An Untimely Death



960 Park Ave. South, NY, NY 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Jimmy, the boss, and I are in the basement still mourning the passing of 16A, when the passenger car opens and a white envelope dances out of the elevator. The white rectangle shimmies and gyrates obscenely, beckoning us. We are powerless to resist. As we near the object of our desire, the envelope, and the hand to which it is attached, quickly withdraw into the elevator. The door slams shut and the elevator ascends to the safety of the lobby. Roberto’s cackle carries down the elevator shaft to mock us. The boss calls him on the radio and tells him that he’s fired unless he returns to the basement immediately. This time, Roberto himself dances out of the elevator, doing some kind of merengue/touchdown celebration dance. We bombard him with questions: Who’s it from? How much? Did she have other envelopes with her? Where is she now? When will she be back?

The first snowflake of the season has fallen. For the next month, white (or green or red) envelopes, within which lie our Christmas tips, will descend from the Heavens, or from as high as the penthouse, anyway. In our euphoria, we have momentarily forgotten the untimely demise of 16A. By most definitions, the death of a ninety six year old man can’t be considered untimely, but when the nonagenarian in question is the building’s best tipper, who traditionally dispenses his Christmas bounty the day after Thanksgiving, and he dies the day before Thanksgiving, then you can understand why we feel his life has been cut tragically short.

Also temporarily forgotten, at least by me, is just how hard I’m going to have to work for the next month. The UPS and FedEx deliveries are tripling in size daily. The building is filled to capacity at this time of year, so there’s never a lull in either elevator, and I’ll be sweeping up the needles from the Christmas trees until the 4th of July. But so what? It’s a small price to pay for a little peace on earth and goodwill toward man, not to mention about 3000 tax-free bucks.

No doubt some of our patrons would be amused to see the jubilation caused by what for them would be a month’s parking expenses. It’s true that their year-end bonuses will be several hundred times what ours will be, but there are certain small pleasures to our form of remuneration that they will never know. When your average Wall Streeter gets his annual affirmation of his worth from his corporate masters, money flies electronically from one account into another. No matter how lucrative, the process is sterile, joyless. We, on the other hand, luxuriate in a slow, sensuous cascade of 20, 50 and 100 dollar bills.

When I get to work on Friday afternoon, the boss hands me a small stack of envelopes that have accumulated during my two days off. In the course of my shift, I pick up four more. At home that night, I lie in bed, the opened envelopes strewn about me as I open each card, remove the contents, and add it to the rapidly growing stack of bills on my nightstand. In this age of credit cards and ATMs, most people have forgotten the tactile pleasure of holding a large wad of cash. After reading the cards, I make a note of who each one is from.

Keeping track of who has given and who hasn’t is imperative for a successful Christmas season. Ideally, all of the tenants would give me my envelope directly. That way, I can express my gratitude on the spot, shake hands, and the transaction is complete. It is always awkward thanking them after the fact, but if a tenant gives my envelope to one of my co-workers to give to me, then I must track down that person as soon as possible and thank him. If the tenant has to ask me, “Did you get my card?” I end up looking like an ingrate. An even worse scenario is thanking one of your benefactors for a gift that she has not yet given. This happened to me last year. I got sloppy with my bookkeeping and accidentally thanked 3B for her generous gift. It took several apologies and reassurances that I was not being sarcastic before she forgave me.

As we tiptoe through this etiquette minefield every December, there is another volatile issue upon which we must tread very lightly: religion. A majority of the tenants belong to one faith, and we, the staff, belong to another. So, what do I say when 8C hands me an envelope and says “Merry Christmas?” I know she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, so I can’t respond in kind. It would make my life less complicated if everyone used the generic, secular “Happy Holidays,” but despite the hysterical protestations of the Christian Right to the contrary, most people still say “Merry Christmas.” In years when the two holidays overlap or are near each other this isn’t a problem, but this year Chanukah will be over three weeks before Christmas. This is an especially sticky subject with 8C and I am eager not to offend her in matters Hebraic because I’m not sure she has forgiven me for an unfortunate incident that occurred last Passover.

I was doing my usual evening rounds, oblivious to the fact that it was the first night of Passover and the tenants probably didn’t want their Seders disturbed by the porter delivering oversized mail-order catalogues and other package room detritus. I was feeling a little lazy and did not call 8C as I usually would have before ringing her doorbell. When I rang the bell her youngest grandson yelled, “It’s Elijah!” and ran to the door. His disappointment at finding not the Old Testament prophet in his chariot of fire but me with his grandma’s dry cleaning was so great that he refused to finish reciting the four questions. I was blamed, but I think the kid’s defiance of his elders might have been fueled as much by alcohol as by religious disillusionment. He’d obviously been sneaking sips of the adults’ drinks all evening. I saw the little sot empty his father’s glass of slivovitz, but his family was too busy rebuking me for my cultural insensitivity to notice.

To atone for having caused little Jonathan’s apostasy, I have become 8C’s faithful shabbos goy. Whenever I see her lingering in the lobby on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, I rush to press the elevator button to summon Roberto or Vince.

I have often wondered about the logic that allows 8C to ride in the elevator on the Sabbath, but forbids her from pushing the button. But it would be unfair to judge her too harshly for her petty religious hypocrisies when my co-workers and I–all of whom are at least nominal members of the One True Faith–are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Our Savior by worshipping that holy trinity of Mammon: Jackson, Grant, and Franklin.

That’s it. That was my last cynical thought of the year. From this point forward, I am Mr. Scrooge on Christmas morning—my faith in humanity growing at the same rate as the stack of bills on my nightstand. This willful suspension of cynicism has the lifespan of the average Christmas tree. A month from now, when I’m dragging the spent, desiccated carcasses to the curb, I will again realize that the bonuses are not a sign of the tenants’ generosity and gratitude for a year of conscientious service. I will have to reconsider the possibility that they think of the Christmas tip as a form of extortion and are paying it only for fear of reprisals from the staff or for fear of looking cheap. The magic of the season, which has temporarily cured me of the churlishness that would ordinarily make me question the selfish motives of both the tenants and the staff, will have dried up like old pine needles.

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