“It’s nice today,” says 15B as he enters the elevator, taking off his gloves and Dartmouth Alumni Association baseball hat. “Maybe a little chilly.”
“Yeah, it’s nice,” I agree. I close the elevator door behind him.
“Forty now, but they say forty five later on.”
We’ve reached his floor, but the retired cardiologist won’t get out until he’s given me the complete five-day forecast. Can’t he see me squirming? Doesn’t he recognize the look of agonized boredom on my face? He must. He is intentionally torturing me. Finally, someone rings for the elevator, providing me with an excuse to cut the old guy off. He lets me escape, but promises to keep me abreast of any breaking news from the National Weather Service.
I am always polite and forbearing with the tenants, especially the old-timers, but today I let 15B ramble on even longer than usual. I’m not proud of it, but there has been an undeniable change in my attitude and behavior lately. I’m not the only one. When I came into work today, Jimmy was sitting on the couch reading the National Enquirer. The elevator rang, but rather than finish the article as is his custom, he jumped off the couch and ran into the elevator to answer the call. Dry cleaning that would languish in the package room for a week in May or June is now promptly delivered to the tenants as they enter the building. The super, who usually grunts at the tenants, is suddenly friendlier than a politician at a fundraiser.
As any doorman, porter, or elevator-operator in the city can tell you, Christmas is coming. Yes, we are in holiday mode. The payoff for a year’s worth of abject servility is almost within reach, and we are working ourselves into a sycophantic frenzy. We fawn over their children and pets, we laugh at their stale jokes, and we humbly beg forgiveness if we’ve kept them waiting for more than ten seconds.
I wish I could say I was above this seasonal obsequiousness, but damn it I want a new computer. So last night, I cravenly accepted 1C’s insincere apology as I mopped up after her Pekinese. I wanted to kick the incontinent rodent across the lobby, but Gateway isn’t giving those laptops away.
Although I am counting on the tenants’ Yuletide sense of noblesse oblige, this in no way changes what I know to be the fundamental truth of tenant-staff relations: THEY HATE US. Sure, things are cordial and even friendly on the surface, but if you doubt their enmity I suggest you take a look at the uniforms—nay, costumes—they parade the doormen around in. The sartorial manifestation of their animus can be seen in the ungodly brown-and-green polyester suits with bright yellow piping, the ridiculous looking hats and bow ties and gloves. And, worst of all, the item that most emphatically expresses their contempt, the epaulets. Epaulets! What reason can they have to dress the help in the accoutrements of warriors, except to mock us? I can hear them snickering, “Hey, Admiral Nelson. Throw my clubs in the Beemer for me. I tee off at Winged Foot in an hour.”
Oh, they can laugh at us, but it doesn’t hide the fear. And make no mistake, despite the fact that it is we who depend on them for our livelihood, it is they who fear us. For we know their secrets, we see them stripped of their armor. We know who had a hooker in his apartment while his wife was away at the summer house. We know which teenager didn’t spend the summer at a camp in Vermont, as his parents told the neighbors, but at a drug rehab in Minnesota.
The lies and pretensions they pass off to the rest of the world are to us laughably transparent. You can go to all the Urdu Film Festivals and Jackson Pollack exhibits you like, 8C. I see you in the gym watching TV, going up and down on the Stairmaster, but never taking your eyes off Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.
Prior to coming to work here, my only exposure to the denizens of the Upper East Side was in Woody Allen movies, so I expected to hear lots of witty repartee and recondite references to August Strindberg and Bauhaus architecture. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that People Magazine subscribers outnumber New York Review of Books subscribers four to one. And the conversation is as laden with references to their status-obsessed consumerisms as any you’d hear in an inner-city high school. The only difference is the brand names of choice aren’t FUBU, Phat Pharm, or Tommy Hilfiger. They are Mercedes, Bridgehampton, and Yale.
“Hey, Carlos. Where we going?” I ask the deliveryman from the diner.
I call the tenant from the elevator phone and bring Carlos up. When we get there, 7D doesn’t have the money ready, so we are both kept waiting. When the tenant finally returns, he says he wants thirty five cents back, leaving fifty cents for the tip. Carlos only has quarters, but the Goldman Sachs investment banker isn’t going to let this Ecuadorean con-artist beat him out of ten cents. While 7D goes off in search of the exact change, the elevator rings angrily. I can’t answer the calls because I am forbidden from leaving the delivery man alone, lest he steal someone’s doormat.
