That One Time: I Was a Gopher at an Illegal AirBnB Hotel

Because sometimes you just need the money.

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That One Time is a recurring series of essays highlighting oddball, first-person experiences. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Complex City Guide. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed.

“Brooklyn-based Hotel Toshi is hiring an operations specialist to join our team. This employee will act as a ‘gopher,’ diagnosing and troubleshooting logistics and maintenance issues of all shapes and sizes. Starting pay is $2,500 per month with opportunities for future benefits and promotion. Prior hotel experience is a plus.”

The address listed as Hotel Toshi was little more than a loading dock for a non-descript loft building on a dreary corner under the Williamsburg Bridge. When I arrived, the only signs of life were three fresh-faced, bewildered-looking Germans with a set of matching suitcases. One girl was wearing a neck pillow. With the traffic on the bridge above our heads roaring, one of them asked, “Excuse me, sir, can you direct us to Hotel Toshi?

After fumbling through a few hand gestures to explain that we were looking for the same place, a red door burst open, spilling a gaggle of beautiful, giggling women onto the sidewalk, each with a rolling suitcase in tow. I caught the door and waved the Germans inside, making a mental note of the tiny piece of masking tape that read “TOSHI” affixed to the buzzer.

We descended into a cinder block basement where a beautiful young black woman with perfect dreadlocks sat in front of a curtain at a reception desk. A middle-aged couple in glittery t-shirts emblazoned with hand-drawn caricatures of Barack Obama stood next to her, furiously pecking at a pair of smartphones. The waiting area contained only a small couch, a water cooler, and several wrinkled copies of New York magazine. The woman at the desk greeted the Germans in French. They responded in English, to which she simply replied, “Ah yes, Mulberry Street. Four nights, yes?”

Another woman emerged from behind the curtain, approached me, confidently stuck out her hand, and introduced herself as Cai. I followed her behind the curtain where dozens of employees sat clacking away at computers organized atop long banks of folding tables. My presence was barely acknowledged amidst the boiler room of frantic scurrying and multi-lingual babel. One entire wall was covered with color-coded sets of keys arranged onto meticulously labeled hooks. A small group of teenagers stood on step stools, arranging buckets full of key rings into their proper locations.

Elsewhere, chaotic “dispatchers” responded to a deluge of phone calls and barked orders to a group of boys who waddled around like little friendly dungeon masters with enormous key rings hanging from their belts. These were the gophers. 

My interview was short and to the point: $2,500/month for the first two months. 50-60 hours per week, two graveyard shifts. No set schedules. “It’s the Chinese way. You work when we need you. If Toshi likes you, you get a bonus,” explained Cai. And yes, Toshi was a real human being. I agreed to start the following morning.

Toshi is Chinese-American and his full name is Robert Chan. His appearances in the office were infrequent, but his presence was always felt immediately. He wore white pants, white shoes, and carried around a tiny fluffy dog named Ponzu. His time in the office was marked by loud shouting matches with Cai, his office manager/girlfriend, and his role in the company seemed to mostly involve disingenuous smiles, over-filled glasses of white wine and vigorous handshakes with visiting Hasidic landlords.

At the time of my hiring, Hotel Toshi operated about 150 apartments scattered across Manhattan below 96th Street and over the bridge into Williamsburg. New units went online at an incredible pace—three were opened in my first week—and a fleet of yellow delivery trucks operated by a team of handy dudes feverishly assembled IKEA furniture to keep up with demand. Many of these guys were unemployed bicycle messengers with a keen understanding of city streets.

To avoid legal repercussions in the United States, nearly all of our advertising was directed toward European, South American and Asian tourists, and pushed through online home rental sites like AirBnb. American customers were rare. 

On my first day, I showed up at 8:00 a.m. to find 30 bored women leaning against pushcarts full of cleaning supplies. The “dispatchers” called out names and one by one, the housekeeping staff walked up to collect a Metrocard and a list of addresses. I sat down with the gophers.

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.

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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