Elevator Logic

by

01/29/2001

80 Centre Street, ny ny

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

The brass-plated elevator door opens, revealing it’s operator, a man named Kenny Coleman. A horde of cops, assistant district attorneys, and clerical workers bustle inside as if they’re heading to a sale at Macy’s rather than for work at the state court building at 80 Centre St.

In his mid-40s, thin-faced and short, and wearing a fedora, a Western string tie and a jean jacket, Kenny perches on the end of his stool next to a panel of buttons. He pulls a lever.

The door closes. It’s a strange sight to see on this thermometer-busting day at the height of summer: all those people cramming into one particular elevator car while five other cars stand empty, their operators waiting anxiously in front of them.

“Okay, folks, welcome to Camp D.A.!” Kenny calls as the elevator rises.

“Today’s activity: Water sports!”

Not one rider raises an eyebrow. They’ve gotten used to this over the three years he’s been running the elevator. Kenny’s worked for the D.A. for a quarter of a century, formerly as a messenger and clerical worker.

But it’s in his present position that he’s flourished. “Are we ready for today’s trivia question?” Kenny asks, in his best game-show-host voice. “I was born ready, Kenny. You know that,” says a burly cop, rolling his neck as if steeling himself for a confrontation. “Okay, sir. Would you like TV or movies, history or science, art or sports?”

“TV,” the cop shoots back. “I been boning up.”

A small fan on the ceiling struggles against the steamy air. Kenny takes his time. A tall man working on a half-moon armpit stain is standing in the middle of the 6-by-8-foot space. Behind him, a fat man is breathing so hard you’d think he was taking the stairs. Mounted on the wall, at eye-level, is a corkboard displaying photographs of several attractive women whom Kenny considers friends. Next to them are pictures of his loved ones: several a Siberian Husky named Lobo and a good-looking man in a black leather jacket–his older brother Dave, who died of colon cancer a few years ago. This is not like being transported in an institutional elevator; it’s like riding in a gypsy cab dressed up to feel like someone’s home.

“On the TV show All in the Family,” Kenny says, “what was Michael’s last name?”

The cop bunches up his features, says, “I love that show,” but offers no answer.

Other passengers murmur to themselves, but volunteer nothing. Meanwhile, the elevator man whistles the Jeopardy! theme song. The elevator arrives at the fourth floor–Parole, the cop’s destination.

“Okay, what is it?” the cop demands.

“Stivic,” answers Kenny, “Michael Stivic. Better luck next time.”

“Quick, gimme one more,” the cop begs as he squeezes out of the elevator.

“What was Edith’s maiden name?” Kenny asks.

The cop stands silent, slackjawed, as the door closes on him and the elevator moves on.

Now, heading toward Special Narcotics on the sixth floor, the tall man with the armpit stains blurts out, “Baines! She was Edith Baines before she became Edith Bunker.”

“This is correct, sir,” says Kenny, searching his pockets for a lollipop.

Lollipops are his gift to those who answer correctly, but he’s out of them. He promises to restock at lunch.

“Make sure it’s the kind with the gum in the center,” the tall man says. “You bet!” Kenny says.

Before getting off, the tall man receives a high five from a fellow passenger–to the chagrin of most of the people on board, whose heads are level with his wet underarms.

“I don’t quiz the people to make them feel bad, or to see them get it wrong,” Kenny confides. “It’s not about ‘Look how much I know and you don’t.’ My goal is to put a smile on somebody’s face, make the day pass a little easier for us all.”

In turn, Kenny’s supervisors allow him to make his own weather. He has become the building’s mascot, its intermission zany, its half-time show between tedious dockets. Kenny admits that his strength is TV and movie trivia, especially Hollywood films from the 30s through the 70s. But he’s strong in world history, too, and dabbles in art, science and sports. His love of movies was in part inspired by his bother Dave who, while attending NYU, had to write a paper on Red River, the Howard Hawks classic starring John Wayne. Kenny researched the paper for his brother. Dave received an A. Soon thereafter, Kenny began to devour the classics. To this day, John Wayne is one of Kenny’s favorite actors–Kenny can quote from El Dorado, The Quiet Man and The Alamo verbatim.

He can even tell you the running time of every Wayne picture, and probably who catered lunch. It makes sense that the diminutive elevator man, made smaller sitting on his stool, spending his days in a claustrophobic box, daydreams of the imposing Wayne, high in the saddle out on the prairie as he surveys the land.

Having finished his one-hour lunch break, the elevator man reenters his small office and sits on his stool. He crosses his legs, affecting a nonchalant air he didn’t exhibit earlier in the day and hums the theme song from The Magnificent Seven. Moments later, two plainclothes cops walk into the elevator, one short with a beard, the other tall and clean-shaven. A rare draft kicks up the short one’s unbuttoned overshirt, revealing his holster and the butt of his gun.

“Six, Kenny,” says the tall cop. Kenny’s finger is already on the button.

“What’s the good word?” the short cop asks.

“How do you fellas feel about John Wayne today?” Kenny responds.

“Naw,” says the tall cop.

“Die Hard?” asks Kenny.

“I’m no good at Die Hard,” the short cop says, giving a wink to his snickering partner. “What else you got?”

“How about Clint Eastwood?” Kenny asks.

“Go,” says the short cop.

“Name the actress who played Eastwood’s partner in The Enforcer?”

The two cops stare quizzically into each other’s eyes as the elevator creaks to a stop. Then, simultaneously–nearly screaming like schoolgirls at a Ricky Martin concert–they exclaim, “Tyne Daly!”

“This is correct!” says Kenny, adding, “it was made in 1976 and has a running time of 96 minutes. But for my money I’d recommend The Enforcer , 1951, Humphrey Bogart and Zero Mostel. Mostel made a great crook.”

As they get off the elevator, lollipops in hand, the partners chant, “Who’s the boss? Who’s the boss?”

The elevator man, now heading down to the ground floor, looks pleased with himself. He shakes his head and smiles. “That was a lob directly over the plate–my gift to the NYPD. They’ll feel smart all week.”

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