Today’s Elevator Operators May Do More Than Just Push Buttons
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In an era of dishy, tell-all books about the habits and sanctuaries of New York society – think “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Devil Wears Prada” – a memoir or thinly veiled novel has yet to emerge from a wood-paneled, chandelier-adorned elevator near you.
It’s not that New York’s elevator operators, working the lifts in a few dozen of the city’s most exclusive apartment houses, don’t have the trappings of a best seller; it’s just that these men and women are not squealing like their counterparts in the childcare or magazine industries.
“If you’re doing your job, there’s no way to avoid knowing everyone’s secrets,” a New-York Historical Society fellow who writes about the modern service industry, Daniel Levinson Wilk, said.
Since they consistently share close and confined quarters with tenants, elevator attendants often know more of those secrets than even building doormen, according to a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, Deborah Grubman.” They’re privy to who comes home, when, and in what condition,” she said. “You assume that they’re discreet and that they’d never name names, especially in good buildings.”
While elevator operators played an important role in socializing New Yorkers to riding lifts at the turn of the 20th century, these days, they are largely vestigial – emblematic of a building’s wealth and prestige, observers say. “They’re not necessary, now that any six-year-old can press a button,” Ms. Grubman said. “They’re about having one more person working in the building. For some who like high-service environments, attended elevators are a big plus.”
For others they add nothing to a building’s cache or property value, she said.
A veteran elevator attendant Edwin Rivera, said his job has its “ups and downs,” as visitors – building tenants generally know better – often joke. On the plus side, there’s the lively banter with some of the city’s most colorful residents, union salaries and benefits, and the hefty Christmas tips, Mr. Rivera – who has for 19 years manned the elevators in the posh, Upper West Side apartment house, the Apthorp – said. The monotony, the between-calls ennui, and the long hours standing up are some of the drawbacks, he said.
In addition to pressing buttons, the job entails sorting and distributing mail, and helping to ensure tenant privacy and safety by escorting guests and those making deliveries to their doors.
It also involves knowing the five-day weather forecast, the score of last night’s Yankee game, and when to hold one’s tongue altogether. “We can be friendly, but we’ve got to be careful not to get too personal,” Mr. Rivera, whose uniform comprises a blue suit with gold epaulets, and a bow tie, said.
Off limits are questions about age, relationship status, and emotional wellbeing, according to Mr. Rivera. But just because they can’t ask, doesn’t mean residents don’t tell. “We know, basically, people’s lives and about what they’ve been through,” he said, noting that his loyalty to tenants precludes what he knows about the comings, goings, and habits of Apthorp residents. “My family members will hear in the media about celebrities in the building, and they’ll say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?'”
The Apthorp’s famous renters have reportedly included comedian Conan O’Brien, rocker Cyndi Lauper, and, most notably, screenwriter Nora Ephron, who in a recent New Yorker essay wrote how she paid $24,000 in “key money” to land one of the building’s few remaining rent-controlled units.
Elevator operators are among the city’s 28,000 residential building service workers represented by Local 32BJ. They include doormen, porters, maintenance workers, security guards, and superintendents. A union spokesman, Ernesto Mora, said it does not keep track of how many of its members are elevator operators, but surmised that most of the buildings that continue to employ elevator operators are on Fifth and Park avenues, and on Central Park West between 59th and 96th streets. “These are plush buildings,” he said. “Tenants are not paying peanuts for their apartments, and they expect to get the best service.”
A residential real estate agent at Prudential Douglas Elliman, Linda Stein, said as a single mother who raised two daughters, she appreciated the extra level of security that an attended elevator provided her family. “I like the idea of having someone escorted to my apartment,” Ms. Stein said.
While Ms. Stein, who has brokered deals for the likes of Madonna, Billy Joel, and Angelina Jolie, said she doesn’t recall an instance when an attended elevator – or lack there of – was the deciding factor in a deal. “People have mixed feelings about elevator operators,” she said, noting that while some people see them as providing an extra level of security and service, others simply don’t want to feel obliged to make conversation en route to their floor.
As for that conversation, a longtime elevator operator in a luxury cooperative at 239 Central Park West, Javier Trujillo, said it’s an art that comes with experience: “You have to know what to say, who to say it to, and you’ve got to wrap it all up in 30 to 40 seconds, by the time the door opens.”