London Terrace Diary: In The Elevator

by

01/20/2003

W 23rd St & 9th Ave, New York, NY 10011

Neighborhood: Chelsea

Quality of life during my ten-year stay in London Terrace Gardens (the ten-building brick behemoth spanning an entire square block at Ninth avenue and 23rd Street) was greatly enhanced by the presence of elevator men. These were resourceful men, mostly of Hispanic descent who grew up in Chelsea, who kept watch over the building, picked up your UPS packages, and engaged you in conversations about anything from the weather to politics to the Yankees to murder. They had families of their own and in many cases worked two jobs. They had an intimate perspective on everyone who lived in the buildings. For some elderly tenants, they served as their only connection to the outside world. They’ve recently been replaced by a modern surveillance system.

If you wanted to know what was going on with management, where the exploding light bulbs in the courtyard came from last night, who was having the arguments on the higher floors, the elevator men knew the answer and would fill you in on the story. “A woman was stabbed by her lesbian lover a few years back,” Ray told me. “Her window was open and tenants heard the dying scream across the courtyard.”

Whenever I noticed strange things, I would ask my elevator man. I was worried that a man was abusing his daughter in an apartment across the courtyard. On hot summer nights, the casement windows were open and he would unleash his anger on his family for everyone to hear. “The police came by last week,” Ray told me. “The father drinks too much. The mother is going to take the baby away.”

Elevator men joined my extended family. I gave them good tips during the holidays or whenever it was called for and they always looked out for things. Many of them worked two jobs to raise their families. When Carlos announced to me that he was moving to Florida, I sent around a letter to all the units in my building. He received $4,000.00 in cash as a going away present. When Sandy’s son was murdered by drug dealers, we gave him a bereavement card. “I hope nothing bad ever happens to you and your wife,” he told me.

The elevator men knew which dogs needed baths, who was using drugs, who was bringing hookers into the stairwells, who was beginning to come unraveled, who was ready for the nursing home, who hadn’t cleaned their apartment in 20 years, who was agoraphobic and who was in the basement with the local crack dealer. Their radios played the Yankees, Knicks, Giants and exclusively WABC. They had updates on everything. They sweated in summer and froze in the winter time, but they never missed their shift and you’d look forward to seeing them every time. It was like coming home.

They sported standard issue uniforms: grey knit slacks, white shirts, and blue blazers with gold London Terrace insignias. They were Vitalis and Bryl Cream guys, wearing Aqua Velva, Old Spice and English Leather. They were union men who kept track of the plan to have them removed. It was referred to as “The Plan.” The landlord knew which elevator men were on his side and those that were not. Some would be kept, elevated to higher positions like door man or package clerk. The expensive fight lasted most of the ten years that I lived there. The landlord gave bigger apartments to tenants who would testify that elevator men were not the ideal guardians of the premises. These are the Versace tenants, a new breed that have taken over, easily bribed and bought for Southern exposure, dishwashers, and waved air conditioner fees. Surveillance cameras, SecuraKeys, and fewer entrances have turned this once middle-class community into a gated upscale maximum security facility.

The late Richard Emery, otherwise known as “Dick-the-Crooner” sang classic oldies in the cab as he took you to your floor. He kept a Taster’s Choice jar filled with a bleak mixture of coffee and Johnny Walker in the laundry room and always rode his bike to work. The Crooner did “My Funny Valentine” and “It Had to Be You,” his voice echoing down the shaft as you turned the key in the door. Sometimes he did off color versions like “I Had It In You,” or told dirty jokes. The Crooner’s real passion was Puccini. He played Turandot all day long from a battered radio with a clothes hanger antennae. As if on loan from Madame Toussaint’s wax museum, the Crooner was pasty and large, wore blue-blocker shades, and kept a fresh slick of Vitalis in his hair. I saw him on the street just before he died. “I used to be Superman, kid. The last one to leave the party. I’m paying for that now.” He died of liver cancer a few days later.

Jimmy Hagen looked like WC Fields with a bulbous nose. He sometimes went toothless on his shift as well. He nipped out to OTB on his breaks, stopping at Wilson’s Bar for a quick pop on the way back. “I go to Wilson’s to have one before I die and to Joe’s on 24th to have one after I’m dead.” I reacted once to a pungent smell in the elevator and Jimmy remarked in his Bronx accent, “Years ago, people smelled of them camphor balls all the time.”

The stories were endless. The previous resident of my apartment presented an interesting problem. One day during the sixties, Sally Bloom asked the elevator man to remove a monkey from her living room. “Are you sure it’s not a squirrel?,” he asked her. When he looked in, he saw the primate. It had crawled out the window of another floor and swung in through an open sash. Someone’s pet had escaped. It was reported to have behaved in a shy, mannerly way upon exiting.

A retired judge killed his family and himself over a Christmas holiday in the mid-nineties. “I knew something bad was going to happen,” Eddie told police. “It was building up.” Eddie and the judge were good friends but he didn’t know about the gun or the judge’s cross-dressing son. The judge was dying of cancer and he couldn’t trust his son to take care of his wife. Eddie noticed the son’s alternative choices from the video store. “He was strange. I knew one of them was going to do something.”

I had a neighbor who hosted nightclub parties and turned tricks on the side. Things would start shaking against my bedroom wall around four in the morning. “What’s the story in 2A?,” I asked one afternoon. Characters from a Martin Amis novel paraded in and out at all hours. The look on Sandy’s face was all I needed. “You should have seen her the other night,” he said. “She was…doing it…in the hallway.”

The night porters were a different breed. They worked the all-night shift until six in the morning. There was Murillo, a cigar-smoking Cuban who commuted from 108th and Amsterdam. You’d ring the bell for fifteen minutes before he’d show, slumped in the corner of the cab, plastered on Mad Dog with a smile on his face. He’d mumble and leer all the way to your floor. I’d run into Richie in the wee hours trying to peddle his extra peanut butter sandwich to me. He worked as a limousine driver in the day time. He asks my ex-wife how I am and fills her in on my past exploits. “You’re husband liked to drink.”

I miss the elevator men and the conversations we had. There was Fish (named for a strong resemblance to Abe Vigoda), Clyde, a young boxer from the Bronx, Hector, a 70 year old marathon runner, and Raoul. After I moved out, I’d stop back for leftovers, clothes, books. “Are you back for good?” they asked every time. “No.” I would respond. “I never thought it would happen to you two,” Sandy shook his head, referring to my separation. I didn’t know what to say. They had a unique perspective on my life. They were surrogate family members, a legion of uncles who took an interest. I felt as though I let them down. It was painful to face them. “Neither did I,” I said, and never went back.

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§ One Response to “London Terrace Diary: In The Elevator”

  • Paul Judelson says:

    I grew up in London Terrace in the Penthouse of 445, and remember Joe the Elevator Man. He had jet-black hair, slicked back 1940s style, and was always slightly hunched over. Every day that I returned home from the Little Red School House, Joe would dance a jig and sing a song: “Mommy home, daddy home, Jeannie home [my sister Jeaneane], Roy home, and Micky’s home. Micky! The Micky!” This was our cat, an ill-tempered Burmese named Jasper. For some reason, Joe always called him Micky.

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