Over feta-stuffed dates at Samovar in San Francisco, my friend Gina insisted I read Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds. So I bought it on the spot because many years ago, she introduced me to Mary Gaitskill’s work and Gaitskill is a god. Tomsky’s hilarious memoir about his tenure in the hospitality business raised eyebrows in his industry and at large, because his book marched out a largely invisible workforce and commented on the exploitive, rectus power structure firmly in place by fear and greed. From valet to desk clerk to housekeeping manager, Tomsky lovingly aired the dirty hotel laundry and became that grind that happens when you have worked one too many graveyard shifts in New York. Jotting down notes from his post as a “key monkey” at a prominent NYC hotel, he joined the union, said “fuck it,” and moved to Paris.
I wanted to interview him about his adventures in customer service at the “Bellvue,” pissing people off, and his nonprofit organization Short Story Thursdays, but I didn’t find him writing in Paris. I found him in Africa.
The Rumpus: My friend Gina thinks I should marry you. I loved your raw, hilarious tone throughout Heads in Beds. If bellmen around the country have a Google group where they complain about customers, I’m definitely on their shit list for being stingy and self-reliant. From now on, every time I see a bellman I am going to offer him a blowjob and a fifty-spot.
Jacob Tomsky: Well let’s get fucking married! How you wanna do this? The Q&A, not the marriage.
Rumpus: We could e-mail, phone, or Skype. Name your poison. I’ve been in the service industry my entire adult life, also, so we have a lot in common. My motto is “Leave no lap un-touched,” but your location makes this challenging.
Tomsky: Yeah. Skype seems the best maybe, as international phone rates are silly. And service is service, that’s definitely true. Any time there are two people involved, one of them becomes a server.
Rumpus: See, that’s one thing that concerns me about marrying you: we are both service industry lifers. We will be leg wrestling for top dog—competing for gold stars. Plus, I would try to smoke you in the “happy ending” department.
Skype, it is. Fuck written e-mails. Are you teaching in Africa? What a trip.
Tomsky: I moved to South Africa three weeks ago. I’ve always wanted to come to Africa. It’s my one-month anniversary in Cape Town. After the publicity wore off for the book, I needed to take time off to write.
Rumpus: But, Africa?
Tomsky: At the end of Heads in Beds, I wrote about wanting to come to Cape Town. And, it’s been great. I have a room here that’s bigger than my Brooklyn apartment.
Rumpus: What’s your life like?
Tomsky: I’m writing 2,000 words a day here, working on the follow-up to Heads in Beds, a novel, and one other book about Brooklyn and the drug scene. I miss my friends, Brooklyn, my cats—the snow. Even though my friends would kill me if they heard that. It’s summertime in this hemisphere.
Rumpus: Do you feel you have to separate yourself from everything you know in order to write? That sounds so adventurous and romantic and so not the way that I write: locked in a dark room staring at a computer for hours. I like your way: from New Orleans to Paris.
Tomsky: Yeah, I didn’t flat-out write it in the book, but I left the hospitality industry and flew to Paris to become a writer. Paris was lonely. I did leave the Bellevue in a dramatic way. I am not even allowed back in the building because of the way I left. I’ve been kicked offstage, too. I was thrown offstage for profanity and intoxication at a hospitality industry speaking engagement. But I wasn’t drunk at all. I had like one beer. And I did use profanity, but only while reading from the book itself. And they even approved the entire speech prior.
Rumpus: This is why I love you.
Tomsky: The people in charge of the conference loved my book but the higher-ups didn’t. Onstage, it was like the day the laughter died.
Rumpus: Why? Did you mention bedbugs?
Rumpus: Let’s talk about your smart, funny, wonderful book. Is Heads in Beds your first book?
Tomsky: No, I wrote three novels before this book. It took me six months to write a proposal and Doubleday gave me nine months to write the full book. I probably wrote ten drafts and it took about two-and-a-half years before the book actually hit the marketplace, from idea to publication date.
Rumpus: In Heads in Beds, you write about your tenure in the hospitality business and the rich and interesting workforce that is the hospitality industry. In the spirit of “those without money will always serve those with money,” there’s a strong case in your book that those lower on the totem pole had a strong bond: the synergy that the bellmen and clerks and valets had with each other and they developed a lucrative and collaborative team. Is that right?
Tomsky: You’ll always find camaraderie at the bottom. Probably because it gets so hard down there you need to work together; whether it’s to somehow increase your own income in little ways or just keeping each other entertained and not suicidal. And synergy is basically built into the hotel business. It’s essential. You can tell when it’s not happening because your room isn’t ready and your room service is delivered cold.
