By Judith Kampfner
From Our Own Correspondent
BBC World Service
December 19 2013
Doormen are ubiquitous in Manhattan: as essentially New York as bagels. These 10,000 liveried sentinels in over 3,000 upmarket apartment blocks are the closest American equivalent of the ‘downstairs’ staff – that is, the servants – in a British stately home.
I now live in a building where there is someone in the lobby twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. But personally, I find one of the most awkward things about being married to a New Yorker and living on the Upper West Side, is getting used to being waited on like this. I just don’t know how best to interact with the rotating team of doormen – and that makes me feel that I’m not at home. I can’t just say ‘thank you’ or ‘good morning’, or mumble something about the weather.
I dread coming round the corner and having a doorman run up, asking if he can carry my shopping or work bag through the door and escort me the few metres to the lift. It’s embarrassing. I tend to reply ‘No thanks, it’s fine’, with a big sheepish smile. If I come home by taxi, I even get out a block away so I don’t have to deal with one of our doormen rushing out. My husband Steve thinks this is an eccentric British quirk.
But why does an able-bodied person need someone to open the door of a cab and or even keep the rain off with an umbrella between car and building? It’s a status symbol for many, I suppose: a sign that you have arrived and live in a protected building with all the perks that come with it.
Sometimes I feel a little imprisoned. I often want to go and sit opposite on a bench that overlooks the Hudson River – but that would mean making the doorman push the door just for a cup, a cookie and me.
I am glad if several people come out of the elevator and I can sneak through as part of a group. Especially if I’m in early-morning gym clothes.
What makes it even more tense is that the doormen in our building seem shy. But there was one exception. Raul could talk your head off. When he found out we were going to Latin dance classes, he lent me CDs and demonstrated moves. I learnt about his home in Venezuela and how he wanted to work as a painter, but couldn’t give up his job, with its excellent medical benefits as his daughter has juvenile arthritis. But if I said, ‘I’m sorry I have to rush’, he looked hurt. I started dreading getting stuck with him. Then suddenly, he wasn’t there.
A month later, Raul telephoned and asked for our help. He’d been sacked: there were complaints from some residents that he stood there chatting to some people while ignoring the needs of others. He got too familiar and crossed a line – unwritten social boundaries it seems, are important. I felt a little guilty.
I am ashamed to say in our building, over an 8-hour shift, doormen are not allowed to sit down. Why? We’re told they get too relaxed and they need to be attentive at all times. They are allowed a short food break – to be taken in the basement. It is the building’s residents board – that consists of several prominent attorneys! – that insists on these draconian rules.
At this time of year, a Happy Holidays card from the staff of the building is pushed under each door. My husband dug out last year’s, where he’d carefully recorded the annual and expected tip he gave to each man in the hierarchy: from the live- in superintendent to the lowliest porter. I’ve been trying to find out what other residents pay – but this tip is a sensitive issue no one wants to discuss.
It’s certainly not the paternalistic world of British aristocratic estate, a Downton Abbey. Upstairs and downstairs are much MORE separate here. In New York, the building staff don’t even get invited to the Christmas party.