Somewhere, lost amidst the taxi cabs swerving around pedestrians, frantic nannies chasing after their charges and Manhattan socialites strutting to and from their black-tie dinner engagements, lies a Park Avenue subculture that most will never know exists.
Walk absent-mindedly along the tree-dotted medians and you’ll be hard pressed to see even a hint of its presence, even though it’s all around you. Focus only on the packaged version of the Upper East Side presented in commercials for Cadillac or, more appropriately, Buick’s Park Avenue and you’ll miss it entirely. Peer below the green awnings that dominate the sidewalks and into the marble lobbies and you’ll catch a glimpse, though you still won’t see.
For four years, I roamed the streets that surrounded my high school on East 84th and I never had a clue. I drew no distinctions between limousine liberals and their conservative counterparts; nothing affected my perception that my adopted neighborhood was dominated by a homogeneous group. But stirring just below the surface was an equally potent force, integrated so thoroughly into upper-crust culture that any attempts to extricate it would surely destroy the existing social order.
Then I heard the whispers in the shadows: The Doorman Mafia.
For two summers, I was a pawn in this self-perpetuating system. Like any shady organization, this syndicate of service-elevator operators and bellhops thrives on family connections, and mine ran straight through the heart of my alma mater, Regis High School.
For nearly a decade, seniors from my school—their interest cultivated by one of the industry godfathers, who had a son enrolled—have filed, in groups of two and three, into the bowels of New York’s ritziest urban dwellings. Student doormen like me—hailing from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Amherst—are paraded through the upper halls to be half-heartedly celebrated by residents, shown off as symbols of the security and assistance that are a phone call to the basement away.
But what of the traditional doorman archetype embedded in the collective consciousness? The Scottish or Irish gentleman, elderly, jovial to tenants, bitter when out of earshot, his brogue softened by decades spent in America?
He is nothing more than a front, a comforting anachronism that disguises the truth.
Down the darkened and grimy stairwell, under the exposed pipes and harsh lighting which welcomed me to work every day, the rules change. The conduct required beneath the chandelier in the main atrium or on the walkways of the garden is replaced by a coarse neo-Hobbesian code applicable only to those donning the uniform blues. Though clearly defined social distinctions exist within the group, an unwavering loathing of those not belonging to their Baltic tribal clique transcends all barriers. The Muslims hate the Christians and vice-versa, thanks to generations of ethnic and religious warfare, and no one seemed to like Benny very much. But if an outsider dare slight just one—even Benny—the dogs will be nipping at your heels.
Even when not offending the sensibilities of the cozy coterie that runs the show, those outside the fold remain in the crosshairs. Except for the one time I was snatched up by the scruff of my neck and slammed against a wall, I was generally not subjected to physical violence. The mafia employ not physical, but psychological warfare to marginalize targets while solidifying the preeminence of their group—in my case Albanian—in the basement. Baseless complaints to a sympathetic boss about the less-senior Columbian, idle gossip spread through the tenant population about the Canadian, active disparagement of the Irish-American—these are the tommy guns in the Doorman Mafia’s violin cases.
In my case, the attack was three-pronged.
With little to do after the morning rush, I’d sink into an out-of-the-way spot to read a book. Almost instantly, the torment commenced. From one end of the hall, “Hey Tim, how you doing?” From the other, “Chinese food make me sick!” Back and forth, the questions posed in quick succession one following the other. For three months. Every day. I cursed myself for teaching one my name and swore revenge on First Wall for poisoning the other’s bowels.
I sought sanctuary in the service elevator. Paying more attention to my discomfort than their own duties, one henchman or another would inevitably notice the lift’s absence and the extended stay on one floor before bellowing that I’d better come and perform some task for which he was responsible.
With my elevator shaft safe house compromised, there was only one place left to seek refuge from the constant badgering: upstairs to the lobby, the one spot in the entire building where there was always work to be done.
But even there, I felt the influence of the mafia. You see, each mafia strike is a calculated risk, designed to thrust as much grunt work on others as possible, while simultaneously molding residents into complete dependency. The handyman in my building had realized this latter task flawlessly, rendering tenants incapable of accomplishing anything by themselves. On one occasion I was beckoned upstairs by a distraught woman who needed the help of the electrician. When I informed her that he had left for the day and offered my services, she questioned my ability to successfully perform the task. After an arduous interrogation, she revealed her intensely technical request: a light bulb change.
After finishing tasks originally earmarked for someone else, it was back to reading in the basement, where I faced the constant struggle to keep the book from being tossed in a cobwebbed corner, or torn in half— the doorman mafia version of a horse’s head on the pillow beside me.
Indignation mellowed to frustration, and eventually resignation. When the August blackout turned off the elevators, I didn’t bat an eye at the order to march up 15 flights of stairs to retrieve luggage for tenants fleeing to the still-plugged-in Hamptons. The Doorman Mafia had carried out yet another hit, callously snuffing out my fragile spirit.
I returned my crumpled uniform a week later, renewing a promise made weeks earlier that I’d never go back. But the words rang hollow even before I managed to squeeze them through my lips. I had made the same promise one year before, only to quickly learn that escaping the clutches of that underworld isn’t so easy. Once you’re on the inside, no matter how averse you are to its sordid characters and no matter how badly you want to keep yourself from going back, chances are you’ll find yourself trudging down those pale gray stairs, into the basement and the world that the upstairs people just don’t see.
Timothy J. McGinn ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. He’ll wish he’d never written a word of this when he is desperately seeking employment come the end of finals period.