The World of Doormen Is Obvious, Yet Mysterious
By N. R. KLEINFIELD Published: April 21, 2010
The thing about doormen is, often they were doing completely unrelated work, like selling survival gear or bagging pork chops, when something random happened and suddenly they were doormen, tipping their caps and announcing that the in-laws were on the way up with a fruitcake.
Julio Gonzalez, a doorman at 35 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, was on duty on Wednesday.
Ralph Amato has been the doorman at Barbizon 63, at 140 East 63rd Street, for three years.
Lawrence Carter said Wednesday that he was the eyes and the ears of 411 West End Avenue.
And then they stay doormen forever, standing spraddled outside the door, their backs straight as furled umbrellas.
This comes up because it was very nearly a doorman-free city on Wednesday, contract wrangling threatening to put doormen on the picket lines. At the last minute, though, things got hashed out and they were on duty as usual in their showy uniforms, twisting doorknobs and accepting meat deliveries.
Like sentries, doormen have patrolled New York’s apartment buildings for some 150 years. Roughly 10,000 union doormen work in 3,200 apartment buildings in the city. Even though they are as familiar a species as cabdrivers and nannies, and even though they know plenty about the people who inhabit their buildings, relatively little is known about them.
The union that represents doormen and other building workers, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, said it did not keep demographic data.
“Shooting from the hip, I can tell you our members are very diverse,” was about all a spokeswoman could say.
A few years ago, Peter Bearman, a Columbia University sociology professor, published a book, “Doormen,” which for the first time shed a good deal of light on the customs of this cloistered world.
It is very much an immigrant’s profession. Many years ago, it used to be the Irish who opened the doors, and there are still Irish around. But the profession nowadays is heavily populated by Hispanics, as well as by an influx of Eastern Europeans from countries likes Poland, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia. Very few blacks or Asians are doormen, and hardly any women.
It’s not a difficult profession to qualify for. There are few prerequisites and no real training required. And yet it’s a job that can seem impossible to get.
That’s because doormen stay doormen for a very long time. After all, it’s a well-paying, working-class job. Doormen earn an average of about $40,000. They get medical and dental care for themselves and their families, as well as vacation, 10 paid sick days, pensions and tips. Under the new four-year labor contract, negotiated just past midnight Wednesday morning, workers will get a pay increase of nearly 10 percent, and benefits will remain unchanged.
Rarely do you see doorman availabilities in the classified ads. Mostly, doormen say, it’s knowing someone or knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone.
Rolando Colombani, 47, who is from Puerto Rico, was a night manager at Carrot Top, a Manhattan bakery and deli, his eye out for something else. He didn’t have benefits. His girlfriend was concerned. A customer had a close friend who was a superintendent. He, in turn, knew a super at the building at 8 East 83rd Street, where a doorman was about to retire. Mr. Colombani got the job. He’s been there 22 years. He moved from tarts to doors.
“It’s super knows super,” he said.
He mentioned how fond he was of his tenants, how he changed light bulbs for them and washed windows. Tips, he said, were welcomed, but it was not that simple. “A relationship is worth more than a dollar bill,” he said. “A dollar bill doesn’t speak to me.”
A lot of doormen will themselves go on to become superintendents and then get to hire doormen, tending to favor people of similar ethnicities. Mr. Colombani is enrolled in some courses at the union — alarms, carpentry and locksmithing — that could lead to superintendent work.
He says his daughter, who is 17, wants to become a doorman. “She can do it, because she’s strong,” he said. “I know. I wrestle with her.”
Robert Wang, 58, was operating a Chinese restaurant when a doorman friend told him about an opening at 775 Park Avenue. He got the job in 1993 and has been there ever since, one of the few Asian doormen. He moved from dumplings to doors.
One of his colleagues at the building is Al Collazo, 61, who is from Puerto Rico. He was a dental technician 25 years ago when a cousin at 760 Park told him that 775 needed help. He moved from teeth to doors.
A relative in the right place is always helpful, especially if it’s your father.
Raymond Santiago, 26, grew up at 34 Gramercy Park East, where his father was the superintendent. Yes, indeed, Mr. Santiago is now the doorman.
“People know me here, so I guess they felt comfortable,” he said as he stood in maroon lapels on the building’s steps.
Some of the younger doormen, though, are marking time. They are waiting for the stars to align so they can become actors or musicians or rodeo riders.
Sal Mamudoski, 21, of Macedonian descent, is like that. Inside 4630 Center Boulevard in Long Island City, he fed a tenant’s dog a biscuit as he explained how he was enrolled at the Juilliard School, playing the clarinet and studying chamber music, not giving a thought to door work. After a year, he felt the need to take time off. He had connections to the owners of 4630.
Anything available? Want to be a doorman?
He has been there two years. His intention, though, is to resume a music career.
Clarinet-playing doormen are rare. So are women doormen. Call them, please, doorwomen.
Sharon French, 39, was one of the first when, 19 years ago, she was hired at 55 West 14th Street. She’s still there.
She was a saleswoman in an Army Navy store when a friend introduced her to the superintendent. In a matter of weeks, she was a doorwoman.
She feels no limitations as a woman. Once there was a bawdy drunk who wobbled into the lobby, too much for her to handle. Fortunately, a tenant was handy. He tossed out the violator.
The worst moment was a couple of Christmases ago. She was putting candy canes on the tree in the lobby and a troubled woman jumped out her apartment window. Ms. French heard noise and went outside to look.
All the time, building visitors are surprised to find Ms. French there. “They come in and say, ‘Where’s the doorman?’ ” she said, “I say, ‘Doorwoman.’ And they say, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ ”
C. J. Hughes and Mick Meenan contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 22, 2010, on page A20 of the New York edition.
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