In the basement of 6 West 28th Street in Manhattan, there is a small office with low concrete ceilings and a wall lined by 1970s mannequins. The main entrance, via a manual elevator, is flanked on either side by two smaller interior rooms. To the right is the motor room, with its oil-stained pulley system, and to the left, an interior closet with a faded poster of Jennifer Lopez from 1999 hanging haphazardly on the wall. Finally, sitting at a glass-top table in the center of the main room, sunglasses perched atop his hunter-green cap, is Angel, the building’s superintendent and elevator operator. It is a bitterly cold morning in late February and Angel is huddled next to his ineffectual space heater. The boiler is broken and his office is the coldest room in the building.
For more than three decades, Angel, seventy-one, has manned the elevator of this four-story commercial building, bringing color to the lives of its tenants with his cheerful, permeable singing, his vibrantly painted lift and his African Grey Parrot, Mario, who resided alongside Jennifer Lopez for fifteen years. Just a few weeks ago, Angel decided to leave Mario at his home in Long Island for good due to the lack of heat here.
Once omnipresent in large New York City buildings, elevator operators are now an increasingly rare sight in the city. Angel’s building refrains from modernizing its system for the simple fact that manual means lower expenses, and thus far there’s been no real incentive to go automatic, a project that can cost more than $100,000. Angel operates the elevator with a slender handle that glides in a semi-circle to the right to go up, and to the left to go down.
In a job that requires long periods of isolation, Angel, who prefers that his last name not be published, says his favorite part is the people. “They give me their trust,” says Angel. “This is like a second home.”
He paints his ride a different color each year. This year — Angel’s thirty-third and last in the building — the small metal and brass elevator is painted red and white, colors left over from the past year’s building maintenance.
“When I came here,” he says, his consonants softened by a Puerto Rican accent, “the elevator was all grey. So I give it a spirit to the people. According to color, sometimes people feel better. They get brighter, you know, in their minds.” He taps his temple, his neatly trimmed silver hair peeking out from beneath his cap.
“He paints the inside of that cage — his birdcage — frequently, in all sorts of wild and crazy colors,” says Patricia Farrell, an artist who has rented a studio in the building for twenty-seven years.
Sitting in Farrell’s spacious studio on the fourth floor, the view of the Empire State Building looms, unobstructed, behind her. It is February 28, the day of Angel’s retirement, and she leans forward, her elbows on the table, lamenting the loss of “a friend, a dear soul.”
“He calls me Patri-see-ya,” she says, drawing out the last two syllables like a prolonged farewell. “Who’s going to call me Patri-see-ya after he’s gone?”
She reveals Angel is an avid singer of Top 40 tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, and “knows every word to every song,” often entertaining riders with his musical bent.
If Angel is delivering someone to another floor or happens to be away from the elevator, instead of ringing the buzzer, Farrell has her own method of getting Angel to appear.
“If I sing, ‘ANGEL BABY!’” her voice sonorous and vaudevillian, “and then start singing, ‘angel baby, my angel baby’ at the top of my lungs, then he comes.”
In a building with paper-thin walls and an elevator shaft that acts as an echo chamber, Farrell and Angel’s musical connection can be heard throughout every floor.
“Angel is the soul and personality of this place,” she says. “He’s really a part of life.”
* * *
Angel is positioned close to his space heater, peering out from under his signature cap and sunglasses. His slight frame is bundled up in a dark blue jacket and yesterday’s whiskers glint on the curve of his chin as he talks about his childhood.
Born in Puerto Rico, he left for New York City at the age of six, and after a stint in the Bronx he and his family landed on the Lower East Side. He has an affinity for birds, and spent the days of his youth raising pigeons on his aunt’s rooftop at 201 Madison Street, two blocks from the East River.
“You go up there and you relax,” he tells me. “You eat up there; at night when it gets dark you put them in, but you’re there. You’re not in the bar drinking, you’re not roaming around the streets. You’re up with your pigeons.”
In addition to his singing, the tenants define Angel by his love of birds. Fifteen years ago, Angel adopted Mario, keeping the bird in his basement office. The tenants regularly heard Mario’s voice from below shouting “Fuck you! Fuck you!” — words he learned from Angel’s friends, who gathered here weekly to play dominoes. For the most part, Mario’s mimicking was harmless, a quirky humor that often evoked the phrase “Only in New York” amongst the building’s inhabitants. There was one day, however, when Mario went too far.
