Work and Other Sins
An Excerpt From
Work and Other Sins

“Goodbye to Mr. Hello and Goodbye”

Robert E. Mitchell will retire on March 29, 2001. He will take his belongings and his doorman’s pension and go back home to New Orleans, where he plans to grow old on the front porch with his relations.

No one need apply, as Mr. Mitchell’s job was filled just days after he announced his retirement. “That’s the way it goes,” he said at 4 one afternoon as he dragged his broom and dustpan around the perimeter of 801 West End Avenue, a pre-World War II building with seventy apartments on the west side of the avenue between Ninety-ninth and 100th Streets. “Time moves along and things are forgotten. Including the memories of you.” There are, after all, eight thousand doormen in the city, according to the Service Employees International Union.

And maybe the new guy will make the residents of 801 forget that for thirty-three years, Mr. Mitchell was the man who mopped their hallways and shoveled their snow. Or that he was the man who took their children by the scruff of the neck when he saw them doing wrong. Or that he was the man who ran down the wig-wearing mugger who attacked their mother. Or that he was the man who discovered their dead locked away behind the doors.

But it seems unlikely, if the card the six-year-old girl gave him the other day is any indication. “I love you. Please don’t go, Robert,” it read.

Nearly every block in New York has its mayor. Some acquire the title through milk crate endurance, passing away the hours in the same spot on the same corner, becoming such a fixture and spectacle that people just start calling out, “Hey, Mayor.” But others earn it by giving of themselves.

“He was my second father after my father moved away,” said Beck Lee, forty, who grew into a man in Apartment lB. The neighborhood was tough in the sixties and seventies, Mr. Lee said. Schoolchildren were robbed so often that fathers gave their children broken watches and expired bus passes to give the muggers.

But the children developed their own method of self-defense. They learned to stall, pat their pockets and wait for Mr. Mitchell to catch sight of the larceny from his perch near the building’s column.

In the seventies, there was a parade of fathers who packed their bags and walked out through the marble foyer for the last time. Mr. Mitchell was there to help them with their bags. And he was there to help the women put a fresh coat of paint in their apartments and move their furniture around. He was there to teach their kids the curveball. He was, Mr. Lee said, a surrogate man of the house.

Mr. Mitchell cut a handsome figure in his gray uniform with white piping. He wore a colorful sweater, a threadbare tie and smooth hair the color of the uniform. At sixty-five, he is thin and stands erectly. When the neighborhood started changing in the eighties, and the silk stocking crowd moved in, they asked him to wear a hat. He refused. He has never worn a hat on the job and is proud of it. They do that on the East Side. He’s a West Side doorman.

“I opened this door so much they’d run out of numbers if they attempted to calculate it,” he said, standing in the cold foyer in thin shoes and no coat. “I’m going to miss this building. It’s been my whole life for half my life.”

September 28, 1967, was the beginning of that life. That’s when the unemployment office sent him to the building’s superintendent. “The super told me, ‘If you like it, you’ve got the job for life,’” he said. “I been here ever since.”

The true gentleman never insinuates himself into other people’s business, Mr. Mitchell said. He keeps to his own, never talks about things unless asked and never talks about people in the building, period.

“Which doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I know just about everything that goes on around here. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a good doorman.”

Maybe the people of 801 West End Avenue will forget him, he said. But he’ll be thinking of them on his porch down in Louisiana.

Work and Other Sins

Work and Other Sins

Life in New York City and Thereabouts