Do We Really Need Doormen?

New Yorkers sighed with relief as the first doorman strike in nearly 20 years was narrowly averted. In an op-ed column in the New York Times, journalist and author James Collins argues they aren't necessary, and that's why they are invaluable.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

You may not have noticed that New York City apartment owners and the Service Employees International Union came to an agreement last week which averted what would have been the first doorman strike in nearly 20 years. Across the city, thousands of men and women adorned in anachronistic splendor, sort the mail, screen visitors, take in dry cleaning and escort tenants through what New York writer Fran Lebowitz once described as the outdoors, that space between the entrance to the apartment building and the rear seat of a taxi cab.

But do we really need doormen or is this an unnecessary throwback to servile times? If you've lived in a doorman building, if you've worked as one, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

James Collins wrote an op-ed for The New York Times this week in defense of the doorman. He's also the author of the novel, "Beginner's Greek" and joins us now from a studio in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. JAMES COLLINS (Author, "Beginner's Greek"): Thank you, Neal, for having me.

CONAN: Are there a lot of doormen in buildings in Charlottesville?

Mr. COLLINS: No. They're virtually unknown in all of Virginia, I think.

CONAN: And this is pretty much - well, I was going to say in New York but probably a Northeastern phenomenon.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I think actually it really is a New York phenomenon that's- it's really essential to the fabric of New York City where I grew up, even though I'm living now in Virginia. And the research shows that they really don't have doormen in that many other cities in the country or around the world. So it's really a New York phenomenon.

CONAN: And why do you think they survive there? Just as a tradition? And they cost the apartment owners money, as we just learned.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I think New Yorkers become very dependent upon them. You know, you can't get your Chinese food yourself downstairs. You have to have someone come up, I mean, get it - take it with - take it to you. And, it is partially just tradition and just inertia, you know. They've been there since the very earliest apartment buildings and they've just kept on going. And it's just (unintelligible) kind of a neediness and demandingness of New Yorkers, too, I think, that make them persist.

CONAN: Well, it can't simply be inertia. I mean, for many years, of course, there are those high-rise apartment buildings had elevator operators who did pretty much of the same task...

Mr. COLLINS: Right.

CONAN: ...and automation made them unnecessary. And despite all those ancillary things they also did, they're all gone.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, that was sort of the point of my piece. I was trying to - I was reading the stories about it and there's always a great deal of drama and terror when this happens every three or four years when there's a threat of a doorman strike and all - everyone is going crazy because they're worried about what - how they're going to get their mail and how they're going to get dry cleaning and it's going to be a disaster because New Yorkers depend on the doorman so much.

And I read a lot about their duties and what they do and why they're -how important they are in the security and bringing up the Chinese food and all that stuff. And I realized that, really, all those duties could be performed in different ways. You don't really need a guy in a vest and white gloves and a hat looking like a colonel in the Russian army...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COLLINS: ...you know, bringing your Chinese food to you. And so I was thinking about what the other purposes of the doorman really were.

CONAN: And aside from collecting your dry cleaning, what are they?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, they do a lot of different things. But to me, as I (unintelligible) try to say, all those duties could really be done by somebody else. The big number one task is security. Well, if you ever lived in doorman building and you've gotten to know your doorman, you know that they aren't really necessarily the guys you want next to you when you're...

CONAN: Very few studied as ninjas. Yeah.

Mr. COLLINS: No, exactly. They aren't going to be on the SWAT team. And so, security is always the one mentioned, but there really is not - that could be done by security guards, could be by other much better ways. And there's sorting of mail and there's getting packages and all these things, which really are functions that could be handled in different ways. And - what I just try to say in the piece was that, that's not why people are attached to their doormen.

They are attached to their doormen because they are kind of a middle person between the outside and the inside, between home and the street. That has sort of disappeared, in a way. You don't have the, as I mentioned, the postman or the cop who you know and you talk to anymore and it really is buildings are sort of small towns and the doormen sort of become the kind of small town shopkeeper or policeman who knows everybody, who talks to people, who has the sort of role of keeping the community together.

And people become very attached to this sort of human contact with these people who were not at your home and not at your job, and the kind of, you know, this person who we sort of lost in the world, you know, someone who's sort of outside our regular lives, but who we know and see regularly, have a face-to-face relationship with.

CONAN: We're talking with James Collins about the purpose and reason-to-be of the doorman. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org, if you've lived in a doorman building or if you've worked as one.

We'll start with Kenneth(ph). And Kenneth with us on the line from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, this is Kevin(ph).

CONAN: Kevin, go ahead please.

KEVIN: Yeah, my point was I live in Manhattan for quite a while and we had a doorman over at 34th and 3rd. But, you know, all they really seem to care about was their Christmas bonus that you gave them. I mean, I just - the newer buildings that they are opening up in Manhattan don't have doormen. In certain cases, they have just keypad entry. And I just really never understood. Now I'm a Midwest boy and I was out there for several years, but never understood what the purpose was besides just to create another job.

