Walking past the bongs and crack pipes to the counter at the back of the dingy store in Chinatown, my friends and I started to question whether I'd picked the wrong place to leave our luggage while we spent a few hours exploring San Francisco.
Deciding what to do with your luggage when you're not going straight from your accommodation to the airport is a perennial challenge for all travellers who like to make the most of a few precious hours to explore a city. One trick is to wander into a fancy hotel lobby, pretend to be a guest and leave your bags at the desk for a few hours, accompanied by a generous tip.
Nobody likes to heft their luggage around for hours while exploring a foreign city.
My tech journalist friends and I have pulled this scam before when travelling home from the annual Google I/O developer conference in California but, if the bellman smells a rat, they'll kick you to the curb; leaving you to drag your bags around town for the evening.
It was only a matter of time before Silicon Valley cashed in on this opportunity with the rise of AirBNB for your bags; spawning services like BagBNB, LuggageHero and others.
Of course in the age of the gig economy, these services haven't opened up their own stores in cities across the world. Instead they've signed up existing stores which are prepared to stash your bags behind the counter for a few hours, in return for a few dollars. You don’t know much about the place until you walk in with your bags.
After scouring the internet for options, I went with one of the lesser-known luggage storage services, because it was closest to where we wanted to eat dinner before heading to the airport. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
All you need to do is register via the app, search for the nearest drop-off place and book a spot for your bags. All stores are supposedly vetted before they're entrusted with your precious luggage, plus there's insurance, but that's little comfort to your horrified friends when you're standing in a "smoke shop" that looks super dodgy, even for the dodgy part of town full of roach motels and strip joints.
I nervously reassured them it was okay to hand over their bags to our new bong-dealing friend. I'm sure he's a really nice guy once you get to know him, but it didn't make a great first impression when he didn't have the app on his phone or our contact details but insisted "the boss told me someone was coming in today". We didn't sign anything or get a receipt for our bags, but the app has a decent rating in the app store, so the place must be legit, right?
Feeling like Ferris Bueller dropping off the precious 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California at a dodgy-looking parking garage, we headed out the door wondering whether we should consult the tarot card reader across the street as to the fate of our bags.
We were flying out of San Francisco in a few hours, so if the store was closed when we returned or anything else went wrong then we were heading home empty-handed, perhaps just like the old gypsy woman said.
As we stood on the footpath questioning our life choices, the bong shop guy came out the front with a piece of paper in his hand, glanced up and down the street, looked straight at us and then headed back inside. "What could go wrong?" I asked my friends with a nervous laugh, while they stared daggers at me.
Embracing new technology can be a risky business, so we joked about the fate of our belongings as we wandered down to enjoy the view of the bay.
Things took a dark turn when it occurred to us that, rather than discovering something missing from our bags, we might find more than we bargained for when our luggage was scanned at the airport. Explaining to a stern TSA guard and his excited dog that we'd left our bags in a Chinatown bong shop for a few hours wasn't exactly going to help our cause.
We worked our way back to Chinatown via my favourite fortune cookie store, in the alley where Jack Burton lost his truck in Big Trouble in Little China. Hoping that better fortune would befall our luggage, we sat down for dinner as the app notified me that our bags had finally been checked in; which didn't fill us with confidence considering we’d handed them over almost two hours ago.
After a hearty feed of crispy beef and sesame chicken we headed back to the bong shop and, as fate would have it, our luggage was intact and exactly where we left it. I jokingly told my friends all their worry had been for nothing, the dodgy-looking store deserved the benefit of the doubt and we got our bags back safe and sound.
Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover had probably never reluctantly entrusted their luggage to a Chinatown bong shop for a few hours. It’s hard to know who to trust in the gig economy, but my friends swear they'll never trust me to book a bag sitter again.
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