The Doorman Question

In New York City this year, real estate taxes are up 15% and fuel costs are up 50%. Which means budgeting time at the co-op board is grim. In our building, half a dozen middle aged co-op board members gather around a coffee table to pour over spreadsheets and debate whether we really need the spring tulips planted around the two trees out front.

The tulips, of course, are chicken feed. A mere few hundred dollars. But we focus on bulbs (quantity, quality, bulb-vendor-selection) to avoid the hard question. The only cut that would actually make any difference in the budget. The unimaginable. The unthinkable. Can we live without our Doormen?

We New Yorkers love our doormen. In fact, doormen are as much a fixture of New York as pizza, bagels and knock-off handbags. I’ve seen tourist standing to have their picture taken with doormen. The doorman practically defines what it means to live it New York, especially on the Upper East Side. Which begs the question: If apartment residents in other cities live without doormen, why can’t we live without ours?

The signature action—that of actually opening a door—is, in point of fact, completely irrelevant to the Doorman Question. What with rollerbags, and space-age backpacks to free our hands—not to mention  sensor-operated doors— no one legitimately needs anyone to open a door for them.

If you ask an older New Yorker “why doormen”, the pat answer you’ll get is “safety.” Most of these folks formed their sensibilities about security sometime around 1978, after the blackout and the looting when a prevailing ideas was that New York would soon go the way of Detroit. You needed a man at the door for protection! But nowadays, I’d stack up any modern security system against the average doorman. And let’s just say the guys at my door are no ninjas. In fact, one of the most common complaints in our building is about sleepy doormen—snoozing at their desks in a late afternoon sunbeam. Or even catatonic doormen. I once saw a doorman at a neighboring building so mesmerized by the flow of traffic that he stood statue-like as a small Chihuahua lifted his leg and peed on his pant cuff.

So if they’re not sentries, alert and guarding us against the peri-apocalyptic world in which we live, what do doormen really do?

The first answer is obvious.

They spy.

When I arrive back at the building at night, the doorman will say, “Your husband is home.” That’s a nice kind of spying. Or, he will say, eyebrows lowered in disapproval, “Your dog walker only took Plato out for fifteen minutes.” Helpful spying.

Somewhat less helpful, to me in any case, is the spying service my doormen perform for the old lady on 12. She is very chatty, and I often send her calls to voice mail. However she knows I will usually pick up the phone when I am out walking the dog. Therefore, the doormen are instructed to ring her when I am seen leaving with Plato. How do I know this? Well first, the uncanny reliability with which my phone rings when I am a quarter block away from the building. And second, that time I snuck around the column and listened to hear, “Yes, Mrs. Marcus. She just left with the dog.”

I have heard it said that a doorman’s bonus should always be in direct proportion to the amount of dirt he can reveal about you. Have an extramarital visitor while your wife is away on a trip to her sister’s? Better fork over the cash at Christmas.

The second answer to the Doorman Question is, perhaps, more subtle.


Doormen provide the attention many of us lack in our daily lives. Does your spouse reliably wish you a chipper “good morning” with a smile and inform you that it may rain? Does your roommate welcome you back every night and ask you how your day was without requiring you ask about his?

And, when you are sick with the flu, who else will sign for your delivery from the deli and the pharmacy, then send your chicken soup and prescription medication up in the elevator for you? As my husband says, “It’s like we already live in assisted living.”

I have heard that folks downtown are too edgy for doormen. What’s in fashion in SoHo, NoHo and Tribeca is the “concierge.” That not-quite-a-doorman doorman, who sits behind a desk, rather than standing in front of one. This, I believe, is what one calls a distinction without a difference.

Of course, we voted to keep our doormen. How could we veto that only-in-New-York privilege of having someone to provide daily espionage and affection? As I recall, we considered the question for approximately seventeen seconds before switching the topic back to tulips.

Why do you think New Yorkers can’t live without doormen? Is it spying, or love, or something else?


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