CONAN: Did you exchange any banter with your doorman in the morning, looks like rain, that sort of thing?

KEVIN: Well, we chatted, you know, but at the time, he was doing something else rather than open the door. And, you know, being a Midwest boy, I didn't really see the need for somebody to do that, hail me a cab, I can do that kind of stuff myself. If the mailman came in, he'd get the mail. You know, I just never really saw the use for it.

Now I had good relationships with them, but it wasn't money that I paid. I mean, I guess I did, sort of, in rent.

CONAN: In rent. And as you mentioned, every year at Christmas.

KEVIN: Every year at Christmas the hand was out. Just - I mean, you know, that's just a part of New York culture, but I just never - you don't see it in Chicago and many places. You don't see them in a lot of other large cities.

CONAN: Thomas - excuse me - James Collins was pointing that out. It's pretty much a New York phenomenon. And, well, you know, it's hard to argue with Kenneth. Some doormen don't do a lot.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's true. And did your - Kenneth, did you doorman open the door for you? Or did he not - did he neglect to even do that?

KEVIN: Well, when he was there, sometimes...

Mr. COLLINS: So he didn't always open the door for you. Well, that's a very poor doorman who doesn't actually...

KEVIN: It wasn't like I needed it.

CONAN: Well, he did when he was there, but he was not always directly at the door, but...

Mr. COLLINS: All right. Well, it's a very poor doorman who doesn't actually even...

CONAN: Open the door.

Mr. COLLINS: ...open the door. That's pretty poor. But I think, you know, in New York, it started with- in the early days when the first fancy apartment buildings were going up. And it was a - it's really -they looked at hotels, fancy luxury hotels, and they had doormen dressed up in uniforms and people would - in Grant Houses, had servers dressed up in uniforms, they would be porters or doormen. And so I think they just adapted that to the apartment house and it became a status item and you couldn't build - you couldn't - you needed a doorman as a status item for your new building, even if it was serving people who weren't necessarily expecting that level of luxury.

CONAN: Kenneth, thanks very much for the call.

KEVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And it'd be interesting, I've always wanted to do -somebody do a study on the clothing worn by the doormen, which ranges, as you said, from the Russian colonel's uniform to what looks like a, you know, somebody who's in livery to a, you know, an English queen. It really covers the waterfront.

Here's an email from Steve(ph) in Beaver Dam, Arizona. I lived in a doorman building on Central Park West for many years and also have an apartment in a concierge building in Boston and can attest that the life with a doorman is much better than life with a mere concierge.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, the concierge is a - obviously, that's the - how they do it in France. And they are famously irascible. And so maybe it is better with a nice affable doorman than an irascible concierge.

CONAN: And the fundamental difference between the two is the concierge sits behind a desk inside.

Mr. COLLINS: Right. Yes, and probably lives in the building, whereas the doorman actually all live in far away.

CONAN: In Queens, you would guess.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah, exactly. Right.

CONAN: Let's go next to Liza(ph). Liza with us from Phoenix.

LIZA (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Liza.

LIZA: So I lived in Chicago in the financial district and I lived in a large building with a doorman. And I thought it was really great.

CONAN: And in what capacities did the doorman help you?

LIZA: Well, the building, it had a retail section and it was four buildings, so it was pretty large. So it was good when I first moved there to sort of go to the doorman and get - you know, find out where to get the best Greek food or where I could get delivery service. And I was a single woman and I felt really - I just have that sense of security that even if I came home late that someone was there that would sort of like - I wasn't just alone.

CONAN: So it was a combination of, well, security, as you suggest and a local search engine.

LIZA: Basically, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: But that's what a lot of people say is that they - you know, the door - what doormen say is they always look - they're looking out for the young kids who are going - staying out late and they always tell them, you know, hey, be careful out there, you know? And they know who's coming in, they know who's coming up, they know what food you drink - you eat, what you drink, you know if you're ordering too many bottles of vodka from the local liquor store. They know a lot about the tenants.

And that comes through. And they do have sort of paternalistic, you know, feeling towards the tenants. Protecting them, doing things for them, looking out for them. And so it's - that I think is really more why (unintelligible) people value them and the fact that they get, you know, get the dry cleaning, which millions and millions and millions of New Yorkers manage on their own to get their dry cleaning.

CONAN: Liza, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LIZA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Anna(ph) in Battle Lake(ph), Michigan - excuse me - Minnesota. Hear Battle - I want to say Battle Creek. This is - how many New York-based crime dramas would be without key eyewitnesses in their case if there were no more doormen? The writers would have to come up with new plot devices.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: Mm-hmm. Well, it's true. Although the doormen - the security argument is a little undercut by the fact that the doorman tend to be in the most safe neighborhoods. So they're - in real life, yes, there aren't that many - they aren't witness to that many shootings.