Rumpus: In your book, you reveal a lot of oppressive and even coked-up managerial types who were two-faced and greedy. There were things you left out of your book. I know I can’t ask you exactly what you left out, but can you discuss the difficulty you had revealing certain hotels and people while writing Heads in Beds?
Tomsky: Well, as anyone who works in a service business can tell you, chances are you come out the other side angry and bitter. And with enemies. Both co-workers and managers. But during the editing phase it was explained to me, and I can see how very correct this is, that pulling the trigger on some of that pent-up anger isn’t useful—not to the reader, and most of it is not really actually that entertaining, either. It’s just dark bits that you want to expel and that end up clouding the overall meaning and feeling of the book.
My editor is a goddamn genius. And I took pains to conceal the hotels where I worked and the people that I worked with. Beyond the legal benefits of this, I truly believe that a hotel is a hotel is a hotel. And as much as this was my story, I hoped it would be other people’s stories as well, other hospitality employees. And when that is the goal, specifics are only distracting and could be hurtful.
Rumpus: Were you afraid of pissing people off by writing about your managers, co-workers, and bosses?
Tomsky: The first draft was really dark and my editor Gerry Howard wrote out his edits on many sticky notes, some that basically said “you can’t call people disgusting” and “you can’t bring down your co-workers; eliminate this” and so on. So, I did a lot of hiding. I was worried about being an asshole.
Rumpus: You’re not an asshole. Assholes are the people who think they are really nice guys but it’s clear to everyone else they are total sociopaths. Heads in Beds has a lot of heart. I think your writing is the most vital when you are tearing the covers back on the cruelty inherent in the service industry, and revealing what little recourse the hospitality workforce actually has. The characters in your book are relatable, funny, and true. I will never stay at a hotel with the same eyes. You show the power structure so well. For instance, the manager who kept saying, “Your job is very easy” when there is absolutely nothing easy about cleaning piss from the side of a toilet bowl, scooping condoms from a trashcan, or working a graveyard shift desk job.
Tomsky: Yes. The main goal of the book is revealing the hidden workforce within the service industry. Most hotel work is done invisibly. Technically, you don’t see those people working to ensure your stay is comfortable and clean, so to show their lives was important to me. Also, I am very pro-union and very anti-authority by nature, so by showing the housekeepers and valets, I was being loyal to those people—those workers. I’m glad that the service industry unionized.
Rumpus: Me too. I was a part of a labor war that happened at the Lusty Lady Peepshow in the ‘90s. It’s amazing how shitty and dehumanizing management types can be. Also, I love the tips you give throughout, even though they made me feel guilty. Bellmen all over the world will enjoy ridiculous tips from me from now on. I’ve been stealing the food from their children’s mouths for decades. Time to make amends.
Can you describe what it was like to finally exit the hospitality business? How did you walk away? What will you do now? How is your life different now than it was when you were a hotel clerk?
Tomsky: I walked away very dramatically. So dramatically, that I am no longer allowed in my hotel. Not because of the book, but because of my last day. No one knew about the book deal or anything. So it was my personal secret, and those can be very powerful. I would get into more details, but that’s one thing I am doing here in South Africa, writing the second book. And you better believe I am going to tell the story of my exit. It was hilarious and awesome and I love it and don’t regret it one bit. Even though there is a picture of my face hanging up in security now and, I hope, forever.
And my life is wildly different now, obviously. Writing full-time. Being in goddamn Africa. Just booked a freighter to travel home in two months. I’ll be taking a freighter across the Atlantic Ocean. I’d say that’s different. Not that anything got easier really. Writing is difficult, and I know you are more than aware of that fact. And the money ain’t good. And it’s competitive. And you have to constantly fight and work. But, that said, it’s like five billion times better than getting yelled at by some asshole guest about something that had nothing to do with me in the first place.
Rumpus: You are so passionate about writing and literature that you started a nonprofit organization, which I signed up for immediately. How did you start Short Story Thursdays and what is it? Have you taken any formal writing classes?
Tomsky: Only one short story and poetry class as a freshman in college. But I have been a voracious reader for years. And Short Story Thursdays—it’s a service that provides people with one e-mail a week containing one classic short story, with an introduction to the selection written by me. It’s a new way to inject a little bit of literature into your life. I love it so much. We have thousands of members worldwide and every week it gets bigger and bigger. It’s free to join. Anyone who sends an email to firstname.lastname@example.org is in.
Rumpus: So, what is the first thing you will do when you get back to Brooklyn?
Tomsky: Get all my friends together in one bar for a huge reunion. Drink a shot and a beer and sit at a bar and laugh my ass off. Cannot wait. Then, probably the next day, get straight to the task of editing all this new South African content.
Featured image of Jacob Tomsky © by James Slater.
Second image of Jacob Tomsky © by Marcus Santos.