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Please. I am not some wild debutante.
That’s just media gossip, and you know how they distort everything. In real life, I think of myself as The Electric Girl.
Perhaps I’ve seemed a bit flaky on the social front. Disappearing from my own coming-out party. Showing up late at events with plaster flakes in my hair. But if I had told my friends what I was really doing, they would have dismissed my work as a silly time-suck.
I’ve been busy helping to build the New York Tesla Museum on the west side of Manhattan. I’ve worked anonymously as one of its founders. Nobody knows. Not even my own father.
The Museum celebrates Nikola Tesla, who gave us modern electricity one hundred years ago.
Tesla’s dream was to broadcast free electricity to everybody. Imagine what a difference that would have made. Unfortunately, the man who owned the utility companies could imagine it, too.
So Thomas Edison got the financial backing. And Tesla’s dream died, as he did, unknown today.
Two nights ago, on the evening of December 15, I used my key to the museum to drop by alone and see it as a visitor would.
Standing alone in the chilly darkness, building up to switching on the lights, I squeezed my eyes shut.
This one’s for you, Maestro!
I threw the switch. The crisp white shafts of the Zenon spotlights lit the vast space.
I studied the huge, blown-up photograph of Nikola Tesla that greeted visitors. His wizardly face regarded me with deep, soulful eyes. Dancing around his head and shoulders, a band of blue electrical current shimmered like a wavy ribbon.
I felt so useful that night in the Museum, and yearned to share it with the right person.
But I thought how small my own loneliness was compared to Tesla’s as others claimed the rewards for his genius.
The Electric Girl must work alone.
And I was running late for yet another date with Tucker Fisk.
I shut off the lights and found a cab to the charity event at the Plaza. The fountain in front still sprinkled under bright lights for the holiday season.
The crowd looked starchy as usual. Imagine a rave for Young Republicans. I met their insincerely cherry greetings with only a medium smile, not the full Town & Country jawbreaker I had been taught to flash in public.
“Where have you been?” Tucker stepped out frowning.
“A museum,” I hedged.
“Well, how about a sake martini?” He pressed the glass into my hand.
And I see that moment frozen like a flame in crystal, because that’s when all the trouble started.
Kevin Sebastian Doyle searched for something to admire in 840 Fifth Avenue, but could only see a musty stack of limestone and money.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, he stood across the street from the apartment building in the cold, exhaling vapor through his nostrils as he squinted to confirm the number on the awning.
The grey fabric said only “840.” No invented name like the Beresford or the Dakota. Kevin figured it didn’t need one. In this building, the names lived inside – families like Vanderbilt, Lord, and Morgan.
The face of 840 Fifth surprised him. Its location oozed wealth the way the cheap old building he grew up in leaked asbestos. But he’d expected a shimmering tower to fortress these fifteen-room apartments overlooking Central Park. Instead, under the gloomy December sky, 840 Fifth Avenue squatted on the corner like a sullen dowager with dirty skirts.
Kevin's father, a career doorman at another musty Fifth Avenue building, had told him that Old Money let the outside of their buildings grow seedy to hide their grand lives from the grumbling peasants.
An “eccentricity,” he called it.
Kevin’s father knew little secrets about Old Money. Over the years, he also tried to identify with it in awkward ways. One day he brought home a moldy 1930s edition of The Emily Post Guide to Etiquette and asked his family to study it. Kevin had opened the Emily Post book and, deadpan, read a line out loud, “Even a tiny home with only one or two servants . . .”
His Mom had snorted and rolled her eyes at his father’s sad efforts to know his employers.
Kevin felt reality rip through his chest thinking about her.
For years he had struggled to make a living as an artist. Without her, the only family member who had encouraged him, slipping him what little spare cash his conscience let him take, he would be going to work as a doorman.
He gripped the heavy stack of blue-plastic-wrapped uniforms over his shoulder, slippery as a stack of weasels. The two uniformed doormen standing just inside the black wrought iron and glass double doors of 840 Fifth came to attention as they saw him approach.
