Monday, March 24, 2014

Two good ideas

I could write much about my week in Key West, but most of my experiences had little to do with the focus of this blog, namely language and literature. But there are a couple of topics that do seem to fit, so here they are:

1. Readers for rollers

One of the speakers for the Road Scholar program I attended was a Cuban-American from Miami, who told me later he had to get up at 4 a.m. to get to Key West in time for his 9 o'clock presentation about the Cuban influence on Key West. As we heard several times during the week, Cuba is just 90 miles away, closer than the nearest Wal-Mart (about 120 miles), so its influence was substantial. Many of the island's early residents were political dissidents who fled from Cuba.

An early Cuban industry on the island was making cigars. This industry later moved to Ybor City, now part of Tampa, but for a few years it was at the heart of the Key West economy. As was the practice in Cuba, the workers in these cigar factories had someone to read to them all day while they rolled cigars. They voted on what they wanted to have read, but the usual practice was for the reader to read each Spanish-language newspaper from cover to cover in the morning. In the afternoon he would read books, usually something related to politics or economics. The works of Adam Smith and Voltaire were popular, according to our speaker.

It's a wonder the factory owners put up with this because the readings fueled union activity, which was prevalent in these factories. This may be why the practice apparently didn't spread to other industries.

It strikes me as a wonderful idea, especially for its time. Workers could get an education while they labored, find out about what was going on even if they couldn't read and keep their minds occupied while doing what must have been routine, mind-numbing work.

2. The lobby ambassador

At the Crown Plaza La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, where we stayed, I met a man who said he was the lobby ambassador. His name is William.

William said he had been part of the custodial staff when a hotel manager caught him talking with hotel guests instead of working. Rather than being disciplined, as he expected, William got promoted. He even got a raise, he said. His job now is simply to talk to people. Sometimes he helps guests with their bags, gets their cars for them or gives directions to restaurants or tourist attractions, but other employees get paid to do these jobs. William's job is just to be friendly, something that seems to come naturally to him.

I had two conversations with William during the week. I don't easily converse with strangers, but he didn't seem like a stranger after about 30 seconds. We talked about kids, after-school recreation programs, sports, cats and a few other topics. William listened as well as he talked.

I don't know how many other hotels have lobby ambassadors, but it seems like a brilliant idea to me. Hotels are, after all, in the hospitality business, so why not put naturally friendly people front and center to show hospitality to strangers in a strange place?

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