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At the Doors

Whether It Is Handling Packages Or People, The Doorman Is An Unusual Breed In An Unusual Job.

 

Being a good doorman involves a lot more than simply opening and closing doors. Ask Sixto Mendez. Just after nine o’clock on a recent Friday morning, Mendez, a doorman/concierge at The Fairview co-op in Queens, has his hands full. There are three crews working on the building façade who disrupt the regular flow of the morning with noise and equipment. At the same time, two residents are complaining about construction sounds coming from an apartment that does not have permission to renovate.

Meanwhile, another resident has phoned the lobby about a lack of TV reception, and two housekeepers are impatiently waiting for Mendez to give them door keys. And through it all, a Fed Ex deliveryman is singing “God Bless America” as he clicks off packages on his handheld computer. Then, a Chinese fast food deliveryman arrives in a panic. He has hot food to drop off and no idea where it’s supposed to go. As Mendez tries to decipher a scribbled phone number on the deli menu, the deliveryman, with a running commentary in Chinese, rushes in and out of the doorway to check that his bike has not been stolen.

Mendez swings into action. With a radio receiver in one hand, he calls up Mike, the handyman, to check out the TV problem: “Base to Mike,” he says with military precision. A receiver in his other hand, the doorman next phones another resident to see if she’ll let Mike into her apartment to test the reception on her floor (if it’s bad there, he later explains, then the first TV reception complaint could be part of a system-wide problem). He contacts the complex’s security guard to investigate the unauthorized renovation. Now, he turns to the housekeepers – they are regulars, so Mendez gives them keys. Finally, he prepares notes alerting the residents who have received packages. While this is going on, the phone rings. It’s the crew working on the scaffold asking if their deli order has arrived. Could that be the Chinese food?

 

The Professional

Mendez, who has been at his 400-plus-unit complex for some 33 years, is fairly typical of his profession. At the property, managed by Carlson Realty, Mendez divides his time between the door and a swivel chair behind a small vestibule counter where he commands a packed communication center.

Like most doormen, he sees himself as a professional, taking pride in the job requirements: a good memory, calm disposition, stamina, and many other skills.

The New York City doorman is an unusual breed in an unusual job, notes Peter Bearman, a sociologist. “They know a lot about their tenants: what they eat, what movies they watch, whom they spend time with. Tenants, on the other hand, know very little about their doorman. The closeness of the relationship is strongly asymmetrical, conditioned by a remarkable social distance,” Bearman writes in Doormen, a 2005 study of the profession.

New York City is the doorman capital of the world, boasting more doormen than any other city in the country (their union, Local 32BJ, puts the membership number at about 20,000). Every three years, the union negotiates with a panel representing building owners led by James Berg, president of the Realty Advisory Board (RAB). That negotiation sets the pay scales and benefits for unionized properties – the bulk of the city’s residential buildings. The current contract came into effect in April 2006 and runs four years, expiring on June 30, 2010.

As of July 1, 2007, doormen earn $18.44 an hour or just over $38,000 annually. But a building’s total cost for one full-time employee, including various payroll taxes and benefits, is about $63,000 a year. (Berg notes that the pay is more than his son earns as a rookie police officer. It’s also more than the starting pay for teachers.) For a single man – and a number of doormen are not married – the wage is adequate. Once a family is involved, however, the situation is tight and many doormen supplement their salary with part-time jobs. Average Christmas tips usually range from $4,000 to $6,000 and can go as high as $10,000 or more, depending on the size and location of the building. Overtime is paid at time-and-a-half, but many buildings are saving now by bringing in less costly part-time doormen. Carl Williams, a doorman at an East Side property, notes that his employers have cut back severely on overtime hours. He says he has lost about $2,000 in overtime pay in the last year.

 

High Costs, Good Value?

That raises the issue of whether the cost of having a doorman creates additional value. How much does a good doorman add to the sales price you can get for your apartment? Klara Madlin, owner of Klara Madlin Real Estate, estimates that having a doorman adds 10 to 15 percent to the value of a property. “We get a lot of people who say they won’t move into a building [which doesn’t have] a doorman,” she adds, noting that it doesn’t matter whether that is 16- or 24-hour coverage.

“I find that most people who want a doorman – it’s not [because] they’re afraid per se, it’s [because] they have packages delivered or their kids are coming home and they want to leave keys for them or something like that,” she explains. “They seem to want the service and the convenience so that if the night shift isn’t covered, it doesn’t bother them that much.”

But what makes a good doorman? Although the manager is usually responsible for hiring, the board and the other residents are the ones who will be regularly interacting with him. When evaluating your doorman, what are the traits you should look for?

Being personable is the most obvious, top-of-the-agenda item. “If you don’t care for people,” says Sammy Retamar, a doorman at 201 East 79th Street, a 21-story co-op building under Gerard J. Picaso Inc.’s management, “it’s not the job for you.” Kevin Ramkisoon agrees. He’s a doorman at a 15-story co-op on Madison Avenue that has been cited as one of the top ten luxury buildings in the city, and he’s unequivocal about it: he likes people and thinks, “This is the best job I ever had in my life.” From his house in Ozone Park, Queens, it can take an hour to get to work, but he always gives himself two hours and generally relieves the other doorman early. His biggest skill, he says, is knowing how to handle the residents, whether it is giving them a smile, a polite “Good morning,” or a stoic silence.

Elsewhere, at 334 West 86th street – a 1920s-era building managed by Vintage Real Estate – 28-year veteran Jose Salazar knows everyone in his building – and also recognizes their parents, relatives, and friends. But he knows when not to intrude. If a resident ignores him when he greets him or her, he understands. “Their minds are somewhere else and nothing comes easy. It’s a kind of psychological thing. They work very hard, they have children, their businesses, and so I understand that. Nothing is coming easy. But my work here is to keep them comfortable, to be part of the solution.”