“Can I help you?”
The large-framed black man with cropped gray hair was in his fifties. His watery eyes appraised Kevin, who probably looked suspicious in his black leather jacket, torn jeans and scruffed-up Doc Martens.
“I'm Kevin Doyle. Starting the job today.” He spoke more slowly than usual, working hard to take the punch out of his voice.
“Take the side alley and come around back to the service door. I'll go meet you.”
Inside the building's Staff Room, the doorman broke into a friendlier grin and offered his white-gloved hand for Kevin to shake, a big man’s easy grip.
“Andrew Stiles, fifteen years at this building. I know your Dad and your Uncle Eddie. Eddie got you the job, I guess.” The older man’s lined face softened as he looked at Kevin. “Sorry to hear about your Mom.”
“Thanks.” The cork he’d stuffed into the burning hole in his chest was working loose, but he shoved it back.
He watched Andrew take his doorman cap off and absently wipe his forehead. Under the hat, Andrew Stiles wore a little black skullcap that said, “I love Jesus,” with a red heart for the ‘love’ part.
Kevin decided that Andrew wasn’t a religious nut, because his eyes seemed gently dulled, not zealous. More like his edge had been sanded off from years of “Very good, sirs.”
“You'll find a locker over there with your name on it,” Andrew told him. “Suit up and come out to the lobby when you’re ready.”
Kevin stood in the empty staff room, painted the same garish yellow as a subway station. Burnt coffee burbled from a stained Mr. Coffee machine. An ancient floor heater hissed in the corner. It could be a museum exhibit of the other New York City where Kevin grew up. He looked at the cracked Formica table and could see his mother in a housedress laying out dinner for his family.
He found the hulking time clock on the wall and located the tip of a card sticking up with his name on it. He clocked in at 11:56.
The heavy ker-chunk of the hammer jolted him violently like an electrical shock. By reflex, he hit the time clock back, a good slam that stung his hand.
Kevin squeezed his eyes shut.
Eighteen days after his mother died, he still couldn’t let his anger go. And his shoulder ached from carrying the plastic uniforms twenty blocks. To make it through this day, he would need to bite the bullet until his teeth turned to chalk.
One of the banged-up lockers had his name written on a strip of masking tape across the door, “Doyle, Kevin.”
He removed the blue cleaner's bag from one of the winter uniforms and stripped down to his shorts.
He unfolded a shirt and slipped his arm through one heavily starched sleeve that felt like sandpaper. Next came the grey wool pants. He knotted the plain black tie, slipped on the scratchy dress-grey jacket. Then he tugged on his snug white gloves, one finger at a time. Finally, he took the officer-style cap with the black patent leather brim and wiped a fingerprint off the shiny surface.
Kevin studied himself in the cheap plastic mirror on the wall next to the lockers.
Lines had started to creep into his forehead over the last two weeks. Getting middle-aged at twenty-five.
His tight frame filled out the uniform when he pulled his shoulders back, although he wouldn't pop any buttons puffing his chest out. He worked out at home with a cheap set of dumbbells, since he couldn't afford to join a gym.
Kevin put his hat on slightly low. His job was to be a guardian of 840 Fifth Avenue.
He took the chrome whistle on a black lanyard that he would use for calling cabs and slipped it around his neck and pointed his white-gloved finger at the mirror.
“Doyle comma Kevin,” he snarled. “Don’t fuck with my whistle.”
Under the buzzing flourescent lights, he looked more like a Salvation Army officer with a bad attitude than any kind of a guardian.
He definitely needed to push Mr. Leave Me Alone way back on the shelf and practice Mr. Friendly and Helpful.
He crinkled his eyes, improbably blue. Kevin's mother was Black Irish, with Moorish blood that left Kevin with choirboy eyes and jet black hair. She raised Kevin and his sisters in a walkup on Tenth Avenue, whacking and cajoling them to avoid temptation, and soldier on without complaint. And she had nurtured Kevin’s artist’s eye.
She called it the “spark of the divine.”
