As you, dear readers, well know, I am accustomed to jetting off to Amsterdam, Tulum, and Santa Fe to assess the quality of hotels and other tourist accommodations. So the assignment I received in 12/8–NS/LIJ Forest Hills Hospital–was quite a novelty.
My research assistant, Peter, and I set off with a weekend bag and a frisson of excitement. We’d get to ride the V train, and neither of us had spent any time in this part of Queens called Forest Hills, known for its pretty suburban garden developments.
When we arrived, we found we were nowhere near the luxe Forest Hills Gardens; instead, we were on the less savory northern side of Queens Boulevard, amid LeFrak-ish blocks and some swoopy condo skyscrapers that likely dated from the 1960s: the Kyoto Gardens Towers was the name, but, to adapt Vonnegut, there were no damn gardens and no damn Kyoto.
But one shouldn’t judge a hotel entirely on its neighbors. Whisking in through the sliding glass doors etched repeatedly with “EMERGENCY” in a rather chic sans-serif font, Peter and I found a less-than-welcoming front desk. Having to get buzzed in to a room called “triage” is just not the best sign of hospitality, anywhere in the world.
Nonetheless, the staff was courteous, if a bit skeptical (had they guessed my travel writer’s credentials?), and I was told to wait outside…while they readied my room, I suppose. (I had been promised a bed in the elite tower wing, but due to some byzantine bureaucratic requirements–another bad sign for this operation’s professionalism–I was required to check in on the more low-rent side.)
The lobby was a dismal affair, dominated by a large TV with its hues out of whack: a green-at-the-gills Judge Judy declaimed from her emerald-hued bench, and the assorted loungers watched, rapt. One man had his shoes off. A woman was wrapped in a blanket. Either they were very, very avant-garde, or I was in precisely the opposite of a five-star hotel.
Indeed. This became quite clear when my name was finally called, and I was handed a folded sheet. A hostel operation, then.
Peter and I were showed what I was assured was our temporary bed: a less-than-twin arrangement on wheels. Still, we had a bit more privacy than your standard dorm-beds-to-the-rafters situation, with clever little curtains on runners and a bit-too-small folding screen that preserved the barest of dignity of the guest next to us. Service continued to be courteous but spotty, with cryptic claims of “We’re working on getting you a bed” delivered by a range of people, some of whom were just not flattered by the corporate uniform, an all-white smock. This was meant to convey boutique minimalist chic, but frankly it looked a bit dumpy on most of the staff–more tailoring, please! And if that’s a blood stain on your thigh, I hope it’s tongue-in-cheek.
But I shouldn’t quibble. In my experience (yes, I have spent my fair share of nights in hostels, remarkable as that may seem), these cheap-sleep places are all about the people, primarily the other guests. Once I got myself acclimated (in the handy, if drafty, pajamas they’d issued me along with the sheet–an odd perk), I peered around my privacy curtain to get a feel for the social scene in the common area.
Something kept me from plunging right in. Normally, as a guidebook researcher, I am happy to chat with fellow travelers and locals; I do, however, gauge a situation to see whether it’s worth revealing my real job, as saying I’m a guidebook author can lead to all kinds of tedious and repetitive conversations along the lines of, “Dude, that’s coooool!” and ultimately leave no time for tip-gathering.
This crowd didn’t look like it would be too curious about my secret agenda, which was just what I wanted. But it also didn’t look like it would help give me the inside scoop on this place called Forest Hills. One man was hopelessly drunk, which is certainly not out of keeping with hostel habits, but his big fur hat and pointy-toe loafers suggested he was not the typical backpacker demographic. Another woman I made a note to avoid at all costs: “Nurse, can I get some help here?” she kept saying. What a tedious conversation gambit.
Also, the music was setting a distinctly odd, asocial tone. I think it’s what the kids are calling IDM (“intelligent dance music”) these days, but it hearkened back to John Cage, with its series of three tones cycling ever so subtly in and out of sync. Ambient chatter and walkie-talkie noise filled out the drama. Frankly, it was the music of drug fiends and intellectuals. Which caused me to ponder: Perhaps there was some indigenous drug here in Forest Hills, something that intrepid young tourists traveled here to take? That would certainly explain the behavior of the Nurse-can-I-get-some-help-here woman–maybe she was freestyling? Though I can’t imagine what sort of pharmaceutical or natural herb could make one enjoy this particular fluorescent-lit setting.
I retreated to my bed. At this point, I’d given up on the staff’s promises of a better bed and silently handed out grades of ‘F–‘ to all of them. Peter was a bit miffed as well, but he’s very professional (though officially amateur in his capacity as hotel reviewer) and kept his lips zipped.
Finally, after I’d dozed off while musing over the local drug culture, I was started out of my sleep by a staff member ready to escort me to a different room. Amazing, if horribly ill-timed. I’d been waiting for a full 12 hours! Does that mean my bill would reflect half a night at hostel rates, and half a night at chi-chi club tower rates?
Which brings me to a hot issue in travel writing: freebies. After someone says, “Dude, that is so coooool!” about my job, they without fail continue with, “So I guess you get all your hotels and restaurants paid for?” It’s sad to burst their bubble, but, dude, no, I do not get any of that paid for.
I also do not get paid particularly well. But it is also my job to assess the quality of hotels well above my station, and these hotels will often offer me a free night or two. This of course creates a quandary. I without fail say that I cannot possibly promise the hotel will be included in the guidebook, but yes, I’d love to frolic on their 500-thread-count sheets. And bring up one of those buckwheat pillows.
But my free visit is constantly haunted with the thought, “What if I had to pay for this?” Sometimes that’s $70 a night; sometimes it’s $400. Sometimes the place measures up; sometimes it doesn’t. And I have to factor in the weirder, fuzzier element of “Would a person who’s willing to spend $400 on a hotel be impressed with this place?” In the case of this mongrel hostel/hotel scenario I found myself in, I wasn’t quite sure what the going rate was, but I hoped it didn’t include a free CD from the house DJ. And I was damn glad I wasn’t paying for it–I’d arranged this stay through a sort of PR firm known only by its acronym, HIP. Even at, say, $25 per night, the hostel operation seemed to be a rip-off–all the money was going into the pretentious music, the unflattering uniforms, and the armies of staff, many of whom seemed to do nothing but stand around chatting about where they were going to order dinner from.
The hotel proper, however, was a little better–though I can’t imagine the rates were cheap. I got hustled into a wider bed with a contemporary version of the “Magic Fingers” technology–an off-and-on full-body massage, with no coins required. Sheets were that trendy jersey knit, with what the bellhop called a “safety pad” laid across the middle. The pad had a rubber facing–what kind of clientele did they get in this place? The decor, which I could make out faintly in the 5 a.m. light, was a hideous mix of ripe pastels of the sort only seen on unfortunate prom dresses, but it was not so charmless compared to the sterile white scheme in the hostel wing.
I slept fitfully for the next few hours, and when the sun was fully up, I peered out the wide window to scan the view. There, to the left, was the glorious Unisphere, great symbol of Queens. I wasn’t far from home, but I was out of my element. Nor can I imagine any sort of traveler would feel at home in this place, so I can’t recommend this schizophrenic, institutional hideaway on the unfashionable fringes of Forest Hills. It just does not make the cut, freebies or no.