Going Up: The Benefits of an Elevator Operator

Whither the traditional elevator operator?

Like doormen, elevator operators tend to know a lot of about a building—and its residents. Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Being an elevator operator might seem a simple matter of up and down, but consider, for a moment, the morning rush.

You’ve just gotten a resident on the 11th floor and are heading to make another pick up on the ninth when someone rings the bell on the 12th. Do you reverse course to grab them or make them wait while you take your current passengers down to the lobby? What if instead of the 12th floor the bell comes from the 17th? Then do you make the trip? What if you’ve got bells ringing on three upper floors instead of just one? How does that change the situation? Meanwhile, the bells have started up on four and five while the guy from nine is still trying to hustle a pair of recalcitrant toddlers into the cab. It’s like an LSAT logic problem come to life featuring a cast of groggy New Yorkers.

“It was challenging, especially during rush hour,” recalled John Santos, a former elevator operator who now heads the New York residential division of the 32BJ SEIU, which represents building staff. “People are rushing off to work, dropping off their kids. Some are coming into the building going up. You have to make good judgements. People are busy. They don’t want to wait.”

Santos worked for six years at 51 Fifth Avenue (the Mad About You building, he noted, for all you ’90s sitcom devotees). Since his stint there, the property has switched over to automated elevators and converted the operators to doormen.

‘People are rushing off to work, dropping off their kids. Some are coming into the building going up. You have to make good judgements. People are busy. They don’t want to wait.’—former elevator operator John Santos

It’s a transition many residential buildings have made over the decades, making elevator operators an endangered species. The 32BJ doesn’t keep track of their numbers, but apartments with them have become hard to come by, Karla Saladino, managing partner at Mirador Real Estate, told the Observer.

There are still a few out there, though, adding a certain quaint, Old World, Wes Andersonian touch to the properties—mostly located along monied stretches, like Park and Fifth Avenues and Central Park West—that employ them.

“I live on 40 Fifth Avenue, and I find [that building’s elevator staff] to be one of the most extraordinary amenities because this is something that greets me every time I leave and every time I come back,” said Robert Dankner, president of Prime Manhattan Residential. “It’s very pleasant and personal, another set of hands to grab bags, and in the right type of buildings, which are very white-glove, it is just another set of smiles that is going to make your day better.”

Forty Fifth Avenue still has a manual elevator, which Dankner said is essential to an elevator operator’s appeal. Some super high-service buildings, though, have kept on their elevator men even after converting over to automated systems, said Jamal Syed, an agent with BOND New York.

“It’s a level of service that sets that building apart from other buildings in terms of prestige factor,” he said. In other words, you know you’re a baller when you can pay someone to push a button for you.

Security is a factor, as well, Syed noted. If you have just a doorman, once a person makes it past the front desk they can pretty much go wherever in the building they want. An elevator operator, on the other hand, can watch visitors to make sure they’re going where they say they’re going and doing what they say they’re there to do.

‘It’s a level of service that sets that building apart from other buildings in terms of prestige factor.’ In other words, you know you’re a baller when you can pay someone to push a button for you.

Speaking of which, here’s something super creepy that happened once. Douglas Elliman broker Ann Cutbill Lenane, who lives in a building without an elevator man, had ordered a delivery from her local Chinese restaurant. After she ordered, she called down to her doorman to let him know the food would be coming and to let the delivery person up. When the food came, she answered her door, as one does, paid the delivery man, took the food and that was that.

“But about five minutes later I got a phone call from the restaurant asking me if I received my food,” Lenane recalled. “I told them, yes, thank you. And they said, ‘But our delivery person was mugged on the way over.’

“So what happened was they mugged him, took my food. They had the address and the apartment number on there. I was expecting food. That person came up, and I gave them the money,” she said. “Thank, god, they just took my money.”

On that night, an elevator man would have been a nice thing to have, Lenane noted. “They would have known somebody was standing there right behind them, and so they wouldn’t mess with you. It really would have helped security-wise.”

Santos never encountered any muggers-cum-delivery guys during his stint as an elevator man, but he did have to deal with a couple of incidents where, as he put it, “somebody may have had some company over and things didn’t go well.”

“I had situations where I had to make sure someone left the building,” he said.

Elevator staff isn’t cheap, though. All in, a union operator costs around $85,000 a year, said Marina Higgins, vice president of Argo Real Estate. Multiply that by the four-and-a-half staff members needed to run an elevator around the clock, and you’re laying out more than $380,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the cost of automating an elevator typically runs between $250,000 and $300,000, she said. “So the payback [of automating] is very quick.”

Given the expense involved, manual elevators are today most commonly found in properties where quality of life matters more than the bottom line, Saladino suggested.

“You don’t see them in a REIT-owned building where it’s like, ‘Why are we paying this salary?’ ” she said. “But you will see them in a co-op.”

Typically, buildings with elevator operators “will also have extra porters, extra concierges, extra everything,” Syed said. “Because the residents of those buildings are buying not just the apartment but also the level of service.”

For some, particularly younger residents, it’s a service they can do without, Saladino said.

“Sometimes people feel a doorman is even too much in their business, so they don’t then want a guy in their elevator, too,” she said. “All kinds of stuff happens in elevators. So it can be a little like, ‘O.K., this guy is watching me coming home with a different date every night and standing next to us clearing his throat.’ ”

A true pro would never be so indiscreet, of course. But the job does “get really personal,” Santos said. “You’re in there for like 30 seconds or something with [residents], and you know them personally.

“You have to know when to interact with people and when to give them their space,” he said. “Some people have bad days sometimes. Some people have very stressful jobs. You have all types of people who do all types of things, and, you know, life’s not always easy.”