“Who are you?”
Kevin turned to the fleshy man who appeared beside him, also in doorman's uniform. He had a broad face with drooping jowls and wide, cunning eyes. His body stood almost double-wide—a human wheelbarrow.
“Kevin Doyle.” He put out his hand, a little wary.
“I am Vladimir Kosov,” the man took it in both of his. “I go off duty now. I was captain of twelve doormen at the Hotel Leingradska in Moscow. We will talk, you and I.” He pointed to the door with his forefinger. “Now, Andrew wastes.”
“Andrew wastes for you in the lobby.”
Kevin closed his locker and watched Vladimir drop heavily on the bench, grunting like a football player under his gear.
He walked down the hall to the end where the cheesy linoleum floor stopped at a door marked “Lobby.”
He expected to see crystal chandeliers and velvet furniture. Or maybe authentic Old Masters mounted on silk wallpaper.
But the lobby loomed dark and austere. The grey fabric that covered the walls resembled his flannel doorman uniform. Muted, recessed lights kept the lobby just bright enough to walk through without bumping into furniture. He could barely make out the fragile, maroon-silk upholstered chairs and a small couch perched around a table that appeared to be teak, polished to shine in the dark.
They don't want us to read on the job, Kevin decided.
He found Andrew guarding the door with his hands folded behind his back, standing next to a small shelf jutting out from the wall beside the door. Andrew kept it neat and burnished, and had a manila file and folded-up newspaper stacked on top.
“So,” Kevin struggled to think of something positive to say, “I guess this is the place to be, 840 Fifth.”
“Best building in Manhattan. Small enough you get to know all the owners real quick. A nice class of people.”
“Nice class of people” jammed sideways in Kevin’s head. The cocoon of wealth made people negligent. They stopped caring about people like his mother.
“Where does your dad work again?” Andrew asked him.
“2000 Fifth, with Uncle Eddie. He got my dad his job fifteen years ago.”
Andrew pursed his lips a little. “So I guess you're following in your dad's footsteps. And your Uncle Eddie's.”
“Yeah. The Doyles, we own the door.”
“So let's start at the beginning.” Andrew shifted to what Kevin guessed was his training voice. “This building's a co-op. You know what cooperative ownership is?”
“I know co-operation's the opposite of what they have in mind. The owners can break the Fair Housing laws, only let in who they want as neighbors.”
“Well,” Andrew frowned, “this building got famous by who they wouldn’t let in.” He stopped to open the door for an older man blessed with a strong chin stuck up at an angle, pink skin and swept-back silver hair, “Good afternoon, Mr. Blanchard.”
“What's the Yale-Harvard score?” the man barked to nobody in particular.
“Yale fourteen-seven, first half, Mr. Blanchard,” Andrew told him. “This is Kevin Doyle, new man on the door.”
The man stopped in front of Kevin, tipping slightly to the left. “What was the matter with the old one?”
“I hear he retired, Mr. Blanchard,” Kevin braced himself against whisky fumes.
“Well, there's always room,” Mr. Blanchard nodded at him.
“Always room at the bottom, son. Remember that.”
Was he supposed to answer? His mother had taught him to be patient with old people because they could be fragile and confused. But Blanchard spun on his heel with surprising agility and wandered off toward the brass elevator doors at the other end of the lobby.
“Hey, Andrew,” Kevin said. “Wasn’t that game yesterday? Harvard won.”
“Yeah, but Mr. Blanchard went to Yale, and he can use a little cheerin’ up. His son, Bill, he’s gettin’ a divorce and he just told the old man he’s going to tell the world he’s homosexual.”
“Blanchard told you that?”
“Hell no. The owners don't tell us shit. Maids, butlers, that's who we hear all the information from.” Andrew chortled. “They're happy to tell you anything makes their bosses look like fools.”
Andrew removed the fat manila file from the doorman shelf and handed it to Kevin.
“So here’s all the building rules. No smoking. No drinking. No fraternizing with the owners.”
