Manhattan Elevators: They Have Their Ups and Downs



E 86th St & 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

I return from my break to hear Vince screaming in Maltese. It seems two women, a real estate broker and her client, had been getting a little impatient waiting for the elevator and gave the button several long pushes. This would infuriate the most mild-mannered of elevator operators. Vince is not mild-mannered. “Who the fuck you are?! You wait like the other peoples, big shot.” To most people, the term ‘big shot’ is not much of an insult, but Vince endows the phrase with such passionate hatred that more conventional English-language curses aren’t necessary. Needless to say, the prospective buyer decides without even seeing the apartment that our building isn’t quite what she’s looking for.

Broker and client scurry away and Vince and I retreat to the basement where I give him his coffee and jelly donut and try to calm him down. I’m tempted to defend the women –explain that most buildings don’t have manually operated elevators anymore, and the women were probably unaware that they were infuriating him with their constant ringing — but the time to point this out would have been before he was armed with a hot cup of coffee.

Vince’s fuse is getting shorter by the day. Yesterday he blew up at 3A after she tried to tip him for carrying her luggage into her apartment. Except at Christmas, he refuses all tips. I, too, have never completely gotten over the awkwardness of accepting gratuities, but accepting a tip is less awkward than refusing one, so I’ve never had the nerve to turn one down. Vince, however, not only declines tips, he yells at the tenants if they persist in trying to give him money. “You put that money in my hand, I throw it on the floor. You think I help for the tip? Is my job to help.”

His outbursts don’t usually need an underlying cause, but the phone call he got from his sister a couple of days ago, detailing the latest estimate from his building contractor back home, might explain his recent belligerence.

Vince has never been able to commit himself to staying in the U.S. or returning to Malta. His constant wavering has cost him a lot of money. Ten years ago, his cousin offered him a chance to invest in a small apartment building in Queens, but at the time Vince was certain he would be returning home within a few years. Today, his cousin owns five buildings and a farm in Pennsylvania. Rather than invest with his cousin, Vince put his money into building a grand house in Malta across the street from his mother. The house, which he has never seen, gets bigger and more expensive every year and he’s still working eighty hours a week to pay for it, even though he still hasn’t decided whether or not he’s ever going to live there.

Vince is aware of the impracticality of sinking more money into the house when with each passing year it’s less likely that he’ll find a wife to help him fill it with children. He rationalizes it this way: “Now I can say, ‘I have no time for a woman, I have to work all the time for the house.’ But if I work only one job and have time for a woman and still I can’t get no woman, then I feel very bad.”

The elevator rings and I take the call so Vince can console himself with his coffee and donut. I pick up 8B in the lobby and on our way up he asks, “Do you know that tall guy on 4? With the glasses.”

“Mr. Nelson in 4A.”

“Know where he works?”

Understanding how much we know about their lives, the tenants often come to us with questions about their neighbors. “What floor does she live on?” “Is he married to the lady with the red hair?” And always but always, “What does he do?” Usually they ask out of idle curiosity or a desire to assign the person some kind of status ranking, but 8B’s questions seem to have a more specific purpose. It occurs to me that this is the second time this week that I’ve seen 8B in the afternoon and I wonder if he’s lost his job. I tell him I don’t know where Mr. Nelson works. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I was just wondering.” The forced casualness of this remark makes me almost sure he’s unemployed. We’ve reached the eighth floor and I open the door as quickly as I can, hoping he’ll get out of the elevator before he can work up the courage to ask me to slip his résumé under 4A’s door.

When I report this to Vince, he tells me that 8B has interrogated him about some of the other tenants. “So many questions. How the fuck I know? He’s crazy. Anyway,” says Vince, lowering his voice. “I think he like the mens.”

With a wife, two ex-wives, four children, and countless mistresses and prostitutes to his credit, I consider 8B to be a paragon of male heterosexuality, but I’m reluctant to question Vince’s authority. He has a nose for sexual deviance. He tells me which movie stars are gay and which baseball players have a weakness for underage girls. This is the man I have to chase out of the laundry room with a mop because he’s taking women’s underwear from the washing machines, so he knows a fellow pervert when he sees one.

Although Vince is annoyed with him at the moment and calling his manhood into question, 8B is his favorite tenant. They regularly chat about baseball or hockey and sometimes even a little about the stock market. Last Christmas, 8B tipped Vince more than double what he gave the rest of us and he has frequently defended him at co-op board meetings when there have been complaints about Vince’s rudeness.

The unlikely alliance was further strengthened last summer when Vince saved 8B’s marriage (or at least postponed another expensive divorce). One night in July, Vince saw Mrs. 8B, who was supposed to be in Sag Harbor, getting out of a taxi while her husband was upstairs entertaining an attractive, young summer-intern from his office. Vince quickly alerted Mr. 8B and when he was bringing the wife up in the elevator, he cut the power and pretended that the elevator had stalled, giving Mr. 8B enough time to get the intern down to the seventh floor where Vince picked her up after dropping off the unsuspecting Mrs. 8B.

But I think their camaraderie is based on something more than a common interest in sports or a mutual sense of gratitude. Vince, who hasn’t had sex in over a decade, admires 8B’s success with the ladies, but he also sympathizes with how much it has cost him. To support two families in proper Upper East Side style, not to mention his extramarital expenses, 8B works (worked?) almost as many hours per week as Vince, and, despite the man’s heroic libido, he usually looks as exhausted and miserable. That 8B works to pay for the fruits of his bountiful sex life and Vince works to justify the fact that he doesn’t have one, doesn’t stop the poor, lonely elevator operator from pitying the wealthy Don Juan.

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