Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Life of a Doorman

Simply put, New York City cannot get along without doormen. Although doormen can be found in all cities, most people would agree with Peter Bearman, the author of the only academic study on this subject, that doormen are “quintessentially New York.” There is a strong demand for doorman buildings in New York and something like 3000 people, almost all of them male, make their living as doormen here. Any blog claiming to be an appreciation of New York life therefore has to cover doormen at some point.

Full disclosure: I live in a doorman building and interviewed one of our doormen for this blog. Just about everything I have to say about them comes from this interview.

According to my source, the first responsibility of doormen is to maintain security. Closely monitoring who enters the building and ensuring that they are either residents or authorized visitors is, without question, job one. Second, is what my interviewee referred to as the concierge aspect, alerting residents when they have special deliveries, dry cleaning, or other unusual items and turning them over to residents in a timely, efficient manner. Third, but also important, is being a friendly, smiling, agreeable presence in the lives of residents. This includes greeting them warmly in the morning or evening, becoming acquainted with them, without being intrusive, and when appropriate, engaging them in conversations and maintaining a lighthearted repartee.

Discerning doormen can size up tenants very quickly to determine if playfulness will be positively received. My source indicated his favorite part of the job is chatting with people, and even occasionally teasing them. His most noteworthy characteristic is probably his sense of humor and any chance he gets to use it gives him pleasure. At one point, he even considered a career as a comedian, though he eventually worked as an offset printer for many years until computers put him out of work and a doorman job came his way. He has been a doorman for fifteen years now, but thinks that like comedians he makes a living, at least in part, by making people laugh. Although he can tell a good joke, most of his fun comes from kidding people, whom he knows will take it well, about almost anything – whether it is the color combinations of their clothing, always being in a hurry, resorting to take-out night after night, living with a rambunctious dog - whatever.

As for what’s disagreeable about the job, the doorman I spoke to told me a long story about a tenant from another building where he served as the doorman who was always writing up complaints about him. None of these complaints ever had any merit, though he recalled one letter with particular relish that negatively characterized him as “excessively happy.” To that, my doorman announced gladly, “I plead guilty, without hesitation or regret.” He did also report that in this other building (definitely not the one he’s in now), the superintendent was one of those screamers who doesn’t hesitate to humiliate you in front of others. Not atypical as these situations go, but also not something you want to put up with for too long.

In this current assignment, such incidents are rare, and the good parts far outweigh the bad. After all, what’s so terrible about a steady job in a well managed building and getting to work with mostly kind, well meaning people? It doesn’t lack for laughs either, and although it may not be adventurous or glamorous, you do get to work in a fashionable, air-conditioned building filled with people who depend on you every day. Kind of like being a benevolent dictator in a very small, highly advanced society. There aren’t many of us who get to do that.


  1. I wonder if Doormen consider themselves professionals. A lot of what you say about them is consistent with that rubric as they provide personal service that requires discretion and the ability to individualize.
    I'm reminded of a line from the Hippocratic Oath..."All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal."
    If residents have this sort of expectation of their Doorman, woebetide he who gossips. It would be the most certain way to be shown the door.

  2. Fascinating comment, DB. Thanks. At least twice I considered using the word "professional" to describe doormen but held back. I think, though, that many of them do see themselves as professionals.