Thursday, September 2, 2010

Caring for Guests at Cheap Lodgings

Calls arrive regularly from the Banana Bungalows, a youth hostel bordering the freeway north of Hollywood.

A Dutch woman was suffering a bad cold. Hearing the fee, she assured me she had insurance. I reminded her that most European travel insurance (unlike South American and Asian) requires clients to pay up front and then file a claim. Hearing this, she decided to wait. I told her she probably didn’t need a doctor, gave advice, and phoned a pharmacy to prescribe a cough medicine. Prescription cough medicines are not superior to those sold over the counter, but patients believe they are.

A German explained that he had broken out in pimples, adding the pleasant information that he had “very good insurance,” so he would pay for the housecall. This is my favorite scenario. The phone call provided diagnosis: chicken pox. It was simply a matter of driving, informing the patient, giving the usual advice, and collecting his money.

The Banana Bungalows are probably a converted motel: cabins strung out along several narrow alleys off the Hollywood Freeway. I parked near the largest bungalow. Reaching the front desk required passing through a room containing several battered couches on which sat a handful of guests watching a movie on TV. Although they come from around the world, hostel guests resemble American college students. Perhaps the men look scruffier, the women more stylish. Also, like college students, there were fewer black faces but an impressive number of Asians.

The desk clerk directed me toward a cabin a hundred yards up the alley. When I knocked, an unhappy voice invited me in. The shabby interior contained four double-decked bunk beds, all unmade. Papers, food cartons, luggage, and clothes littered the floor, and there was no other furniture, not even a table where I could write. The air smelled of unwashed bodies: a typical hostel.

I sat on a vacant bed and introduced myself. One glance confirmed the diagnosis. A minor illness in children, chicken pox can be serious in an adult. Fortunately, this was a mild case. That was the good news, I informed him. The bad news was that he was contagious for a week after the rash appeared.

“I must fly home Friday.” In three days.

“The airline doesn’t want you on board with chicken pox,” I said. I added that the man’s insurance might pay for the change of itinerary. Whether or not it paid, I suspected he would board the plane on schedule. Everyone yearns to get home.

Walking down the hill, I puzzled over the appeal of youth hostels. This one charged thirty-five dollars a night, a bargain. But cheap motels begin at fifty dollars and offer privacy as well as an unshared bathroom. Rental cars surrounded each bungalow, essential for solo travel in the U.S., and the cheapest cost a hundred dollars a week. Perhaps young foreigners like to clump together. Back at the front desk, I stood on tiptoes to peer over and examine the reverse side. I counted four vivid red stickers displaying the name and phone number of other housecall doctors. Years ago, I gave in and paid ninety-five dollars for a thousand stickers of my own design, a more dignified blue on a white background. I still haven’t solved the problem of getting them posted.

I caught the eye of the desk clerk, a youth with a shaved head, tank top, and jeans. The quality of front desk personnel varies directly with the quality of the hotel. Since hostels are a nonprofit enterprise, their employees fall below the bottom of the scale.

“Could I speak to the front desk manager?” I asked.

“I guess that’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Oppenheim. I just took care of the man in bungalow ten.” He shifted impatiently. “Did you call a doctor?”

The clerk shook his head.

“Maybe one of your colleagues?”

“I’m the only one on duty.” It’s a mystery how often I find no one who admits to referring a guest. I began my sales pitch.

“Who do you call when a guest wants a doctor?”

The clerk shrugged. “Nobody gets sick much. We send them to an ER.”

“Someone called me. And look at those stickers.” I reached forward to tap the far side of the counter. The clerk looked, but his expression remained blank. I pressed on. “All hotels use me. Your guests can call any time. I’m happy to talk to them. That doesn’t cost anything, and half the time I solve their problem.”

At chain hotels, employees maintain eye contact as I speak. I often sense their lack of interest, but at least they remember their manners. The Banana Bungalow’s clerk kept nodding to encourage me to get to the point. He flicked an impatient glance at a guest standing nearby.

“I notice others have their numbers posted. Would you mind adding mine?”

“No problem.” The clerk snatched the sticker I held out and then turned to the waiting guest. I decided not to hang around to make sure he posted it.