It was mid-morning when the FedEx deliveryman arrived. He followed the dimly-lit hallway, past the stairs to the elevator, its door ajar. Seeing that the elevator was empty, he rang the buzzer and waited for Angel to respond. From the basement, a voice called, “Be right up.”
After a few minutes and no sign of movement, he pressed the buzzer again. A shrill ring echoed up the walls of the elevator shaft. Again the voice responded, but this time said, “Come on down.”
The deliveryman stepped into the elevator and began to maneuver the lever to the left. Upon reaching the basement, he stopped the elevator a few inches lower than the floor, locking himself inside.
Ten minutes passed. Angel entered the building and found that the elevator was not where he left it. He rushed down the stairs, through his basement office to the elevator entrance, and heard the deliveryman stuck inside. Angel went into the motor room and shoved a piece of wood against the far left contact — an element of the motor that, when contact is made, jolts the elevator out of its locked position — forcing it to rise several inches. Once it was properly aligned, he pulled open the door.
The deliveryman scrambled out, screaming angrily, “Why didn’t you let me out sooner? What’s wrong with you?”
Angel explained that he had just arrived from getting a coffee down the street.
“Well, then who was I talking to for the last ten minutes?” the deliveryman demanded.
Angel pulled back a curtain next to the elevator, revealing the small interior room, at the center of which stood a large, metal cage. Inside, an African Grey stared back at them.
Angel pointed, “My parrot, Mario.”
* * *
On the morning before his last day, Angel walks around his basement office, pointing out places where he once kept his belongings. He steps over a bag of tools, nudging it with his toe.
“These are mine,” he says. “Haven’t taken them yet.”
Angel spent the past week packing and giving things away. He says that during his run as superintendant, anytime a tenant needed something — usually tools, but sometimes larger items like a coffee maker — he would bring them down to his office to find it.
“If I don’t have it, I say, ‘I don’t have it,’ but if I have it, it’s yours.”
About a dozen of the building’s tenants recently threw a retirement party for Angel on the fourth floor, with cake and decorations to bid farewell to an individual who brought more charisma and joy to their lives than he would ever be willing to admit.
“Today is like any other day,” he says of his emotions about leaving a building that was such a tremendous part of his life.
Twenty years before he became its elevator operator and superintendent, Angel worked in shipping on the fourth floor. He was in his twenties and spent his days riding the elevator up and down, delivering packages filled with thread to be disseminated to the myriad clothing factories throughout the city.
He points out the desk and chair where his former boss sat for thirty-three years before his death six months ago. The elevator operator in those days was Joe Kelly, a man with whom Angel felt a special connection. Kelly “was a quiet, respectable man,” he says. “The kind of man you couldn’t joke with.”
“He used to like me a lot,” remembers Angel. “He used to grab me like this.” Angel pinches the rough skin of his cheek and pulls it taught, shaking his hand in the process. “That’s what we used to do,” he says.
The elevator’s caustic ring interrupts Angel as he is finishing his memory.
“Be right up!” Angel hollers, then glances at me. “That’s what Mario used to say.” He grins.
We clamber inside and he pulls the heavy door until it closes, clicking into place. As he rotates the lever to the right, we begin to glide upwards. He slows it to a stop at the first floor, and Miki Lee enters. She is an artist who has occupied a studio on the fourth floor for over ten years. Her straight black hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she carries a Whole Foods bag.
“Miki Lee! How you doin’ Mik?” Angel says.
He explains my presence to her and she immediately perks up.
“He’s the perfect candidate!” she exclaims. “He’s the most popular guy in this area. I’m not joking.”
“Now that I’m retiring, I’m getting popular,” Angel says.
“So Angel, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Miki says as she exits the elevator and backs away towards her studio.
“Yeah, I’ll be here. You make sure you be here,” Angel says.
“I’ll be here — tomorrow’s going to be your last day.”
Back in his office, we sit down at the table. The surrounding surfaces are emptier than when I first sat in this seat less than two weeks ago for our initial interview, and I feel a connection to the man across from me. It is easy to understand his popularity.
I ask Angel what effect he thinks he’s had on his tenants all these years. He answers:
“Over here, when I go up, I tell them ‘Good Morning, how’s your day?’ or ‘What’s up?’ and I make them laugh. They go out of the elevator laughing. I make their day.”
* * *
Elizabeth D. Herman is a New York based freelance photographer and researcher. A former Fulbright Fellow to Bangladesh, her work has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, GlobalPost, The Nation, The Guardian, WBUR, and others. For more visit www.elizabethdherman.com or follow her on Instagram at @elizabethdherman.