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Monday, Feb. 4, 2008 | Here, behind a gleaming desk in the marble lobby of the Pinnacle condo tower, sits the man who knows.
He knows who threw the soiree in the condo building’s party room last night. He knows who reported the neighbors’ loud music the night before that. He knows whose mother-in-law will be stowed in the building’s guest suite next Christmas. He knows the latest hotspot for a quick weekend getaway, and he knows which of the building’s residents would probably like to go there. Not only does he know to what restaurant Mr. So-and-So will take his wife for Valentine’s Day, he made the reservation.
Stephen Foster is a concierge for the swanky downtown condo building, home largely to doctors and lawyers, out-of-towners and restaurant owners. He’s been the man behind the front desk Thursday through Friday evenings and Sunday morning for nearly two years.
And after a 35-year career in the airline business — the last seven years of which, as a flight attendant, he spent just eight or nine nights a month in his own bed — Foster cherishes the sameness. For years, the chaos of air travel was his regular schedule, transient passengers his constant interaction.
Now he greets the building’s residents by name. He sees the same faces day after day, has learned their taste in food and trips and cab drivers. And he packs a Ziploc bag with dried chicken treats for the building’s dogs.
“When I first got here, I knew them first before the people,” he says as he introduces a dog, Owen, to a visitor who’s wheeled an extra desk chair behind the front desk for the afternoon.
From his perch near the four-decade point in a career in the hospitality trade, Foster looks at an industry that’s been forced to adjust. Flying has become commoditized. More types of people can take vacations and cruises than once could. But the intrigue that swirls around the lives of the well-heeled has not disappeared.
Foster is discreet, a trait likely developed in the late 1960s when the Air Force sent him to language school and then gave him a classified post behind the wall in Berlin to intercept Russian messages.
And he’s modest. Where some concierges might play restaurateurs and hoteliers off each other, seeking perks and freebies in exchange for funneling business their way, Foster says he tries to avoid asking for those gifts. He does plan to use a car detailing discount he’s been offered. His blue 1997 Honda Civic has just 59,000 miles on it, and he’s thinking of selling it and getting a new one.
“I just don’t like to ask, ‘What can you do for me,’ you know?” he says.
But that’s the question he’s there to answer. He’s recently booked a cruise to Norway and a European honeymoon for two couples. He printed a flier off of a website for a Valentine’s Day deal at a local restaurant, and made reservations around town for the recent Restaurant Week.
He fields bizarre requests, too, like the time he was asked to find a cell phone carrier in Uganda, where a Pinnacle resident’s daughter was stationed in the Peace Corps. He found it.
“The Internet is great for me,” he says.
When residents return from a night of revelry having had a drink or two too many, he’s quiet. When someone flashed the security camera, he looked away.
“You have to remember: you’re working here, but this is their home,” he says. “I’ve seen a couple of strange things.”
When people return from restaurants he’s reserved for them, he seeks their feedback, sometimes finding good ideas for his own days off, other times smiling but knowing the restaurant’s a bit pricey for his budget.
“I follow their recommendations,” he says. “But most of the time I can’t afford them, unless I have a gift card or something.”
He’s sent residents uptown to Hillcrest, his neighborhood, or North Park for dinner. They return, usually pleasantly surprised. You have to get out of downtown sometimes, he tells them.
On this recent afternoon, Foster wears a gray wool suit and a white dress shirt with a green, blue and purple tie and a gold nametag. He sits at the front desk behind two computer screens. One is linked to the locks on the doors and the garages. Even while he talks to residents and answers the phone, his right hand instinctively clicks the mouse to open the doors for waiting visitors.
He uses the other computer to research vacations, to access a program that allows him to see if local eateries have tables open, and to make notes for his fellow concierges at other buildings in town. He schedules deliveries, hands over packages and reserves the elevators for construction projects. A third computer is used by the security officers.
Partway through the afternoon, a smooth real estate agent comes to show a unit to a prospective buyer. He soon returns to the front desk and asks Foster to hold some keys for another agent arriving later. Foster tells him plainly he can’t hold keys at the front desk. It’s a liability, he explains, to the frustration of the real estate agent.
