To say I looked out of place is an understatement. I was the only grown-ass white man on the team and my fellow gophers eyed me suspiciously. Their attention quickly turned when Camila—the head dispatcher—approached our table. A voluptuous Venezuelan dancer with a commanding presence, it was not difficult for Camila to corral a table full of rowdy teenage boys.
Camila began handing out instructions and Metrocards to all the gophers: Test a faulty lock in Soho. Check on a hot water issue in Chelsea. Clean up some broken glass on the Upper West Side. Hotel Toshi was everywhere, not just under a bridge in Brooklyn.
She turned towards me. “I need you to deliver three sets of keys and do a complaint call in the East Village. Can you do that?” I was handed an enormous color-coded key ring and a Metrocard. The rest of the gophers plodded over to the subway platform in the midsummer heat, while I smugly hopped on my bicycle and headed over the bridge to Manhattan.
My first complaint call was to a small railroad apartment on East 21st Street. I knocked on the door, it swung open and two bald European men stood in the entryway, one with a pencil-thin moustache, and the other clean-shaven with tiny glasses.
“I am very upset,” said the first bald man, with jazzy hand gestures. “This is absolutely disgusting,” said the second bald man, covering his mouth with cartoonish nausea. The apartment wasn’t much—a small TV on a table and a bunch of cheap-looking IKEA furniture. Sparse, but very clean. Every apartment at Hotel Toshi looked like a doctor’s office waiting room and smelled like Pine-Sol.
The first bald man walked over to the TV and pulled it away from the wall. A small mountain of filth—roughly twenty used condoms—sat tightly packed into the corner. I called Camila and was instructed to comp the angry bald gentlemen a new room down the block. I delivered my three sets of keys and returned to the Williamsburg office in record time, much to the delight of Cai, who was positive that most of the gophers were sitting around in Tompkins Square Park drinking tall boys on company time. It became immediately clear to her that a gopher on a bicycle was a valuable asset.
I quickly found myself the leader of the entire gopher operation. My All-American charm easily placated the disgruntled European clients. By the end of my first week, I had become a bicycle messenger who only delivered refunds, replacement keys, and consolation to guests who didn’t appreciate New York City’s rougher edges. Sporting a grey polo with the Hotel Toshi logo over my left breast, I became an expert at resolving customer service emergencies. I also logged about 50 miles on my bike everyday, but neither my knees nor my spirit were up to the task.
I mentioned to Cai that a small fleet of gophers on bicycles would better serve the department and she immediately fired the walking gophers. The delivery guys called up some of their old colleagues and within a week, every unemployed bike messenger we could find was cruising around Manhattan in a grey polo shirt. A corner of the office was converted for bicycle storage and the smell of sweat, grease, and rubber became a permanent fixture of the company headquarters. I was promoted to dispatcher.
My new position required that I sit next to Camila, who calmly barked orders into a telephone from the moment she arrived until her shift ended. After she learned that I knew some Spanish, I also began dispatching our cleaning and maintenance staff. I was fully embedded in the organization. During night shifts, I worked with another dispatcher named Michael. Like many Hotel Toshi employees, he was new to the city and received a portion of his wages in the form of free lodging at a series of unfilled apartments. The arrangement was equally tempting and terrifying.
By week three, I was a full-time desk jockey. I only visited apartments for the worst-case scenarios like suspicious building superintendents (who were clueless about our operation), and major Hotel Toshi oversights like double bookings or condom catastrophes. Recession-addled landlords often jumped into Toshi’s network in an effort to help ease their pain in the crippled real estate market. The arrangement was mutually beneficial for Toshi and the landlords—but everyone else suffered. We received daily complaints from full-time residents, who said that drunken European teenagers were “palming” the buzzer for building entry, passing out in the hallways, and puking in the garbage chutes.