his car he told me he had lost his ticket and would pay full price today, $22. It was the beginning of some very interesting realizations.

Each department had one rubber stamp that they could use to validate parking tickets when comping clients. Now, a rubber stamp is a lot like a fingerprint, no two are alike. Some are a little faded in one corner, some have small cuts in the rubber that show up as white lines, and some are compressed so that the edges of the stamp show. They are all a little different, so I went to every department and I collected their Complimentary stamps, then I took a large piece of paper and made an impression of each stamp along with a note about which department it came from. After putting all this together I went to the ticket taker and asked to see all the tickets from the last week that had been stamped complimentary. After comparing each ticket with the list I had compiled, I discovered a large number of tickets had been marked with two unclaimed stamps, hundreds of them.

It seems that the valets had had the Hotel stamp duplicated. They would take the $22 from the customer, park the car and then when they retrieved it, they would use the stamp to get the car back out of the garage and pocket the $22. So, each valet would do this around 10 times a shift. That’s two valets on days and evenings and one valet on nights for a total of 5 each day… That’s over $7,000 a week. Which explained the expensive clothes, the nice cars, the cocaine, and the top drawer booze. And that was only the Comp stamps I had found and did not include the times they parked on the street around the corner.

There was also a tradition of telling customers with really nice vehicles that in order to keep a better eye on things, they would park it right out in front of the Hotel. There were always at least four or five cars parked there. Same story… If you didn’t park in the garage, you could put the money in your pocket.

After I busted that particular scam, I realized that there was still one unclaimed stamp being used. What I discovered was that one of the Hotel employees had quit and gone to work for the adjacent restaurant, which I will add, is one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in. It appeared that he had taken one of the Complimentary stamp copies with him and that the valets from that business were also pocketing their fees and charging the Hotel to park their customer’s cars.

Then there was the Bellhop I found doing drugs in a nearby parking lot bathroom. I seems he had been going through customer’s bags after delivering them and taking just a few pills from each room. He knew people didn’t count and no one would ever miss just a few.

There were the thieves who would move through downtown and bring their goods to the front door of the Hotel to sell to the staff there. Leather jackets, expensive liquor, perfume, the list seemed endless. The first time I saw it, I was just standing out there, enjoying the bustle of the main drag when this guy comes up and offers a bag of high end perfume, as the guys gathered around, I said, “Don’t tell me you are buying hot goods right here in front of the Hotel?!”

One night as I was walking around the Hotel I happened to look in a trashcan on the corner by our adjacent restaurant and I noticed a large wad of brown envelopes of the kind we used at the Hotel to keep customer keys. Each envelope had the name, description, and parking place, just like we did at the Hotel, there were probably about 30 of them. I called the company that contracted the valet service with the restaurant and they sent over their security man. I gave him the stack of envelopes and he knew immediately what it meant, although we agreed to keep my name out of it.

It was as if the corruption had infiltrated into their very being. The nice valet who had talked about the blackening of his soul told me it just crept up on you. That you did it the first time when the night was slow and you weren’t going to make much money. Then you came to expect a certain amount and when you had another slow night you bumped it up again and then again until you were taking hundreds a night.

During this whole episode I went to my bosses at the contract security company I worked for and I asked for secure parking. I was informed that my contract did not include parking. I responded that due to the mess I was stirring up at the Hotel, I really required it. Again I was told it was not in my contract, but they would address it during the next renewal process.

The next day, I called again and asked, “Do you remember our conversation from yesterday?” They said yes, “Well, you’re paying my deductible.” Someone (can we guess who) had absolutely trashed my van. They had slashed the seats, broken off door handles, smashed windows, and torn up the dashboard. Later I heard rumors that the valets next door were looking for proof that I was the one who had turned them in for dumping the envelopes. Whatever revenge they were planning never coalesced but I admit to feeling a bit worried.

And then there was Housekeeping… Not really the housekeepers themselves. Not the ones who folded the towels and scrubbed the toilets, but the managers, the ones who rule their domains like greedy warlords. I’ll save that story for later since it’s as involved as this one, but suffice it to say, that in many ways it was much worse than what I found in the valet staff.

I’ve got to say, that it was fun. I met Bruce Willis (much smaller than you would think), Kobe Bryant (a gentleman), Shaquille O’Neal (that man has to duck to get in the elevator), Anne Margret (oh my God! The nicest lady in the world)… I met Joni Mitchell and Bo Derick, I struggled against the forces of evil and ate in the cafeteria with Al, one of the wisest old men I’ve ever met. I got to dress up like a Mafia hit man and walk the halls of one of the oldest and finest Hotels in the state. Sometimes as I patrolled the quiet, carpeted halls, I would think of the hotel in The Shining and murmur to myself, “Redrum, redrum…”

Not that I don’t love what I do now, but if they’d paid well and had insurance, I’d probably still be there.

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Comments
One Response to “Corruption”
  1. raineray says:

    Nice. Thanks Eliot. I cannot wait to hear more.

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