After the transaction is complete, we return to the lobby. When I open the elevator door, I am greeted by five scowling faces. I should tell them to save their nasty looks for 7D, but I’ve been here long enough to know nothing is ever a tenant’s fault. One of the people impatiently awaiting my arrival is the new proprietress of the penthouse. She is in a foul mood, not only because I’ve kept her waiting, but because, as I hear her rant at Johann, her personal trainer, her bastard of an ex-husband has had the gall to send her the bill from the stable that houses Junior’s horses.
Mercifully, when I get back to the lobby, Vince has returned from his break. I gladly hand the passenger car over to him and return to the solitude of the service car to resume picking up the garbage. This is my favorite time of the day. It’s the final hour of my shift, the boss has gone into hiding until tomorrow morning, and the tenants are now Vince’s problem. As well as being the most relaxing part of the day, it is also the most instructive. It is in the trash where the most interesting revelations about the lives of the tenants are discovered. In a typical day I might learn that 3C thinks she’s pregnant, 2D is trying the latest cure for baldness, and the kid in 8A failed his geometry test. But not all the artifacts I unearth are so easy to interpret. Often, I have to utilize what I know about the tenants in order to make sense of their garbage. For example, almost every day I collect five or six crushed Coors Light cans from the metal recycling bins on the sixth floor. I’ve never seen who puts them there, but I’d be willing to bet all my Christmas money that it’s Mr. 6E taking out his frustrations on something less ferocious than his shrew of a wife.
I finish the garbage and return to the lobby to give it a final mopping before going home. Vince is sitting on the couch looking more forlorn than usual. “She just went out,” he said. “She not wearing any underpants.” The number of women in the building wearing panties fluctuates daily in inverse proportion to the number of hours Vince stayed up the night before watching pornographic videos. The woman he’s talking about is 9E, the trophy-wife-in-waiting. She’s been fired from three jobs since coming to New York, but her parents back in Texas still support her in the hope that someday soon, her beauty will persuade some middle-aged mutual fund manager to abandon his wife and children, and relieve Mr. and Mrs. 9E of their daughter’s colossal credit card debts.
“I no have chance,” Vince continues glumly. “Maybe I show her the checkbook.” Whenever a tenant angers Vince, he threatens to show them his bankbook. It should go without saying that he makes the threat to me, not the tenant. He works two full-time jobs and he lives with his brother, so he doesn’t pay rent. Except for an occasional trip to a strip club, he never spends a dime, and has amassed quite an impressive nest egg for an unskilled laborer. “They think they something cause they have money. I have two hundred thousand dollars!” he screams at me. What the fuck! They see this shitty suit and they think we nothing.”
Vince has just hit on the other reason why they dress us like buffoons: emasculation. Working in such proximity to the wives and daughters of Manhattan’s elite, we must be as sexually unthreatening as possible—the eunuchs that guard the harem. If Vince were the best-looking man in the city, the women would still only see this sad, polyester-clad castrato.
I go downstairs to the locker room to change. When I get in the elevator with Vince a few minutes later, he is more morose than ever. “I go home, I see in the bars everybody holding hands, kissing. That’s why sometimes I get pissed off. This is not a life. This is not a life.” I know what he means, but I’m not exactly moved to tears by his lament. I’ve heard him say it a thousand times, and what’s worse is I’ve said it at least as many times myself. The day wouldn’t be complete without at least one chorus of: we’re poor, we’re stupid, we’re ugly, women hate us, and we’re stuck in these shitty jobs until the day we die.” Of course, we always conclude that we have no one to blame but ourselves.
As I leave the building for the night, I look into the lobby of the building across the street. My grandmother was a nanny in that building. It was her first job in America. Sixty-five years and two generations later, I’ve managed to move the family place of business about twenty five yards to the north. The doorman in that building is talking to a boy about ten years old. He seems to be studying a pack of the boy’s baseball cards. It is my habit to spy on the doormen of all the buildings I pass on my way to the subway. By the time I get off work, their evening rush is over. Some read the Post, others step out on the sidewalk for a smoke and to watch the lady pedestrians passing by. They sometimes look bored, but they never look as miserable (Vince’s self-pity is catching) as I feel. Am I a snob? Do I think I’m too good for my job?
The next episode of the “The Doorman’s Double Life” can be read here.