Oh, Just Ask the Doorman: As Prices Rise, So Do Off-Putting Requests

(Illustration: Veronica Grech)

(Illustration: Veronica Grech)

“Watch my kids.” “Walk my dog.” “Park my car.” Doormen don’t say “no”—they nod with a grimace.

In Manhattan, faced with ever-increasing standards of residential luxury, the modern doorman is often asked to play the concierge, valet and maid—even in buildings where that staff is provided, doormen of all stripes told The New York Observer.

It only heightens during the crazed toing and froing of the holiday season. Packages and party crowds come and go, as do major hauling jobs; one doorman stationed on the Upper West Side complained of more than once being asked to haul a Christmas tree into an apartment. 

While the role of the doorman has always had its supplementary duties—checking in on elderly residents, watering plants, or making runs to the store for residents—the precise job description has become blurrier as rising Manhattan property values have lured increasingly entitled residents.

During his time as a doorman in a Greenwich Village co-op, Garrett  McGrath said that being told to wash the windows, pick up a resident’s groceries or move their furniture was routine—and usually tipped.

At one point, the doormen at his building were asked to move an 800-pound slab of Italian marble into an apartment. Another time, he was sent to check in on an elderly resident and found her dead, he said.

“Finding dead people happens more than you would imagine,” added Mr. McGrath, who chronicled his experiences in an essay on the web site Narratively. “A lot of the doormen I worked with have found one.”

All the extra toil has been normalized into the position and is more-or-less expected, a career doorman who has worked at the same white-glove co-op on the Upper East Side for the last 15 years, and preferred to remain anonymous, explained—adding that he doesn’t really mind the additional chores.

“I’m asked to walk the dog sometimes, despite the fact that the residents could easily afford to hire a dog walker,” he said. “Some of the guys won’t do it, and the residents usually understand.”

Chris Russell, a hotel doorman in Midtown, said that occasionally, someone really ups the ante.

Once, a well-heeled foreigner asked Mr. Russell’s partner to go buy him five packs of cigarettes and a tub of Vaseline—two nights in a row. He obliged and received a $100 tip for his efforts.

“I’ll tell you the same thing a lot of doormen will: it’s all about money,” said Mr. Russell, who blogs about his colorful life as a doorman. “If you let me know that you are going to take care of me at the end, I’ll do whatever the fuck you want.”

And the union, 32BJ SEIU, wouldn’t disagree. The union contract with doormen gives no official description of his duties beyond manning the door at least 50 percent of the time.

“Doormen do tons of things you would never connect to doormen,” Kyle Bragg, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ SEIU said. Another union spokesperson added, “There are no specific tasks doormen are prevented from performing due to the union contract. It’s really the building management that sets the expectations for each building.”

Even a doorman’s chief responsibility—keeping out intruders—can be harder than it sounds.

“When I started, I was just told to not let anyone in that I didn’t recognize, which is hilarious because I didn’t know anyone,” said Mr. McGrath. “It was like that scene from Seinfeld where Jerry is the doorman. He asks where some guy is going, and the guy shoots back, ‘I live here! I’ll have you fired.’ ” 

At the top of the luxury market, don’t expect the doorman to actually replace the concierge, said Jenene Ronick, CEO of Luxury Attaché, a building management service that operates in 10 luxury buildings across Manhattan, including One Madison, where Rupert Murdoch recently purchased the $57.5 million penthouse, and in One57, where the duplex penthouse unit sold for more than $90 million, a New York record.

Eager to distinguish themselves from stuffy and ceremonious co-ops, luxury condos have for years now offered services rarely found outside five-star hotels. Room service, pet grooming and event planning are all available at a the snap of the fingers.

According to Ms. Ronick, residents of opulent buildings would not likely trust the untrained tastes of a working-class doorman with the tasks they throw to a concierge.

“I would never ask a doorman to help me find a babysitter, make a restaurant reservation or plan a vacation. I would feel very uncomfortable,” Ms. Ronick said. “I just don’t know what kinds of resources a doorman would be able to offer. I wouldn’t give my credit card to a doorman.”

Ms. Ronick added that asking doorman to go beyond their job description not only leads to an unhealthy level of familiarity with residents, but also has worrisome legal implications.

“We have one luxury building on Central Park South where the management feels like the doormen get a little too friendly after about a year and a half, and it doesn’t feel professional for a building with $40 million apartments,” she said. “The doormen start making recommendations for car services and those venders are uninsured. If something happened, the condo board could be sued.”

At least there’s some payback in the offing. Holiday gratuities from individual residents range from about $75 up to about $500, according to several informal surveys. But a year of good service doesn’t always end profitably.

Billionaire David Koch is said to give his doormen a $50 check at the year’s end, according to Michael Gross, author of the book 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building.

To hear some doormen tell it, that’s generous. “There are people that treat their staff like garbage, and people who treat their staff like human beings, and know their names, and take care of them at Christmas,” Mr. Gross said in an off-screen interview for the PBS documentary film, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream. “All of these things are part of the texture of the community that makes up a building.” 

Oh, Just Ask the Doorman: As Prices Rise, So Do Off-Putting Requests