“Uh-huh,” Kevin said, flipping through the stack of papers.
One fell open. It showed neat rows of hand-drawn squares with names and apartment numbers. Small head-shots of people cut out of newspapers and magazines were pasted in the boxes.
“That's a visual aid for you,” Andrew tapped his finger on his collage. “Job one for a doorman is security. That's what we do, keep the building secure. Anybody you don't know shows up, you got to find out politely who they are. That's why you got to know your owners. We got one hundred and twelve people living in forty apartments. This here gives you all their names and apartment numbers so you can memorize 'em. I put in their kids, dogs, servants, everybody they allow in the apartment. Some photos, too, whatever I could find. Hang on, here comes 11B.”
Andrew nodded out toward the street.
Kevin saw a very old man with a skeletal face and wisps of white hair fluttering in the wind. He held his thin, gnarled hands in front of him like a dinosaur's claws, helped along by a young, heart-faced blonde wearing a shiny black fur coat.
“Got 'em, Count Dracula and Courtney Love,” Kevin whispered to Andrew as he swung open the door.
Andrew ignored him. “Good afternoon, Mr. Geddy, Mrs. Geddy. This is Kevin Doyle, new man on the job.”
Kevin practiced touching the brim of his hat like Andrew, working to keep his smile hoisted up even though his jaw ached.
Mr. Geddy nodded his skull and exposed his gums in greeting. The woman flickered an interested glance at her new doorman before she turned her eyes back to her husband. Kevin watched her walk hubby to the elevator, expensive haircut bouncing on her fur collar. He wondered what she allowed her husband to do with his claws for the privilege of living in 11B.
“So what'd you do before this?” Andrew asked him.
“Three years, I worked Bellevue, nights,” Kevin said, leaving out his art for the time being. “I was a physical aide, no medical training or anything. Mostly I kept the patients company. Or restrained them.”
They both heard the warble of a high-pitched scream.
“Incoming,” Andrew said.
They opened the doors for a triple-wide wicker stroller pushed by a stressed out nanny in a white uniform. Two of the three bundles inside, a baby boy and girl, were asleep, their blond heads slack. The third screamed in a wavy yowl. The parents walked behind them, a fine-featured couple in their thirties. Their faces screwed up painfully at the sound.
Kevin bent down and put his face in front of the shrieking baby.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he said, wiggling his ears. The little girl stopped bawling in mid-cry. Her mouth hung open in the goofy way of kids, even rich ones.
Kevin used his taxi whistle to chirp for her, and she smiled.
“Mr. and Mrs. Eames, this is Kevin Doyle,” Andrew said.
The father smiled at Kevin and pressed a five dollar bill into his hand.
He waved it away. “That's okay,” Kevin told him, brusquely. Like he was some mutant bred to perform courtesies if you fed him treats of currency.
The Eames vanished into the elevator and Kevin peered at the photos in Andrew’s file. Then the little hairs stirred on the back of his neck.
“Hey, Dumbo . . . ping!”
He felt a sharp burning in both ears.
Turning fast with his hands up, his Uncle Eddie's round, ruddy face greeted him. Its ridged forehead was set in permanent irritation. His hair was buzzcut with open spaces, like a lawn that needed reseeding. Eddie wore civilian clothes today, not his doorman uniform. His thick, pub-brawler arms stuck out of rolled up jacket sleeves with a N.Y. Knicks logo on his pocket.
Eddie kept his fingers poised to snap against Kevin's ears again.
As usual, Kevin had to swallow his bile. His Uncle Eddie was the closest thing west of India to a sacred cow. At least to the Doyles. He was the only family member who could provide union jobs. That kept the other men in the family from decking him.
“You still got big ears, kid.” Eddie turned to Andrew. “When he was little, I used to sneak up and ping his Dumbo ears.”
“Turned my life around, Uncle Eddie.”
“Tell you what, just call me Eddie. Don’t give hiring relatives a bad name. Did I just see you turn down a tip?”
