NPR logo

Remembering a Job that Opened Doors

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5299169/5299170" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering a Job that Opened Doors

Commentary

Remembering a Job that Opened Doors

Remembering a Job that Opened Doors

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5299169/5299170" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Music journalist Steven Ivory remembers his first real job — as a doorman.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

There's an old proverb that says, choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. But how many of us actually have the luxury of landing the jobs of our dreams? Most of us simply have to take the best employment available, and that can sometimes make work, well, work, that is, unless you learn to love it.

That's just what happened when writer, Steven Ivory, set out to be a music journalist and ended up a doorman.

Mr. STEVEN IVORY (Music Journalist): I've traded jokes with Michael Jackson. I've hung out with Prince. I've endured Tupac's second hand chronic smoke, and I touched the sequined hem of the Godfather himself, Mr. James Brown. My career is as a music journalist has allowed me to walk through many doors. However, I have not had a professional experience more personally fulfilling than when I opened doors, literally.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IVORY: The year was 1978, and I was a starving artist in Los Angeles, in desperate need of employment. Hired as a doorman at a luxury residential high rise, I was more reticent than elated. I asked myself, what in the hell does a doorman do?

Mr. JAKIM(ph) WEBSTER (Doorman): Well, we meet and greet tenants as well as visitors.

Mr. IVORY: Professional doorman Jakim Webster.

Mr. WEBSTER: Personally, I make sure that the driveway is clear. I make sure that there's no one dwindling around in the parking area. I'm making sure no one gives the concierge lady at the desk a hard time. I also make sure that all visitors sign in and are announced before they actually go up.

Mr. IVORY: Jakim Webster works for the luxurious Sterling Tower apartment building in Los Angeles. This is my old stomping ground, so to speak. For a salary plus tips, I used to open this very door he now is in charge of.

Mr. WEBSTER: Meet and greet tenants, as well as open the front door.

Mr. IVORY: Almost 30 years later, I've returned to my old post. I want to see if the occupation is as ambiguous as I remember.

Mr. WEBSTER: Everybody wants to be dealt with yesterday. So you kind of got to learn fast.

Mr. IVORY: According to Jakim, the job of doorman is a lot like life, there's no handle.

Mr. WEBSTER: I always tell new recruits or everybody that starts, I can show you better than I can tell you. It's a kind of hands on thing. It's nothing that I can verbally tell you that will prepare you for this position.

Mr. IVORY: What you learn fast is that the job is about more than just opening a door. It's a hustle. I often served as psychologist and peacemaker.

Mr. WEBSTER: It gets pretty exciting. I guess an average night would be a couple of tenants coming home two or three in the morning intoxicated or--things of that nature. There has been some really wild things here. I won't elaborate. But for the most part, you get a little bit of inebriation early in the morning, a little disturbances and things of that nature, nothing too wild as far as that's concerned.

Mr. IVORY: The doorman can be the first line of defense for cheating tenants who want an unsuspecting partner turned away at the door. I was also the building's social matchmaker. In the elevator, I once introduced Roots author, Alex Haley to Rock star Sly Stone. They were neighbors in the building and didn't even know it. But I did. The doorman knows exactly what's going on in his building at all times. Jakim does.

Mr. WEBSTER: Well, I have to, because I'm also required to make a foot patrol of the internal and external parts of the building at least every other hour or every hour and a half, provided that I'm not too busy here in the lobby. But I am required to make a foot patrol. So I have to know what goes on in the building. I just have to.

Mr. IVORY: I'll be honest, in the beginning, I was kind of embarrassed to do this job. The history of blacks in this country is one of servants and domestic work. At some point in her life, my mother, like her mother, cleaned houses for a living. I didn't want to be another link in that chain. I wondered how Jakim felt about this.

Mr. WEBSTER: I don't know. I guess I could say that it depends on how you feel about yourself as an individual, because people can be very cold, especially if they have a little bit of money in their pocket. So you have to basically kiss people's bottoms. You know, they pay all this high money to be here, so they want the service. They want the groceries brought up in a timely fashion. They want their call brought out when they call for it. You do have to kiss a little bottom. Not to the point where it degrades you as a human being or you have to degrade yourself or anything like that. Like anything else, it's just a job. But it depends on the person.

Like I take pride in my job because I take pride in myself. So you're going to get the best service that Jakim can give you because that's just how I am.

Mr. IVORY: I too came to understand this. It happened one day on the job. I just kind of routinely opened the door for this young white man, and his sincere appreciation hit me like a lighting bolt. I had an epiphany. It's not the job that makes the man, it's the man who makes the job.

From then on I was a Ninja on this door. On my watch, no tenant or guest touched it, ever. The tenants merely lived here. This was my house. I was the big man on campus. How you doing? What can I do for you today? Can I help you, ma'am? Let me get that for you. Have a nice day, sir.

(Soundbite of music)

I was a doorman for exactly one year before a magazine offered me a full-time position. A tenant, hair products mogul Vidal Sassoon, actually had to talk me into leaving. The doorman's job I originally didn't want, I was now afraid to leave for the often rickety world of creative employment. But Sassoon said it best: a writer writes.

I remember my exodus well. It was a Friday night, and I clocked out at 11 p.m. on the dot. I opened that door for the last time, but this time it was for myself. I walked through it, armed with a dream, and the unshakeable faith and the adage that when one door closes, another one opens.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Steven Ivory is a music journalist living in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.