CONAN: We're talking with James Collins about an op-ed piece he wrote for The New York Times called "Why Doormen?" He's also the author of the novel "Beginner's Greek." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Eric(ph). Eric calling from Elizabeth in Colorado.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, there. You know, first, I want to say this whole conversation puts me in mind of the old Sid Caesar gag where he's getting dressed and it looks like he's being dressed as a general going for battle and he's actually a doorman in a New York City...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ERIC: ...high-rise. I don't know if you've seen that. But...

CONAN: Oh, yes. Now, that you mentioned it, you bring it to mind. Yeah.

ERIC: One of his best gags. But you know, I was lucky enough for a short time to attend Christ Church at Oxford in England, Christ Church College. And one of the things that you're - that anyone who's attended an Oxford College, at least most of them, are familiar with is the porter. And there are usually one or two porters and they kind of work shifts. And they have a very paternalistic attitude, obviously, because we're talking about college students.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ERIC: But do a great deal, the porters do. They're extremely busy. I suppose same argument could be had as to whether they're worth the pay. But they do a lot. They're really kind of front door organizers. And you know, all of these same arguments come up, and I wonder if you're familiar with the phenomenon of the porter at an Oxford or a Cambridge college and whether you see any similarities. Certainly, the servile kind of throwback is there, but if there's any sort of practical similarities between the two.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I don't know much about them. I certainly know that they exist. And I've had friends who've talked about their scouts or whatever, I think they're sometimes called. And it is similar. And obviously, the doorman is some Americanized, very watered-down, democratized version of a kind of servant like that. Although they're not really in a servant relationship anymore but certainly, it's some -it's some vestige of having someone who would wake you up, take care of you, open the door for you. And the servants of - that have, you know, disappeared before you know, present at all points of people's lives in the past.

CONAN: Eric, do the porters wear those great uniforms?

ERIC: No. Actually, there are - traditionally, they're sort of dressed in black suits, waistcoats and black ties and a jacket. If it gets too hot, they might remove the jacket. But they're in a sort of - the porters are in a sort of a front door kind of capacity at the college. At the front gate, you need to check in with the porter. You can't just walk on to a campus, certainly not at Christ Church or Corpus or schools like that - colleges like that. And then you'd have to check in, they would know who's coming, who's going. If you're visiting and you're just going to be there in temporary housing, they might help you arrange transportation in and out. They might help, sort of, you know, here's -okay, I'm bringing luggage, I don't know where to go right now and they'll help you with that sort of thing.

CONAN: Okay.

ERIC: And also the mail and that sort of thing. But they're extremely helpful, especially for outsiders.

CONAN: All right, Eric. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Eric(ph) in St. Paul. I worked as an elevator operator at The Majestic on 72nd in Central Park West in the mid-'90s. If you don't know, it's a great building. The elevator was automatic, so my job was to know which floor everyone lived on so I could press the correct button for them. I also delivered the mail, packages and morning paper. Many residents were extremely particular about their morning paper delivery. I'm sad to hear the elevator operator might have vanished. That job gave me a strange window into the lives of the very wealthy. I was surprised to learn they were quite human.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Some of the time. Let's go next to Nancy(ph). Nancy with us from Little Rock.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I guess I'm going to talk about something I haven't heard anybody address and that's the fancy factor. I happen to own and operate businesses in Little Rock, Arkansas, but am a native of Chicago. I keep a condominium there with a doorman. And I will tell you by the time I get there and the cab pulls up to the building, the doorman comes out to the cab, opens the door, says, welcome home, helps me with my luggage, all of the amenities that have already been mentioned, the packaging, the door-holding. It's - for a single woman traveling, to have somebody there open the door for you, welcome you home, know that they're the eyes and ears of the building, I consider the doormen in my building completely invaluable.

CONAN: And you never miss him quite so much as when you arrive after midnight some night in the rain with a whole bunch of packages and luggage and of course the doorman is off-duty.

NANCY: That has never happened to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NANCY: (Unintelligible) 24 hours. I will tell you one amusing story that happened. I had just gotten out of the cab. The driver had taken my bags out of the trunk and set them on the sidewalk. I turned around to pay the driver, the cab took off. I turned around, my bags were gone. I had that horrible New York feeling that somebody had just made off with all of my luggage. And I heard laughter coming from the door, and there was the doorman who had already moved my bags into the building and on the elevator and watched me panic on the street. So...

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for that. We appreciate it.

NANCY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We'll end with this email from Dorothy(ph) who mentioned, a few years ago a doorman was featured on StoryCorps. He'd been on the job for years and found joy and tried to bring a few moments of light to the people he serviced. I wrote down his final comment and consider it inspirational: Be such a man and live such a life that if every man lived a life like yours, this would be God's paradise.

That's quite an elegy for the doorman. James Collins, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you.

CONAN: James Collins is the author of "Beginner's Greek: A Novel," also wrote the op-ed "Why Doormen?" in The New York Times, published on April 25th. And you can find a link to that at our Web page at npr.org. He joined us from a studio in Charlottesville.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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