In the basement of 6 West 28th Street in Manhattan, there is a small office with low concrete ceilings and a wall lined by 1970s mannequins. The main entrance, via a manual elevator, is flanked on either side by two smaller interior rooms. To the right is the motor room, with its oil-stained pulley system, and to the left, an interior closet with a faded poster of Jennifer Lopez from 1999 hanging haphazardly on the wall. Finally, sitting at a glass-top table in the center of the main room, sunglasses perched atop his hunter-green cap, is Angel, the building’s superintendent and elevator operator. It is a bitterly cold morning in late February and Angel is huddled next to his ineffectual space heater. The boiler is broken and his office is the coldest room in the building.
For more than three decades, Angel, seventy-one, has manned the elevator of this four-story commercial building, bringing color to the lives of its tenants with his cheerful, permeable singing, his vibrantly painted lift and his African Grey Parrot, Mario, who resided alongside Jennifer Lopez for fifteen years. Just a few weeks ago, Angel decided to leave Mario at his home in Long Island for good due to the lack of heat here.
Once omnipresent in large New York City buildings, elevator operators are now an increasingly rare sight in the city. Angel’s building refrains from modernizing its system for the simple fact that manual means lower expenses, and thus far there’s been no real incentive to go automatic, a project that can cost more than $100,000. Angel operates the elevator with a slender handle that glides in a semi-circle to the right to go up, and to the left to go down.
In a job that requires long periods of isolation, Angel, who prefers that his last name not be published, says his favorite part is the people. “They give me their trust,” says Angel. “This is like a second home.”
He paints his ride a different color each year. This year — Angel’s thirty-third and last in the building — the small metal and brass elevator is painted red and white, colors left over from the past year’s building maintenance.
“When I came here,” he says, his consonants softened by a Puerto Rican accent, “the elevator was all grey. So I give it a spirit to the people. According to color, sometimes people feel better. They get brighter, you know, in their minds.” He taps his temple, his neatly trimmed silver hair peeking out from beneath his cap.
“He paints the inside of that cage — his birdcage — frequently, in all sorts of wild and crazy colors,” says Patricia Farrell, an artist who has rented a studio in the building for twenty-seven years.
Sitting in Farrell’s spacious studio on the fourth floor, the view of the Empire State Building looms, unobstructed, behind her. It is February 28, the day of Angel’s retirement, and she leans forward, her elbows on the table, lamenting the loss of “a friend, a dear soul.”
“He calls me Patri-see-ya,” she says, drawing out the last two syllables like a prolonged farewell. “Who’s going to call me Patri-see-ya after he’s gone?”
She reveals Angel is an avid singer of Top 40 tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, and “knows every word to every song,” often entertaining riders with his musical bent.