The smells are the thing I don’t forget. Harsh cleaners, dead bodies, the results of four a.m. bodega runs, cluttered apartments filled with rotting paper. I can recall each smell distinctively; they are unique to that time and place. It also works in reverse: if I stumble upon one of the smells, it takes me back to being a naïve seventeen-year-old, working in the hot New York City summer—the buzz of air conditioners working in the night, straining power grids. The city was asleep and I was awake. I was a doorman.
Through the best Catholic invention of all time—nepotism—my uncle gave me a summertime job. While most of the youth of America struggled to find any money-making position, I was going to make $660 for my forty hours a week, after taxes. Union rules—god bless union rules—added time-and-a-half for overtime and double time-and-a-half for holidays. I covered vacations—most of the doormen and porters in the building had at least three weeks paid—so I would work whenever I was needed and, as a result, worked the crappy shifts. The swing shifts—literally working any time of day or night—and the midnight-to-eight a.m. shift became my summer.
That first summer, I dedicated myself to finding some kind of spiritual awakening. I decided to read the entire Kurt Vonnegut canon. It was not in order, but during lunch breaks and slow times at the door I would peel back the pages and plunge in.
The summer went by quickly. June and July were consumed by Nazi propagandists (Mother Night), Watergate (Jailbird), and Kilgore Trout. It was those unrelenting August nights that played and preyed on my mind my first year. The lobby A/C barely worked and I constantly sweat through my baby blue polyester building-issued shirt. I would spend the midnight-to-eight-a.m. shift reading at the desk. At around four I would lock the front door and walk to the bodega on Broadway with a box cutter in my pocket (“Always carry this,” my uncle told me the first night). There I would buy cups of iced coffee, Red Bull and gum.
I hated walking back. The lack of social interactions on the overnight shift killed me. I would be lucky if I had the chance to talk with anybody coherent. Midnight to three consisted of the drunks—rich residents and rich friends stumbling around, fumbling for keys, phones, wallets. Three to five was dead—nobody in or out. While I waited for sunrise, five to eight was work—peeling my back from the stool, locking the door, taking the newspapers that magically appeared on the stoop (I never saw the delivery van), and putting out garbage bins on all of the floors. Residents ran out yelling on phones, at children, at occupied taxis speeding by as I handed out keys to housekeepers, learning to communicate in broken English. I greeted the porters and day doorman, who never came up to the desk at eight, always at 8:05 a.m. or later, wearing a snide smile.
At the end of the shift, I would run to the subway and take it to Grand Central Terminal to reverse commute. I was going home from work to the suburbs while most people were traveling to their jobs in the city. Sleeping against the sun on the train, then in my bed, I would wake up in the afternoon.
“What am I doing?” I asked myself.
“You are making money,” I answered.
What day is it? What month is it?
I lost all sense of time and all ability to interact. The weeks on the overnight shift were like solitary confinement. My day planner from that period makes no sense; pages either blank or full of scribbling of strange ideas. It was my own personal Groundhog Day every night, the same, unmovable time loop over and over and over. Vonnegut, of all people, tried to keep me sane.
6H – The Hoarder
New York City residents know an incredible amount about their neighbors, without even doing too much detective work. Smells and open doors can give you insightful knowledge into neighboring rooms, but the remaining mystery of what residents don’t know about their neighbors is exploited. It is exploited by those working in buildings.
Nobody ever went inside 6H. In a building with 120 apartments you recognize faces, names on packages and number-letter combinations. 6H never came up.
“We’re going upstairs,” my uncle said one day. He fished a key from his shirt pocket and tossed it to me. “To 6H.”
“What are we doin’?”
After the short elevator ride, I tried the key in the door of 6H. My uncle laughed at the struggle; he knew exactly what he was doing.
“What are you doing?” he mockingly yelled and motioned me away. He opened the door in one swift motion, but it only moved in three inches. It was pitch black, bizarre for an early afternoon summer day. I fished out my mini Maglite and pushed hard on the door. Something crashed and all I saw was paper. Rotting sheets revealed the half-life of newsprint. I couldn’t see walls or windows. We stepped over old newspapers and issues of magazines. I remember a New Yorker issue covered with an army of snowmen. It was dated January 8, 1972.
“This lady died two years ago,” my uncle informs me. “Not in here, thank god. We would have never found her.”
It sat empty of humans but full of stories, clips, bills, letters. I made a joke about turning up the heat to 451 degrees Fahrenheit. My uncle stared at me. I mumbled something back to cover my embarrassment.
The son of the dead woman was finally able to sell the one-bedroom apartment, after two years of court probate due to the lack of a will. We found the will when we were emptying out the apartment. The garbage filled three forty-cubic-yard dumpsters. The will left all of the woman’s fortune and apartment to various public institutions, with no mention of the son. He was cut out. The next day we revealed this to him. We gave him the document, for which he tipped us an extra $200 each. Nothing was said. The apartment was repainted and sold for over a million dollars, which a court allowed the son to keep. The will ended up like all of those other words—in a landfill, forgotten, never to be read again.
2B – The Body
New York City residents also have an interesting relationship with death. We are constantly surrounded by it, but we’re blissfully ignorant, even when it happens to our neighbors.
