My day as a doorman started badly. I went to the wrong door - the one at the Marriott County Hall, occupying the impressively large former seat of the Greater London Council. There, the doorman on duty directed me to the right door, that of the Park Plaza County Hall round the corner. It was an apt introduction to the job: much of a central London doorman's day involves redirecting lost tourists - and being very nice about it, too.
The Park Plaza is a standard four-star hotel with a decent view of the onetime home of Red Ken's brigade. Concierge Andrew sent me to change into my doorman's kit. This consisted of black trousers, a kind of morning-suit jacket and a turquoise shirt open at the collar. The effect was a bit '80s-bartender-meets-country-wedding. But regular doorman Marc looked pretty spiffy in exactly the same gear. It's not the clothes, I thought, it's me.
Suitably attired, I walked out to join Marc. We were standing on a busy road just south of Westminster Bridge. Opposite was a hive of activity, as a funky modern sister hotel arose in place of one of Britain's ugliest buildings. Good news for the area, but it meant that Marc had been working in front of a noisy building site for a year. Ten minutes in and I noticed something else: if you're not used to standing in one place, it's hard work. Shoulders, back, legs and feet soon start feeling the strain. Oh yes, said Marc, the first two weeks are hell on heels. After that it gets better, but two shifts back-to-back is always a killer.
As we stood, Marc explained that the hotel guests were a mixture of businesspeople and tourists who wanted somewhere central but reasonably priced. Our first hour was spent bringing the odd suitcase in and tagging luggage, saying hello and giving lost tourists (guests and non-guests) directions. Doormen are an invaluable public service for the geographically challenged.
I'd thought standing around might become a bit boring, but a doorman quickly gets to know his regular passers-by. We talked to a cabbie who'd broken down, we waved at bus drivers, we spoke to fellow staff and even shot the breeze with a convincingly attired Darth Vader and a Johnny Depp lookalike in Pirates of the Caribbean garb, both off to work as human statues at Waterloo station (now that's a standing-still challenge).
The porter had called in poorly, so we picked up some of his duties. Rarely have I been so happy to be given more to do. Walking is an improvement on standing, and I headed upstairs with a spring in my step to move bags from a lower floor to the penthouse. On the way down, I asked Marc about his background. He'd been in the job for 18 months and was once a security guard; he was studying for a management accounting qualification. Originally from the Ivory Coast, he'd chaired a regional political organisation there. He hoped to move back, re-enter politics and work against Africa's endemic corruption.
It's an impressive story, and a good reason to despise the practice - widespread among a certain kind of guest - of treating hotel staff like dirt. But Marc said most guests were pleasant enough. The inevitable occasional rudeness is what he really dislikes, though; that and standing out in all weathers. The upsides of the job are that you meet hundreds of people, and being outside affords a certain psychological freedom. To get the most out of it, you need stoicism leavened with gregariousness, so that you can enjoy the social side as you stand around.
What were the tips like? OK, said Marc, although these would be much better at a brand-name five-star place. Who were the best and the worst tippers? The Italians, Spanish and French aren't great, but then tipping is not part of their culture; definitely worst are Aussies. The Americans, of course, can be lavish, but best of all are members of the Arab petrocracy. You don't get many at the PPCH, said Marc, but his mate at one of the capital's glitzier hangouts told him they can drop £100 for five minutes of doormanly duties. For Marc, a good haul is £20.
Now that he'd put in 18 months at a four-star, was he tempted to move up to a five-star with guests who didn't really know the value of money? He laughed, adding diplomatically that the Park Plaza has very nice managers, which counts for a lot.
How nice? Well, they let the doormen have free foot-massages in the spa downstairs. And, after standing all day, I can attest that a free foot-massage is just as good as a £100 tip.