When New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena against AirBnb to obtain their massive client list in early October of last year, most New Yorkers probably thought it was a corrupt power play—just another case of state government bending to the will of the greedy hotel industry, or a bold-faced grab at tax revenue. Those are realistic assumptions, but it is impossible to deny the fact that an unregulated, short-term rental economy has major quality-of-life repercussions. I watched quiet apartment buildings full of sweet old ladies turn into lawless shit holes overnight. It wasn’t pretty, and it was partially my fault.

Toshi circumvented the suspicious superintendent problem in many buildings by renting out several apartments under different names. On numerous occasions, I showed up to collect new keys from supers armed with stories about my fictional girlfriend and her new job, or I became Toshi’s “personal assistant” and thought up excuses as to why a single wealthy man needed three cramped railroad apartments in one roach-infested building on the Lower East Side.

The entire operation was a nightmarish comedy of errors. When a guest loses their keys in a typical hotel, they go downstairs to the concierge and get new ones. At Hotel Toshi, lost keys meant that guests waited for five hours in a phone booth at McDonald’s and sobbed into our dispatcher’s ear. We could never keep up with the demand. We could never put out all the fires. We never had enough towels, silverware, or creative apologies.

After one month at Hotel Toshi, I was essentially on-call 24 hours every day. I began sleeping in the empty apartments closest to the office. I once spent an entire camping trip on the phone, helping a new dispatcher troubleshoot some delivery issues. It was impressive how quickly this ridiculous job took over my life. 

My employment at Hotel Toshi ended abruptly when I quit without notice during the second month on the job. The stress, the lying, the long hours, the hopelessly overwhelmed infrastructure and the constant fighting with customers became an unmanageable working environment and my own little hospitality hell. On my last day, a young employee with broken English came over to my desk with an awkward question: “You can be Robert Chan on line two?” 

I picked up the phone and a stern voice of an inquisitive IRS agent greeted me on the other end of the line. My coworker pointed to numbers and dates on a series of tax forms while quietly listening to my conversation on another line. After I cheerfully read Robert Chan’s tax and social security information over the phone, I hung up the receiver and drafted my final lie in an email to Cai, explaining that I had found other employment and would be leaving Hotel Toshi immediately.

Headlines detailing Robert “Toshi” Chan’s legal troubles began appearing shortly after my departure. The city issued several fines totaling $1 million for his illegal “transient hotel” activities. Within a year, he had purchased a legitimate hotel on Broadway at 26th Street called the Flatiron. As far as I know, Hotel Toshi no longer exists, or at least it disappeared under deeper cover. I haven’t seen a bike messenger wearing a grey polo shirt or carrying a stack of fresh towels in quite some time.

There was nothing sophisticated about Hotel Toshi. In fact, any ambitious entrepreneur with a couple iMacs, soft business ethics and a pair of brass balls could replicate his model. New York City learned this fact the hard way through many years of 311 complaints. I'm certain that the mountain of headaches that Toshi caused played a major role in New York's decision to go after AirBnb.

Schneiderman’s team probably never even considered the little mom-and-pop operations with a spare bedroom and “amazing views of the Empire State Building.” They wanted the big hungry fish. They wanted guys like Toshi, the savvy hustler willing to game the system on the unlikely chance that he might build an empire.

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