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Trouble Is My Business

As I walked up the front steps of my six-story Upper West Side co-op building, I noticed a well-dressed young man standing by the door. He looked like he was waiting for someone. He was. He was waiting for me.

Or, more precisely, someone like me – except someone more careless about who he would let into the building. I unlocked the door, careful to keep him in view. After I stepped in and started to close the door, the young man made a move to enter.

“Excuse me,” I said, as politely as I could while struggling to keep the door half-shut as he tried to push it open. “Who are you here to see?”

“I’m the manager,” he said breezily, apparently thinking I wouldn’t know who our manager was (or wasn’t). “I know our manager,” I said, “and you’re not him.”

“Go check the mailbox,” he said, pointing to the row of mailboxes behind me. Oh, no – I wasn’t going to fall for that trick again. My mind went back to a similar encounter years ago. It was the 1980s, and I had just returned to my Upper West Side brownstone when a man came up the steps behind me and showed me a piece of paper with a name on it. “Do you know who this is?” he asked. “Does he live here?” After looking at the paper, I turned to see if the name was on the buzzers. “Maybe it’s one of these people…” I started to say when suddenly I felt an arm around my throat. “Give me your money,” he said.

I was 25, then – younger and thinner – and I responded with (heroic yet foolish) alacrity. I pushed back forcefully on the man holding me and we smashed into one of the vestibule walls. He lost his grip and balance, and I turned around and started hammering him with my fists, imagining, I guess, that I was Bond battling the baddie, Red Grant, in From Russia With Love. Or something like that. I won that battle, but I suspect that if I turned my back now, it would not be a happy finish for The Tom Soter Story. “There’s no manager listed on that box,” I said. “Please step away from the door.”
“This is a joke!” he said.

I wasn’t laughing and felt a twinge of fear. “Please step away from the door,” I repeated as firmly as I could, thinking, bizarrely, that I sounded like one of those recorded warnings that you sometimes hear on buses when you step too close to the door.

He hesitated, and then stepped outside. “This is a joke!” he said again. Then, raising his voice as I walked away, he cried out after me: “This is a joke! You’re a joke! A joke!” But the joke would have been on me and everyone in my co-op if I had let him in. Trouble – and security – is everybody’s business.

Apparently, however, not everyone has the same definition of security. A couple of days later, I noticed a UPS delivery man letting himself into my building with a key. Now, the last I heard, only residents and the U.S.

Postal Service had keys. “Excuse me,” I said to him, “how did you get that key?”

“The tenant in 2A gave it to me,” he said referring to an 80-year-old man who has lived in the building for years. “He thought it would make my job easier.”

And make the board’s job that much harder, I said to myself. I sighed. Welcome to co-op security lessons No. 101 and 102: don’t let strangers in the building; and certainly don’t give them keys, for God’s sake!

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