May 2, 2012
Some of the finest hotels in America are having a serious problem: People dressed only in bathrobes are wandering through their lobbies, attempting to buy drinks in their club lounges, or trying to get seated for meals at their exclusive restaurants. Even worse, these disheveled visitors aren't escapees from a nearby asylum, or protesters making a statement about the vast inequalities between the rich and poor. No, these are the hotel's own paying guests, wearing the plush, sexy bathrobes that all fine hotels now find it necessary to supply as an amenity, in order to be considered high-class establishments.
"I don't know what the story with this is," said Troy Price, a waiter at The Peninsula, a swanky Beverly Hills hotel, who has refused to seat people in bathrobes on the several occasions they've approached. "It's not normal."
Then there's the story of a recent wedding reception at an Atlanta hotel, where two robed uninvited guests - the woman with a towel wrapped around her head - wandered into the wedding's buffet area and began helping themselves to food. What's happened to the standards of elegance and dignity that we once had? Where would someone get the nerve to behave like this?
According to Lisa Peterson, the communications director for the American Kennel Club, the main reason she wears a robe in public is because, "it alerts the world that I am in a relaxation mode and that I'm pampering myself because I think I'm worth it." Some experts believe that wearing a robe in public is about asserting your status. The new crop of super-rich have cleared the way for the rest of us by dressing down and leaving hotels no choice but to accept it.
Back when I was growing up, the super-rich, and almost everyone else in America, were striving to be much classier. Every August before school started, my Mom would dress up as if she were going to a wedding, complete with hat and gloves, and take us kids downtown to shop for new school clothes. No suburban malls existed back then, and department stores like Woolworth's were some of the finest stores America had to offer. There were many area of merchandise, and each department was attended by articulate, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, eager to help shoppers find the right sizes and styles.
After picking out a nice assortment of new school clothes (which we would be expected to change out of after school into play clothes), Mom would take us to the Magee Hotel restaurant, the fanciest restaurant I ever got to go to. It featured real linen table cloths and napkins, along with soft lighting and background music in an elegantly wood-paneled dining room, filled with well-dressed men and women, and a few well-behaved children, enjoying tea and petite sandwiches. This experience was not limited to a wealthy elite of shoppers; this was right in the middle of downtown Bloomsburg, where vast numbers of middle-class families shopped.
Contrast this to today's back-to-school shopping experience. The major "department stores" most people choose are the airplane hanger with a drop ceiling (Target) or the one with its ductwork fully exposed (Wal-Mart). The helpful employees, wearing uniforms which originally appear to have been designed for the popcorn vendors at the circus, are mostly there to hand you a gigantic shopping cart, and make sure no one tries to sneak merchandise out without paying for it. If you get hungry, you're welcome to stand in line for a burger at the in-store McDonalds.
The shopping experience isn't the only thing that's gone from elegant to cheesy in my lifetime. Service stations where attendants used to pump your gas, clean your windshield and check your tires have been replaced with self-service stations where you get to stand out in the rain and snow to do these jobs yourself. Airports, which were once populated by finely dressed businessmen and travelers bound for exotic destinations are now filled with schlumpy-looking tourists dressed in leisurewear designed to pass easily through security checkpoints (no belts, no jewelry, no toothpaste). Rather than use porters to check their luggage, they drag a rolling bag behind them everywhere they go (including the toilet), afraid terrorists may try to plant a bomb in their shaving kit, or that the airline will lose the bag in the Denver hub, leaving them for a week at a hotel in Phoenix without underwear. Hey, maybe that's why they're wearing a bathrobe in the hotel lobby!
But, worse, our me-first, no-class culture has filtered into all aspects of everyday life. Courteous drivers are honked at or cut off by daredevils racing to the next red light. At movies and even the symphony - rude audience members have to be asked not to talk during the show. Children use foul language in public, and even fouler language when asked by grown-up strangers to tone down their conversations.
I'm particularly upset by what now passes for a four-star hotel. Although I never had a four-star experience in my childhood - my parents usually opted for "rustic" cabins, or stays with relatives - I did have my fantasies about what a fine hotel must be like, based mainly on stories my sister told about her trip to Sea Isle City the year before I was born. Hotel staff would cater to your every need. There would be elegant room-service at all hours of the day and night, while in the regular dining room, waiters would hover over your table, refilling your water, coffee, and orange juice as soon as you had taken a sip. A concierge would give you tips about the best places in town, and help you get tickets to the hottest shows. Maids would come and fold down your blankets, just before bedtime.
This type of experience is a thing of the past. With other guests wandering around in their bathrobes, or taking cell phone calls at the next table in the restaurant, elegance has lost out to vulgarity. What most people seem to be looking for in a "fine" hotel is this; a location with easy access to the airport and the beach, an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet (featuring most of the same foods you'd find in a 7-11 convenience store), bathrobes, and a TV set in the bathroom. In the last hotel I stayed at, the bathroom TV was fixed so that you couldn't watch it while you were taking a bath, but could while you were taking a ... something else.
I guess it's great that Americans of all classes now feel free to be themselves, and find it unnecessary to act or dress in some tedious, old-fashioned way simply out of obligation. But it would be nice if in our own modern way we could be kind and considerate to our fellow citizens - that we could strive to be a classless society, instead of one with no-class.