“He’s a mutt, but he’s my late sister’s kid.” Eddie shook his head sadly at Andrew. “Kevin, tips are life’s blood. Tips are mother's milk. You're a doorman now. You see a resident standing in front of you, that's not a person, okay? That's a tip. A bag of groceries.”
Eddie handed Kevin a plastic card. “Your union card. Welcome to Local 32A. International Brotherhood of Portal Operators. I got you a sweet deal, kid. Nobody gets a doorman job two weeks before Christmas.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agreed. “Just standing there, you get maybe two thousand for Christmas. If you always grab their bags before they ask, always know the right time, weather, you get maybe four, five thousand bucks.”
“You owe me,” Eddie said. He nodded at Andrew and lumbered out the front door, a pot-bellied fireplug in a team jacket, disappearing just as a grey limousine pulled directly in front of the awning.
“Heads up,” Andrew nudged Kevin. “Here comes Chester Lord. He's chairman of the co-op board for the building, makes the rules around here.”
A clean-featured man in his early fifties glided into the building. His medium frame, in a striped tie and blue blazer, could have lost ten pounds. Though his sandy hair had thinned a lot, he combed it straight back with no effort to hide the bald spots. A WASP thing. They never combed their last few strands of hair all the way over their heads. A guy like Chester Lord let his dome get shiny and didn’t care what anybody thought.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Lord,” Andrew said.
“Hello, Andrew.” The crisp voice was soft, hard to hear. He arched one eyebrow at Kevin. “Are you the new doorman?”
The man squeezed his hand and let it go. An awkward pause.
“Well, good luck to you.”
Andrew waited until Chester Lord was whooshed up in the elevator. “Something you got to know about the Lords.”
He took the folded copy of the day's New York Daily Globe off the shelf and handed it to him. Kevin peered at the newspaper barely able to decipher it in the lobby's gloom..
There was a column titled Debwatch. It was written by somebody named Philip Grace.
Under a bold black headline, “Corny’s Social Swim,” Kevin studied a grainy picture taken at night. A girl of maybe twenty in a soaking-wet dress stood in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel. The column called her a “wilding deb” and a “party girl.” She seemed wired enough. Still, her eyes didn’t look to Kevin like she was having any party.
She looked pretty like his younger sister Marne, but with finer features, even in the muddy pixels of the newsprint photo.
His sister Marne was a firefighter. She became one of the guys when another firefighter tried to stick his hand down her shirt. Instead of getting huffy like they would have expected and filing a sexual harassment claim, she broke his fingers.
But this girl in the photograph never had to fight for anything in her life. She just slid down a lucky birth canal and popped out an heiress. He tried to wrap his mind around what it would be like to go through life without a financial worry.
“The girl who’ll always have everything.” Kevin shook his head. “Look what she does with it.”
“Maybe.” Andrew’s forehead twitched. “Son, it’s going to be hard on you here if you don’t cut the residents a little slack. They got problems, too.”
“Sure.” Problems like having the chauffeur blow-dry you after a swim a the Plaza.
“Anyhow, this young woman is Chester Lord's daughter. Chester, he's a pleasant man, usually. But young Cornelia has got some impulse-control issues. You know what I’m saying?
“The other thing,” Andrew went on, pointing to Philip Grace’s by-line. “This here’s a sneaky reporter. Sticks to this building like a roach on cheesecake, figures Cornelia’s always good for some kind of show. He'll offer you money. You take it and anybody finds out, it'll get you fired like you been vaporized. Get me in trouble, too, not training you right.”
Kevin stared at the girl in the picture. The tawdry photo of the debutante both irritated and fascinated him.
Winding up drunk in a public fountain and not even enjoying it? Maybe it was a party-girl thing. Or maybe she was crazy as a bedbug, and everybody covered for her.
Either way, he wondered what his mother would think of him now, having to tip his hat to a spoiled girl like that. He imagined her staggering by him giggling and oblivious, smelling of stale champagne.
Tomorrow, no matter how long he worked, he would need to check on the neon Saint Sebastian he had sculpted for his mom.