The agent scoffs. Foster says again, he can’t hold keys. Finally the agent finds another place to leave the keys and exits. For the rest of the day, Foster’s interactions are nice, friendly, how-can-I-help-you. But he didn’t spend the better part of his career dealing with snippy international travelers to back down on clear rules now.
In hospitality jobs in general, he says the gig’s grown tougher than it once was, because consumers want more for less. But in the Pinnacle, he says, he’s lucky because for his clientele, “price normally doesn’t matter.”
In nearly two years, some of the residents have become his friends, bringing him turkey on Thanksgiving and getting to know him, too. His company forbids socializing with the residents in their units, so he’s still only ever seen one that was open because it was for sale.
“It’s hard,” he says. “People have Christmas parties, say ‘Come up for a drink.’ I say, ‘I can’t.’
“I understand that if you get too close — people know everything you do for everyone else,” he says. That could lead to favoritism, to performing more services for one homeowner than for another. Foster estimates the majority of the homeowners don’t use their services, anyway.
Like many other hospitality jobs, the post is prone to turnover. Part of the residents’ affinity for Foster is that they’ve seen his face for nearly two years.
“I see what they want a lot of time is consistency,” he says.
He shares their desire. He’s two months from his 60th birthday — “I don’t feel like it, so that’s good” — and he’s spent enough time traveling to really appreciate staying in one place. He calls the job the “perfect ending to a working career.”
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, God, I hate to go to work,’” he says.
In 1971, when Foster started working with international airline Swissair, flying was a luxury. Foster himself used to make his father take him to the airport when he was 8 or 9, just to watch the planes take off. In the Air Force, he spent his days off jetting all over Europe on overnight trips, up to Copenhagen, over to Strasbourg.
“People always got dressed up when they flew,” he says. “Then they were coming in in shorts and flip-flops, you know. The meals, even in coach, were on china. And it was good food.
“Now, the whole fun is gone,” he adds. “It’s from Point A to Point B.”
In a 28-year stint with Swissair, Foster ascended to become ticket counter supervisor at JFK in New York City. The year after he left, the company went bankrupt.
While he still worked at Swissair, Delta Air Lines was in the same building. Finally his friends at that company noticed how much flack he took and told him so.
“You’re yelled at every single day for any number of things,” he says. “I know it’s not me, but it starts to get to you.”
His Delta friends asked, “Did you ever want to be a flight attendant?”
“My whole life,” he replied. He’d tried for such a gig when he got out of the Air Force, but he faced an uphill battle because of his gender and because he was a choosy young man wanting to stay where the fun was in New York City, he says.
He took a job with Delta and was based out of LAX. He bought a house in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood in 1999. Then, seven years in, that company, too, faced bankruptcy. So Foster took a voluntary five-year leave and looked for work in San Diego. He lives there still with his Corgi — “you know, the ones with the little legs” — named Jonesy.
He found a posting on Craigslist for the concierge gig and started at $12 an hour. Now he’s risen to $14, which combines with his annuity from a pension severance from Swissair’s bankruptcy settlement to provide a livable income, he says.
It was the highest-paying hospitality job he could find, he says. He was scared to death of having to use the computer and recommend places to eat and see. But he got the hang of it, getting to the point where he now wins points and gift cards for the number of reservations he makes. When he has downtime, he researches trips, or reads when the lobby grows stone-quiet sometimes.
“I cannot just sit here for three hours, staring into the dark,” he says.
He thinks about traveling again, maybe when he retires. Australia’s a place he’s never been. But he’d have to leave Jonesy, who’s 3-and-a-half.
“He’s the love of my life, I guess,” he says.
And though his parents are in their 80s in New York, he doesn’t plan to return to the Northeast. When he thinks about leaving his new home on the West Coast, when he thinks about leaving the beaches and the dog park at Balboa, when he thinks about up and moving after finally finding a place to stay still, he says he’s staying.
“There’s no way I’m going back,” he says. “Nuh-uh.”