The first test was the audacious cockroach that sidled into our apartment about three days after we moved in.
Hardly enough of a native Manhattanite to calmly swat it and flush it and go on eating my pizza, I pollyannaish-ly sprinted downstairs instead. “Excuse me,” I breathlessly announced to the crossword-solving bald guy manning the front desk — I hadn’t even had the courtesy of introducing myself to him yet. “There’s a cockroach in my living room.”
Visibly unimpressed but with an air of professional politeness that almost hid what he actually wanted to say (“suck it up, princess”), he looked up at me sympathetically: “The exterminator comes Tuesdays.” It was Friday. In the five seconds that followed, my desperation thickened the silent air between us until he buckled: “OK, OK, OK, OK, OK. I’ll be right up.” He was and minutes later the roach was history.
In years to come, when I eventually move away from New York, I will remember many charmingly unique — and not charming but very unique — things about this vibrant, pungent, unapologetic, ragbag of a city.
High up on that eclectic list, though, will likely be the weird and wonderful kings of discretion who are privy to your secrets — your sordid affairs, habits and addictions — but about whom you know absolutely nothing; creatures who are as enigmatic as secret service agents, as polymathic as Swiss army knives, but as unassuming as the dude next door whose name could literally be anything. The heroes of the free world, the invisible cogs that keep the wheel spinning: New York City’s doormen.
Doormen in the Big Apple have a deep and storied past. By some accounts, they’ve patrolled apartment buildings for more than a century and a half. Nobody seems to have an exact count, but estimates put the number of union doormen across the five boroughs at over 25,000, spread across more than 3,000 apartment buildings.
They’re everywhere. And yet, it’s rare that anyone actually ever stops to consider who they are, and the real value — beyond opening doors and handing out Amazon hauls and takeout — they actually offer. Bulldozing the social etiquette that suggests it might be inappropriate to ask someone you don’t know a personal question, I quizzed one of the doormen in the large apartment building where I live why he chose this profession. His response? The money — unionized doormen make about $60,000 a year — and the job stability. Before becoming a doorman he was an aerial gymnast. “It was fun for a while,” he explained a little wistfully. “I sometimes miss the glitter.” When I asked several dozen of my friends and acquaintances across the city to share stories about their doormen, a few recurring themes emerged. If you’re a man dating women in New York, don’t worry too much about an overprotective male friend, or brother, or father: consider the doormen to be the real gatekeepers you need in your corner. Someone told me that her doorman had physically stopped several unwanted visits from a potential suitor. Others shared how their doormen had valiantly lied about them not being at home, or being sick, to make a caller go away. One woman told me she’s made an agreement with her doorman under which he judges any male visitors she brings home and then shares his impressions and assessments with her. “He has a high bar,” she said. “Most of them he’s deemed not worthy.” Cockroaches come in all shapes and sizes, I suppose.
Whatever services and value doormen offer, it’s unequivocally a good idea to be very nice to them. They have the unique ability to make you very comfortable or very uncomfortable, and if you make an enemy of your doorman there’s a good chance that you’ll be stuck with him or her (though it’s usually a him) for your entire tenancy. Many doormen have worked in the same building for decades. Rarely are doorman jobs advertised. According to my unscientific research, the best way to get a doorman job is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. And then you have to be a bit lucky too.
Indeed, earlier this year a doorman named Manny Teixeira retired from a job that made him New York City’s longest-tenured doorman. He’d worked at his building on the swanky Upper East Side since 1961, according to local news. And tenants in that building certainly took my advice about being kind to your doorman to heart. One of them allegedly bequeathed a dog to Manny in his will. Her name was Lucy.
A very basic rule, I’m learning, is to greet them, know their names and pay them a holiday bonus. Occasionally, offer to bring them something back from a coffee run. If you’ve got extra-special needs — vermin that need destroying, stalkers that need repelling, regular late-night ice cream deliveries that you’d prefer to be notified about before they resemble a melted, milky mess — then throw in a baked good for good measure.
Doormen will always judge you. As someone who’s tasked with dealing with human beings all day and all night — the good, the bad and the sloppily inebriated who lose their keys every Saturday night — that’s absolutely their prerogative. But at least if they like you, and if you show them the respect they deserve, they might have the dignity to pretend they’re not judging you. Even misguided ignorance is bliss.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.