Personal Space in the 181st Street Elevator



W 181st St & St Nicholas Ave, New York, NY 10033

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

Twenty-one children (the first of whom were triplets), and twenty-one grandchildren. And two wives, if you’re wondering. Thirteen with the first wife, nine with the next. He’s not married anymore. He grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, when it was still Brownsville, Brooklyn. Now he lives in Springfield Gardens, Queens. On public transportation it takes him two and a half hours to get home after work. Every year he sets a date for himself, usually December 15, to finally give it up. But he can’t help it, he is still here. In 1969, he was in Vietnam for nine months. I asked him how he got to leave. He kind of chuckled and pointed to his chest, “I got a hole and it go right through–that’s how,” he said. He worked for the NYC Housing Authority, and as a National Guardsman simultaneously. He has worked thirty-eight years for the City of New York and eighteen years for the transit system. When he hurt his knee, he was posted at the 181st Street subway elevator as one of its operators. He has been here, in this elevator, since 1993.

Public elevators are perhaps the most undesired of public spaces, but his elevator, has been transformed into a place where people are happy to linger, talking to each other or just staring at the photos on the wall, “Oh, I just got that portrait today at the flea market!” one woman exclaimed pointing to a photograph of Billie Holiday. A five-year-old girl excitedly said to her mother, “This is the bestest elevator I’ve ever seen!”

A public good is not always good for the public. Public space rarely creates interesting space and often is necessary but poorly designed and dryly implemented. But Bruce’s elevator is a private kind of public place. “To You,” by Langston Hughes, hangs on one of the walls. T-Monk, Dizzie Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Dexter Gordon, Louie Armstrong, the Bird, James Cotton, Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Sara Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Art Blakey do too. A 3D paper fireplace sits in the corner with make-believe flames. The aluminum walls are covered in a simple floral wallpaper. It is not just space, but a place. I asked him about a $200 ticket stub to a jazz concert on 135th Street from last April that he featured on the wall. “You went to that?” I asked, curious about the price. “Oh yeah–but of course, it was a gift.” “From who?” I asked. “From one of the riders,” he told me.

An anonymous poem hangs:

like water flows
and moves
with time passing,
but remains
as it changes, deep,
pure and constant

I think it was referring to “friendship” or something. But, it stood more as a tribute to Bruce. People move in and out, shuffling, in a hurry, trying to meet their date, or the next train, trying to get somewhere or leave somewhere, hungry for food or entertainment, ready to see friends, or just acting out the routines of going from one place to somewhere else. Bruce sits in his chair for the better part of his day engaged in conservation with one person or another.

A mother with triplets, an old woman with a long fur coat and 70’s glasses that are so big that you forget about the rest of her face, a woman who is so impressed with Bruce’s Where To Find It In The Bible encyclopedia that she rides up and down with us three times getting more and more excited about this book, until finally she remembers she is meeting somebody for dinner, young couples, a dad with his four year-old-son who plays along and pretends that Bruce’s paper fireplace is heating the place up and rubs his hands together to gather the imaginary heat, his father, meanwhile, just looking on in amusement, a beautiful woman who looks like she could be on the cover of some magazine, old neurotic New Yorkers who have lived, it seems, since the beginning of time, businessmen and women, people in all kinds of important positions, (so Bruce tells me), all call him by his name. Most say, “Good morning, Bruce,” “good evening,” or “how you doing today Bruce?” depending on the time of day and their mood.

The people who know Bruce are otherwise unconnected to each other but their link to Bruce somehow creates an invisible community that maybe only Bruce understands. The people who know him are of all types– the elderly, the beautiful, the ugly, people with dark skin, albinos, distinguished people, unknowns, pizza deliverers, teenagers, toddlers, single mothers, Mafia-looking men, artists, and musicians. Most of the riders pass through regularly. This is their regular stop–181st Street–and this is their elevator. People move to the rhythm of the song that Bruce plays. Bruce, meanwhile, swings to his own beat despite anyone else.

At first both a little reserved, our conversation gathered momentum and he was soon telling stories from the family photographs on the walls. He got out of his seat when he could, to point out his kids, grandkids, nephews, and nieces. I was surprised he could remember them all. “I mean, how many refrigerators did you have for 21 kids? One in each room of the house?” I asked him. He laughed and said only one. But they had a real deep freezer where he kept frozen packages of vacuum-packed pork chops and chicken and bags of freshly-cobbed corn and string beans for later. On a typical evening he would make 5 roasted full-size chickens. Maybe some potatoes and broccoli. “I eat broccoli like grapes, I love it so much,” he said. I hope his children aren’t reading this, because he told me not tell, that when he has pajama parties for his grandchildren every month, he loads them all in his pickup and takes ’em down to Coney Island to get them hot dogs and French fries at Nathan’s. “They just won’t go to McDonald’s,” he said, “they are demanding little buggers- they won’t have nothin’ else besides Nathan’s e’ry time.”

Out of twenty-one children, his latest, Osheah, sixteen, is a genius. She is sixteen years old and is in her third year at Princeton. She already has her BA and now is going for her Masters. She went through the public school district in Brooklyn until a teacher took an interest in her and gave her a high school equivalency exam when she was in 5th grade. Not only did she score well, she scored perfectly. So, they bumped her up to 8th grade, but she was still bored. So, then they tried to stump her with Calculus, Chemistry and Physics but she scored perfectly again. At an age where most of her peers were reading Huck Finn, she went on to study at one of the most prestigious learning institutions in the world. Here she tutors classmates who are ten years her senior, and continues to baffle the best minds around. “She’ll tear you apart and you won’t even realize until the next day the meaning of what she has said,” Bruce said of his daughter.

Bruce has inspired somewhat of an elevator revolution. His counterpart operators at the 190th Street Station on the A line, have taken similar initiatives. One elevator features at least two dozen kittens and puppies from the community and other non-controversial art. I heard one woman say to her daughter, “We should really bring in a picture of Julius,” who I later found out was their big fat cat. The most famous photo in the place is a snapshot of a 20 year-old cat named Annie Wortman. There is a quotation that reads, “The more I see of people, the more I like dogs.” The other elevator features photographs taken of people in the community in the elevator. Teenagers posing to look cool, young bands of kids on their bikes squeezing to all fit in the photo, babies with pacifiers, a man in a cowboy hat and boots cover the walls of the elevator and in the background of all the photos you can see the other photos that are already there. Tony, one of the weekend operators sits under two hanging plants and offers me a seat on one of the makeshift ‘crate-couches.’ He tells me of his job, “It’s a smooth ride, really. No sudden moves, it goes up and down real nice and easy.” Personally, I get motion sick.

I was in subway elevators for over 6 hours that day. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden in an elevator going nowhere more than I did with Bruce, going up and down, up and down, only one floor, to get people where they needed to go. I was captivated not only by the space around me but by the storyteller, musician and artist who created the place.

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