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Hotel Detectives

"Badly written," booms John Segreti, the seriously built managing director of the New York (formerly Helmsley) Palace, grinning as he crushes several small bones in my right hand. Segreti is referring to the Peacock book, which I'd mentioned as we were being introduced at the Palace's café.

Released finally from his grip, I join the hotel's security chief, John Tarangelo, at a table.

"He used to play for the Steelers," says Tarangelo, examining his menu, while I check to see whether I can still move any of my fingers.

We order cappuccinos. Tarangelo, an affable, fiftyish Brooklyn native, spent 29 years in the NYPD, the last five in the intelligence division doing "dignitary protection and threat assessment." When he was recruited by the Palace four years ago (since 1992 the Madison Avenue landmark has been under new management) he was "kind of skeptical—I didn't wanna come here and worry about somebody stealing towels," he says. "But I found it was a whole different world. It's a city. You have eight hundred-something employees, you have nine hundred rooms, you have a diverse group of people coming in and out of this place all the time: just about every contingent that you have on a city street." Tarangelo's security staff numbers two dozen, and includes six ex-cops.

Since he joined, he says, there have been just two deaths at the hotel: "Two weeks ago we had a guy commit suicide. Drug counselor, overdosed. Yeah—I know." Tarangelo sips his coffee. "He had half of Peru up his nose when we found him."

On this winter day, the hotel's most urgent problem is ice that has been melting and falling from the roof. An ambulance was out front as I arrived; a pedestrian had been injured. The matter was being dealt with swiftly, sidewalks roped off, photos taken, reports prepared. We tour the hotel, and Tarangelo shows me the command center, with its monitors and computers and cameras that perform "face capture" on whoever comes into the Palace, can track anyone on the premises, and record the turning of every key in every lock.

"Security officers nowadays, they're trained," he says. "I send my people for locksmith courses. I hold anti-terrorism classes with all the employees: what they should be looking for, what they should be aware of."

The special classes, the CPR training, the emergency kits in the guest rooms, the backup generators, the impressive camera system—all of it was in place or in the works before September 11, although the attacks "kind of sped up our game plan." In the aftermath, he says, "We added a more visible presence. There's gotta be not only a perception but a reality that you're safe here. This is a public building. It's amazing what can go on in a public building."

Much of what goes on involves "misplaced property." For instance, the wife of a well-known athlete had recently reported a diamond ring missing.

"So we handle it just the way we handle a crime in the police department," Tarangelo says. "We do a key read, we interview all the maids, anybody that went into the room; P.S. long story short, everybody denies knowing where the ring is. And that's just about the end of it—you can't put people on the polygraph if they don't want to be. The woman calls us up today: 'Gee, I'm really sorry, I found the ring at home.'

"We get a lot of things like that. It's not the old, you know, the guy that's gonna chase hookers out of the bar. Do we get hookers?I'm lying to you if I say no. We get 'em, they're high-class call girls, and if we can keep 'em out we keep 'em out. But a lot of times, discretion is the better part of valor."

The Palace is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, whose president and CEO, Paul M. McManus, got his start in the 1960's as a sales manager at the Waldorf-Astoria. He still remembers with amazement someone liberating a grand piano from one of its ballrooms.

"Our head of security—the house dick—he was a character," McManus says in his Park Avenue office. "Of Irish heritage. An ex-New York City policeman, and he almost could have gone either way—could have been a crook or a cop; he was kind of on the fence. He knew all the hookers on Lexington Avenue by name: 'Come on, Dolly.' He knew the old Forty-second Street, the old bars, Jack Dempsey's, and all of that."

McManus traces the current incarnation of the hotel detective to the sixties, when high-profile government officials—whether they happened to be visiting dignitaries or the president of the United States—started traveling with more sophisticated advance teams. "They were intense-looking young men with earpieces, and clearly they were of a much higher professional level," he says. "And the house dick almost became redundant in that scenario." These days, McManus adds, "It's an enormous strategic job. It's not just a matter of watching out for pickpockets or hookers."

Some hotels are now built with dozens of elevators, so VIP's (and VIP wannabes) who wish to avoid public spaces altogether can shoot from their chauffeured SUV's directly up to the mini-bar—no forced marches across the lobby like mere mortals, no pesky human contact, no...well, no romance of travel, or not much. Room keys, too, have increasingly futuristic functions: kept on one's person rather than plunked down at reception, they—that is to say, you—can be tracked throughout the hotel, your movements no secret, your name visible to any staff member within view of a computer screen, the better to greet you by name.

Brave new world, and scary, too. So it's somehow reassuringly retro of McManus to stop me on my way out—"Oh, one more thing"—and frisk me.

Hotel executive humor.

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