Working His Way Up

by

08/06/2008

1100 park avenue, new york ny

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Roberto is giving Vince the usual changing-of-the-guard rundown: who has dry cleaning, who’s expecting guests, who left keys for the housekeeper, etc. When he’s done, Vince shakes his hand and says, “Good luck.”

What’s that about?

“I gotta get my pengé fixed,” he tells me. He has prostate cancer.

It is in times of crisis that friendships are truly tested, and I’m proud to say that Vince and Hector have rallied ’round our fallen comrade: They both volunteer to satisfy Mrs. Roberto’s needs while her husband recovers from his surgery. Hector also offers to peel off the “Elevator Men Always Get It Up” bumper sticker on Roberto’s locker. He promises to replace it when Roberto is “back in the saddle.”

Vince suggests that maybe someone else should be Mrs. Roberto’s love surrogate. “Maybe Brian should do it. He do his job at work, he can do his job at home, too.”

“Brian’s coming back?” I ask. Before anyone can give me the details, the freight car rings, so I wish Roberto well and get back to work. There is a Chinese food delivery guy waiting for me in the lobby. I’m so preoccupied by thoughts of Roberto’s illness and Brian’s return that I take him to the wrong floor. Mrs. 12B scolds me for letting the delivery guy disturb her and I blame Brian for my carelessness. He’s not even here yet and he’s already causing me trouble.

Brian worked here for a few weeks last summer. He stayed in the boss’s (his uncle’s) apartment and filled in for Hector and Jimmy when they went on vacation before he returned to college in September. Now he has quit school and will be starting a stock broker training program here in Manhattan next month, just about the time Roberto is due back at work.

In his short time here, Brian developed a cult of adoring tenants, including 2C and 10D, whom I see chatting with Brian as I enter the building Friday morning. “It’s so nice to have you back,” says 10D, as they head toward the door, which, although I am not yet on duty or in uniform, I am considerately holding open for them. “He’s always so friendly,” shouts 2C as they walk out the door without acknowledging my presence. “Not like some of the sourpusses working here.”

Can they really be this rude? Maybe not. Maybe 2C did nod her head at me as she passed. Maybe 10D did say thank you too softly to be heard over her hard-of-hearing and very loud friend. Maybe I exaggerate everything that relates to Brian McClune. Vince, who is also in thrall to Brian’s charms, thinks so. He tells me I’m jealous. “He young and good looking like you was before you get fat. Now you old and ugly like me.”

Brian approaches me with hand extended. “So you’ve come to make your fortune,” I say.

“There’s too much money to be made for me to be wasting my time in a classroom.”

He tells me about his plans and how he hopes to fill in here at the building even after he starts his new career. “The pay’s gonna suck for awhile,” he explains. “And I figure all the connections I can make here, not to mention the occasional stock tip, could really get me started.”

When I relieve him for his break at 6:30 (I don’t like him, but there’s no questioning the lad’s work ethic—first day back and he’s doing a double shift) he’s already laying the groundwork for his networking blitzkrieg. “4A. Know where he works?”

“I don’t know. Wall Street.”

“Obviously. I mean what company. What kind of business?”

“Pork bellies? Frozen orange juice futures?”

“Seriously. Aren’t you even a little curious about what these people do to afford a place like this?”

Before I can annoy him further he storms off into the boss’s apartment, frustrated by my inability to see how “a couple of sharp guys like us” could use our proximity to these Wall Street insiders to our financial advantage.

I’m feeling a bit self-satisfied by this encounter with Brian because it confirms the impression I got of him last summer, but I’m also feeling a bit guilty. For one thing, I do know where 4A works. Also, I’m wondering if there’s anything really wrong with his ambition. I don’t begrudge the tenants their prosperity, so why do I find Brian’s desire to get rich so offensive? Perhaps when I look at Brian I should see a Horatio Alger hero, a decent, hardworking young man eager to live the American Dream, rather than a scheming social climber–Uriah Heep in an elevator-operator’s uniform.

In less than two weeks Brian has learned the occupation and place of business of almost everyone in the building. He’s accomplished this with admirable subtlety. Rather than just blurt out his intention to become a stock broker or ask the tenants straight out what they do for a living, he has come up with a way to get the tenants to initiate the conversation. He leaves his stock broker trainee prep book next to the package list clipboard and when people ask him about it he tells them he studies between calls. This is ridiculous. The boss yells at us for flipping through the newspaper and he would never let Brian study on duty. But it is an effective prop.

Not only has he gotten the specific information he was looking for, but he has also picked up some Wall Street history and folklore. 9B told him that when he was starting out there were plenty of guys like Brian. Outer-borough guys who didn’t go to fancy colleges, or any college at all, but who would start out in the mailroom and if they were smart and hard-working, could rise to the top of their firms and get rich in the process. “Like Dick Grasso, the head of the Exchange? Now at places like Goldman you need an Ivy League MBA just to get your foot in the door.”

He’s not too worried, though. He knows how little he knows about the intricacies of high finance, but he also knows he doesn’t have to understand AOL’s or Amazon’s price-to-earnings ratios to sell their stock. His potential as a salesman is so obvious that last summer 14C, a psychiatrist who gave up her practice to sell Amway products full-time, tried to recruit him for her sales team. The prospect of harassing his friends and family into buying jumbo-sized boxes of laundry detergent was not sufficiently enticing to keep him from returning to school, and he politely turned her down.

It was Brian’s bad luck that he was here in August when most of the tenants were away. Had he been here at any other time, he might have been offered a real job, and he’d be well on his way to his first million.

“You know the one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here?” he asks one afternoon while I’m cleaning the glass in the lobby. “Most of these rich people aren’t any smarter than me.” While he pauses dramatically I spray some more Windex on the mirror. “And they’re definitely not smarter than you.” This perceptiveness will take him far in the business world. I don’t mean he’s perceptive because he recognizes my intelligence; he’s perceptive because he recognizes my vanity about my intelligence. And he has no qualms about stroking my ego to get what he wants. In this case, it’s just a little good will, but some time soon he’ll be using this kind of flattery to cheat some old lady out of her life’s savings.

Mr. Murphy works as a doorman on the Upper East Side.

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