“Aunt ______ isn’t answering my calls. Can you check on her?”
This was the scariest two-sentence combination I heard as a doorman. That old lady in 2B wasn’t in the Hamptons. I knew exactly where she was. She was fucking dead, in her apartment.
The doorman and porters gathered around the front desk, drawing imaginary straws. I walked up.
The key was on top of the doorman podium. All three men—the two other porters and daytime doorman—looked at me, grinning.
“Mrs. ______’s relative called. They haven’t heard from her in a few days.”
Corey, the daytime doorman, answered.
“So, you have to—” Corey was cut off.
“She is fucking dead in there, man,” Eddie yelled. “You have to go check before we call the cops.”
“Just call them.”
Corey tried to retain order. “We can’t, you have to check first.”
“Shit, why do I have to?”
“Fuck that, I’m not.”
All three guys stared at me, the seventeen-year-old Kurt Vonnegut-reading summertime worker. I was their peon all summer: mopping, cleaning, lifting, pulling and climbing while they sat in air conditioning and watched NY1 in the break room.
I didn’t want to see a dead body.
“Fine, fine, fine. You pendejo,” the oldest porter, Manny, said. “Let’s go.”
On the elevator ride up, he told me that this would be his fourth dead body, bragging about his experienced undertaker status. It is sick, but I understood the joy Manny could not help but express.
Some of the residents constantly talked down to us:
“Boy, did you empty those bins?”
“This hallway hasn’t been mopped in weeks! I’m calling the building management company.” (I had cleaned it the previous day.)
Nothing compared to being asked my first day by a longtime resident—who was hated equally by porters, doormen and her neighbors—if I spoke English. She followed it up with , “It’s about time they got some white people working here.”
Even the ones who pretended to be nice only did so for ulterior motives:
“Hey! How’s it going? How about those Yankees?”
(Translation: I know you know that I’m cheating on my wife after you saw me coming home in that cab last week. You opened the door when I was pulling my hand out of my mistress’s skirt. I will be nice to you, and tip you well, if you don’t tell anyone.)
“You want a soda? You hungry?”
(I know you know I have male prostitutes visit me in my apartment late at night. I will continue to buy you food if you don’t tell anyone.)
Manny was in control. His joy came from being one of the first to see Mrs. ______; all the residents would ask him about it. He would be the center of the building gossip, temporarily, but at the center nonetheless.
“I hope,” he grinned, “that she isn’t burnt alive.”
“Come on,” I said.
“Two years ago, Mr. ______ was smoking a cigar in his bedroom,” Manny said. “All of the rooms are fireproofed. He had a heart attack in his bed and the cigar burnt his body.”
I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t believe him. Later I confirmed with my uncle, my only friend here, that Mr. ______ did in fact die of a heart attack and get incinerated by a cigar. My uncle, who smoked cigarettes while he recounted this story, looked under the coroner’s white sheet because his curiosity of what burnt flesh looks like got the better of him.
The elevator doors opened. I pushed the key into the keyhole and wiggled it until it caught. All the lights were on. I scanned the living room. Then, I saw it. An arm, completely dark blue, limp over the side of the couch. She was facing the TV. The smell in the apartment was every cliché from every horrible television detective procedural. It was acrid; it smelled like rotting meat. I couldn’t take it and I ran outside. I desperately wanted to vomit but couldn’t show weakness in front of Manny. He would tell the others and I would be mocked for the entire summer. Manny and I went downstairs and he told Corey to call 911.
The cop car was followed by the coroner’s van. The coroners carried the body on a stretcher out of the service entrance. As the body went into the van, all of the porters stared at each other. I went back inside and worked extremely fast so I could make the 4:20 train. I focused on my work so I could ignore the smell my brain couldn’t get rid of. I made the train, got home and showered for a long time to try to get rid of the smell. I looked at the water circling the drain, and felt nothing.
My first summer as a doorman came to a close. I worked for two more summers during college. At the end of my third, I knew it would be my last. The union leadership in the building was changing and 32BJ was strong. I also knew I wouldn’t miss it.
“Corey’s dead. This morning, heart attack.”
I could tell this wasn’t a prank. I could tell my uncle was tearing up over the phone, trying to fight showing any emotion at all.
“I’m going to need you to work all break,” my uncle continued. “The money will be great. Lot of holiday and overtime pay.”
I had just finished finals at NYU, right before winter break. I hadn’t slept in three days.
I said yes and hung up.
I hated Corey. He showed up late all the time and always yelled at me for rules that he himself violated continually. And now, I had to be him. I had to wear his fancy clothes and play the part of the daytime doorman. On the overnight shift, I didn’t have to dress up, but during my short reign over the coveted eight-to-four daytime shift I had to wear a hat that hung over my ears and an overcoat that dragged on the floor when it was slung over my shoulders.
The snow did nothing to slow or freeze my hatred of Corey, or of the way the residents treated me. This was the end.
After that break, I never went back to work as a doorman. My uncle is now retired and most of the workers have been replaced—some after forty years of service—due to a change in union leadership. I hate walking by the front door. It’s like going back to the carnival or office you worked at when you were a teenager. When you had no idea who you were.
* * *
Ben Juers is a Sydney-based cartoonist whose work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Seven Days and the Australian Book Review.