By Janet Capron
Growing up at 1185 Park Avenue, a big drive-in building with six sections, I rarely encountered any working-class people. Plumbers, electricians and other union guys were like apparitions, riding the back elevator, slinking in and out the back door. They were minor players in my cosseted young life—with the sole exception of doormen and, back then, elevator men, who loomed large. After I came home from school, my elevator man, Harold, and I would convene in the mostly empty lobby of the I-J section. Harold was a tall, lanky fellow who used to do this wonderful thing I couldn’t get enough of. Standing straight, he’d lean way forward so you’d think he was going to fall flat on his face, but of course he never did.
I already understood that Harold was just the elevator man, not a person of consequence like my grandpa’s friends. Nevertheless, I loved hanging out with him. His presence was reliable, and he paid attention to me.
Years later, there was Bernie, my mother’s elevator man at her new address, 20 East 74th Street. Someone eventually wrote a big piece about Bernie, which appeared in the second section of The New York Times. Turns out he was a prolific author with more than a few unpublished manuscripts sitting in boxes in his walkup further east. What made it newsworthy I guess was the fact that Bernie had been running the same elevator in the same building for going on three decades while he wrote all those books. Human-interest stories about elevator men and doormen abound. Shades of Downtown Abbey.
In my New York memoir, Blue Money, I write about doormen, the small but pivotal role they sometimes played in my life and how much a part of the landscape they were, lining the avenues of the Upper East Side. I expected to find a similar array of doormen when I went to London and Paris; they do exist in those cities, but more discreetly and in smaller numbers. Here in New York they are on display, and it’s the same faces year after year, decade after decade in fact. I’m told the job is coveted, backed by a strong union, 32BJ SEIU—good benefits, including health insurance and even a pension. And the work, while physically tiring (standing all day), is probably not very stressful.
Hispanic and black men have managed to don the uniform, but no women yet. So much of the job is about image. Doormen are living emblems of prestige. In F.R. Murnau’s German silent-era classic, “The Last Laugh”, the head doorman at a fancy Berlin hotel (Emil Jannings) is forced to finally retire. After giving up his position along with its imposing uniform, he falls into self-loathing and eventual disgrace. But the hegemony that is the tenant/doorman relationship belongs especially to Manhattan, this tiny island of the one percent. It seems so benign—the man with the kindly smile tipping his cap while he leaps to open the car door—an enduring, harmless folie à deux. I’m not so sure about that. When you get conditioned as a child to being bowed to, it’s a custom that stays with you. I don’t think I will ever feel entirely estranged from it. A nod from a stranger in a grey uniform still prompts an oddly familiar sense of wellbeing—all’s right with the world.
Thanks to Harold, Bernie and their ilk, kind and constant guardians, my lifelong romance with working people is no mystery. Early on, I left the Upper East Side in search of broader experience, but of course you always bring yourself with you wherever you go—in this case it’s the little girl, the only child, who turned to servants for companionship.