This is standard operating behavior for most doormen, writes Bearman, the sociologist. “In order to do their job well, doormen actually have to learn quite a bit,” he observes. “They remember the faces and the relationship of their tenants’ friends and relatives. Once doormen recognize regular guests, they often suggest to tenants that they could just send them right up since ‘I know them now.’ Tenants learn that there are opportunities for specialized services.”

And being personable and appropriate for each situation, argues Bearman, might also be a reaction to a perception by many residents that doormen “never seem to be around. What do they do during their shift? Since most of the time they seem to be doing absolutely nothing, a critical element of the job of being a doorman involves changing these perceptions.” Bearman theorizes that doormen develop tricks of the trade and strategies – and being personable is one of them. They “try to manage the overall perception of tenants by being attentive…[and] proactively initiate contact with their tenants and try to engage them in conversation.” Most “make sure they have the latest information about the weather before starting their shift.”

 

Multitaskers

Beyond that, doormen must be able to multi-task and work as part of a team. Lynn Whiting, director of management at The Argo Corporation, points to an unusual team at an Upper West Side property, the 17-story Princeton House Condominium on 95th Street. Donna Brown, the concierge, laughingly says the team is affectionately known as “The Three Stooges” (although the nickname has nothing to do with their skill level): Carl Williams, doorman; Valentine Cordero, lobby porter; and herself.

Brown is one of the few women working in a lobby position, and she’s formidable. From her control desk in the lobby she runs a very tight ship. This week, there are four contractors working in the building. The board won’t allow renovation work to start until 9 AM and the crews are lining up outside the building. “They’re waiting for exactly 9:00 because they know I won’t admit them earlier,” she notes.

This morning, the intercom, her main means of communication with residents, is malfunctioning and every few minutes it emits a piercing screech. Everyone around the desk is flinching, but Brown, a 17-year veteran, is supremely calm. A resident who is relocating stops by the desk to book a time slot for the move. People rushing out to work are dropping off laundry bags with Brown.

A four-year-old resident on the way to her first visit to the dentist with her mother makes a detour to the counter. Brown whispers to the young girl that the dentist will be fun and that she’ll get treats. “Trust me, it’s going to be fine.” The girl is encouraged.

In all of this, teamwork is essential. For instance, Sammy Retamar, 14 years in his job, carefully coordinates his duties with his “partner,” concierge Richie Coffey, 17 years at the building. Coffey’s desk is at the far end of the lobby, but the two work closely together, interchanging desk and doorman duty to back each other up. When Retamar has to leave his post to hail a taxi for someone or help bring in luggage, for example, he calls immediately for Coffey to stand in at the door. When a resident asks Retamar to hold some packages for her till she’s parked her car, he radios Richie the phrase, “halfway.” And they do, indeed, meet halfway across the lobby. “That way,” Coffey notes, “we don’t have to leave the door for too long.”

 

Other Traits

A good doorman also has the ability to anticipate – to be alert for possible trouble. Williams knows, as do all doormen, that people think the job is no big deal. “But if you take your job seriously, it becomes a skill because you know what to do. You have some people who don’t pay attention to things, they don’t see things coming, or they’re not sharp enough to do multiple tasks. You’ve got to know who’s who in the building, who wants you to be there quick enough to open that door, no matter what. You have to learn how people react.”

To illustrate this point, take Salazar’s building. A pair of local supermarket deliverymen pass by, and the doorman briefly stops them to chat. That’s not idle gossip, however. “It’s very important,” he explains, to talk to the deliverymen so you “have friendly people coming into the building. If a deliveryman comes who doesn’t understand what it is to be a gentleman, we understand that. So what we do is follow them to the service elevator.” And then he times them. Three minutes is the limit. “They take longer, I ring the tenant to see everything is okay.”

Indeed, Salazar has learned to be alert to what is happening around him. “We see people who don’t belong in the neighborhood, we recognize them right away.” Immediately, he will move to stand in front of the door “to show them the building is protected for anything.” While talking to a visitor, Salazar acknowledges the doorman down the street and gets a friendly wave back. The block has a fraternity of doormen who know each other and create a line of security down the street.

Finally, there is the ability to be trustworthy. Kiki Syrakis and her sister Anthea, who contracted polio as an infant, have lived at 220 Madison Avenue for over 50 years. Kiki says: “When you live in a building, you want to know that you can trust the people that work there. Kevin [Ramkisoon] isn’t like a worker, he’s a friend; he could be my son.” Anthea reaches up from her wheelchair to give Ramkisoon a big hug and says: “You grew up here.”

Ramkisoon agrees: “I was a young boy when I got here. Now, I’m married with two kids.” When asked about the most difficult part of the job, Ramkisoon acknowledges that you have to learn how to handle a potentially tricky situation when people get angry. “Perhaps their dry cleaning didn’t come or a package hasn’t arrived. It’s not under my control. It’s not my fault. But I understand when people get angry, and you’ve got to be gentle. You don’t get even with people.” He’ll offer to look out for the item. And he’ll say, “I’m sorry.”

Friend, family member, confidante, helper, commander of the ship, the doorman plays many roles, sometimes acknowledged but often unrecognized – even by those in the profession. Retamar, who trains the summer reliefs that take over during vacation periods, laughs as he recalls the initial reaction of the “newbies” to the job. “They come here and they say, ‘Oh, this is easy. All you’ve got to do is open the door and that’s it.’ I tell them, ‘No. It’s a lot more than opening doors.’”

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