Between New Yorkers and New York: the doorman

Just off Park Avenue, doorman Jose Alvarez gazes at the flow of New Yorkers who have mastered the art of walking, talking, and thumbing a Blackberry at the same time. Then he notices something amiss. A visitor to his building has left her vehicle unlocked, so he dashes out to take care of it.

"If it was my car, I'd appreciate someone locking it," says Mr. Alvarez. "Most doormen will help somebody - like right now I'm putting quarters in [the meter] for a stranger. I don't want anything in return."

Here in the Upper East Side, where real-estate agents wear Rolexes and some duplexes have a maid's wing, doormen see themselves as more than just burly bouncers in charcoal suits with shoulder epaulets. They pride themselves on the little things they do for tenants in addition to handling package deliveries, carrying shopping bags, and hailing taxis. But come Friday, residents here and elsewhere across the city may have to do without those niceties if the doormen's union calls for a strike over a labor contract dispute.

The looming possibility of such a walkout - the first since 1991 - is prompting the city's upper and middle classes to reevaluate their relationship with these uniformed custodians of the apartment lobby. For some, doormen are expensive servants who know too many intimate details about their private lives. For others, the concierges provide a sense of home by offering a warm welcome in a city that can seem cold and impersonal.

"You definitely would know the doorman but you might not know [many] other people in the building," says Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queen's college in New York. It gives many people a comforting familiarity in a setting of a large city, he says.

In a city where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds walk alongside each other but seldom cross paths, apartment lobbies can act as an air lock where several different classes come into contact, says Christopher Bonanos, a senior editor at New York magazine. Today's buildings house moderately well-off people who got in before real estate prices became unaffordable as well as wealthy people who have bought apartments more recently. And below them are doormen who often can't afford to live in the same building, let alone neighborhood.

The result is that doormen are often treated very differently by different people inside the same building.

"Some people get offended about things you do or don't do because this one likes it, and the other person doesn't," says Marcio Aguilera, a doorman near Central Park whose diamond-shaped earring seems out of place with his elegant suit and military-style cap. "So you try to be a diplomat more than anything else."

One type of New Yorker brushes off too much attention, perhaps uncomfortable with the very notion of being waited on outside anything other than a restaurant setting. Another might strike an attitude worthy of Leona Helmsley. "I had one particular person tell me she wants her money's worth," says Mr. Aguilera.

Asked whether some residents act snobbish toward him, Frankie Velazquez, a lean doorkeeper who holds vigil at a co-op building with 50 families, looks down and quietly says "yes." But, like many others in his profession, he is quick to note that most of the people heading past him in the lobby are pleasant and friendly, even if the chitchat about sports and weather is overly familiar.

Nevertheless, he believes that doormen are undervalued when it comes to benefits and salaries. The local 32BJ Services Employees International Union and Realty Advisory Board, which represents building owners, are quarreling over a proposed one-year salary freeze and a proposal that the workers contribute 15 percent toward their healthcare costs.

Several doormen say their salaries, which average about $37,000 plus benefits, are pretty good but not enough to keep up with the cost of New York living. One perk, however, is the traditional Christmas tip, cash that's beyond the clutches of the IRS.

The size of the tip varies from person to person and Mr. Velazquez reckons that half his building doesn't even bother with a yuletide gratuity.

In part, the size of the tip may reflect varying attitudes about attendants. Doormen know a lot about each tenant since they know all the comings and goings.

Pia Savage, a blogger at courtingdestiny.com, worries that, inside, they may be judging her. The writer, who works from home, says that she goes to Starbucks so that the doorman thinks she has "much more of a work life." Like many other city dwellers, she is signing up for trash and mail duty in the event of a strike. Many buildings are hiring private security guards and issuing IDs to residents.

Sam Palazzalo, one of the longest serving doormen in the city, hopes a strike won't make him leave his awning, which stretches like a dock to the street. For 45 years he has performed duties such as delivering newspapers to each door by 4 a.m. as well as feeding people's cats on his days off. Gazing at a stash of photos of residents and children, he sums up their mutual relationship. "You become family," he says.

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