When I first came to New York, I made do without a doorman. I brayed into the intercom at fleets of uncomprehending deliverymen, muttered to myself as I wrestled with keys in the doorway, struggled up and down the stairs to my walk-up apartment bearing loads of grocery bags. When I finally did move into a doorman building, only a few of these circumstances actually changed. The building’s elevator was an old, hand-driven Otis, so the gentlemen who greeted me each morning couldn’t always help with my bags. They didn’t always fend off the uncomprehending deliverymen, either, although I noticed they did lend an appreciative ear while I took to muttering at the door with my keys, and it wasn’t long before they began muttering back.
Experts that I’ve consulted contend that New York City doormen, as a group, aren’t a voluble bunch. Especially at the grand “A” buildings uptown, the conventional wisdom goes, they are totems of discretion, as prudent and solemn, in their shiny-buttoned coats, as judges. I beg to disagree. Beneath their suave veneer, doormen are as bellicose and fractious as the great city they represent. Gossip columnists will tell you that doormen are a primary source for celebrity chatter, and I know of at least one former business mogul who moved downtown to a spacious non-doorman loft just so he could conduct his private affairs in relative tranquillity.
Classic New York City doormen tend to live long lives, like turtles, and accumulate all sorts of strange bits of knowledge, which they pass on at the drop of a hat. One of my friends claims that the doormen at the building of his strict (and former) Freudian analyst were more kindly and helpful to him than the analyst himself. “They used to invite me out to Long Island,” he says a little wistfully, “to drink beer and fish for porgies.” Among the solicitous gentlemen in my first building, there was a voluble Kosovar named Barty, who used to zoom around in the Otis elevator and give me pointers on my dating life. “Mr. Platt, I just took some fine ladies up to 12F,” he would say. “You should go talk to them. Even a dog doesn’t like to live alone.”
Barty was right, of course. Since my marriage (“It’s okay, Mr. Platt,” Barty confided. “I can tell she likes you”), I’ve moved to another building up the street, with its own hand-operated elevator and a whole new cast of characters. There’s the late-night man, who sometimes rides the elevator in his socks, and “the professor,” who keeps his own cappuccino machine in the basement and likes to give cockeyed seminars on the Bible and Proust. Then there’s Tommy, from the Bronx, who one fateful evening heard my wife tell me not to forget to buy a bunch of cilantro at the grocery store. Tommy found mirth in our little yuppie exchange; don’t ask me why. “Don’t forget the cilantro,” he said for the next six months or so, chuckling to himself as he bowed me out the door.