I’m lucky enough to live in an apartment building with a doorman, or should I say, doormen. Essentially they’re a team of men who keep the apartment building working, they switch off doing maintenance, keeping track of packages that come, any dry cleaning, and generally make sure that no crazies are coming into the building. At the end of the day they know pretty much every facet of your life.
It’s weird having a pseudo-servant. As someone who grew up in the suburbs, any chore that had to be done was done by someone in my immediate family. Most of the time it came from my mom with an accompanying scolding or light smack on the head. Having a doorman really changes that dynamic. Most people are cordial enough with their doormen, but for some reason it’s really hard for me to have someone wait on me. You can tell the people that have had doormen all their lives, and you can tell the people who have left their social graces far behind. Beneath the veneer of all that geniality, those aforementioned tenants always passively assert one truth; you serve us, and we’re better than you.
I can as obnoxious as any superior twat can be, but I can’t ever seem to summon that sort of bratty behavior with people in the service industry. I’ll be totally honest with you, I was privileged enough never to have to work as a kid growing up, but I did it anyways. I was, and still am a problem child. Say what you will that my act of rebellion was to seek employment, but I worked retail, as a waiter, and other assortments of entry level jobs across the board. I think that everyone should work those jobs for a time in their lives, because only then will you realize the infinite number of little things that a customer can do to make your life miserable. To this day when I got out shopping I try to tidy up displays before I leave, because I know that I’m saving someone else a late night. At the end of the day we forget that all these workers that seem like background players in the din of our everyday existence are people with lives lived in their own incredible ways.
I don’t sleep well and as such, the late-night shift at the Duane Reade next door basically knows me by sight. We always exchange pleasantries and shoot the shit as I grab the things that’ll propel me through the witching hours into eventual sleep. On the way back though, I always take my time and converse with my doormen. The front door has to be staffed twenty-four hours a day. In this aimless vigil, the late night hours can be extremely boring as most other people are fast asleep, but those hours are never misspent when you spend it getting to know another human being.
Throughout the course of many nights I discovered the oft-overlooked lives of my doormen. The gentleman who mans the late-night shift from Thursday to Sunday made his way to the States from Colombia. He grew up in Medellin, and when he was a kid, he used to play guitar at parties for Pablo Escobar. Another still dreams of being a DJ, and he plays house gigs in New York once his shift is done, often running from gig to gig right after he has to change out of his uniform. Another knows that he’s getting older, he knows that he has no family, and no one to mourn him when he leaves, so we spend hours eating .99 cent pizza from across the street talking about lost loves and paths not taken. All of these interactions are at once pointless, heartbreaking, and yet life-affirming.
I’m definitely not the most well-off tenant in the building, but I always offer them to grab something from the deli or the drug store when I head out into the night. Between that and actual conversations had instead of inquiries about errands, there’s a different kind of kinship between me and some of the doormen. A one that’s acknowledged with a silent nod, the fist bump when the board members aren’t there, and the knowing glance when some of the other tenants are throwing a hissy fit because their dry cleaning hasn’t come yet, or god forbid, the maintenance people didn’t finish their work exactly on time.
At the end of the day I know that the doormen provide a service to me and it’s incredibly easy to push them into the periphery of your life, but why? Every single one of them puts on this congenial face because it’s their job, but behind that veneer, each of them have hopes, dreams, loves, sins, fears, and a yearning for a life unlived, as we all do. We diminish ourselves when we don’t hear the stories of the people in our lives, the people that we talk to on a daily basis. That kinship from sharing the oral histories of our lives makes the sleepless nights that much more bearable. Maybe it’s self-aggrandizing to believe that I have anything more than a surface connection to these men, but when you see the lights dim on the Empire State Building and you know that rest is still hours away, it’s comforting to know that there’s someone in the lobby just as awake as you are. So on those nights, you take the elevator down, break the rules by listening to the radio with them, and tell stories about what have been and more importantly, what could be.