One of our doormen died suddenly last year around Christmas. A few years older than me, a heavy smoker, Raoul had been a DJ in his earlier life, and then had become, in his second incarnation, the soul of our building.
It wasn’t his work ethic. It was his proficiency at the human aspect of his job: he was the connection, the context provider, he told stories each and every day, kept track of where you were going, and why. He knew I played tennis on Thursday and Friday and rooted for me when I won and teased me when I lost.
We were both ardent fans of funk and disco. I made sure to sample good playlists on my iPod for him as I came in from the gym.
Our relationship existed in five-minute intervals; starting from the time I got out of the elevator to the time I turned the corner and headed up the street and starting again when I came back and went up the stairs. Stories were fitted into that frame like comic routines, with the punch line delivered as the elevator door closed.
There was a business he was going to start: he was going to store air conditioners. It galled him no end (and rightfully so) that a company could make so much money from putting air conditioners out in a back yard (he claimed to have witnessed this) and spraying them with a hose. It was my impression that he came close, but in the end gave the idea of his company up and watched ruefully as air conditioners continued to go out each fall for storage without his help, like clockwork.
He was Cuban and my wife is part Puerto Rican; when he mentioned this to a coworker, also Hispanic, he told me the coworker thought he was talking about our babysitter. “That’s the thinking,” he said, ruefully.
He was interested in the cars our family rented for the summer holidays; and loved to kibitz about them.
When we finally bought a car last year, he made himself essential, providing crucial advice about repairs for its diesel engine. He was particularly helpful when I went off to spend the weekend with a sibling going through divorce.
Although almost all of our relationship took place in our lobby, every now and then I would see him walking down the street in civilian clothes, sometimes with his wife. During the time I knew him, he owned and sold an apartment that was reportedly bigger than ours in a building around the corner. He made enough in the sale to buy a house in New Jersey, whence he commuted daily, getting up at 5 a.m. as he told it, ruefully, given that in the old days he had commuted around the corner. It was during one of those trips that he collapsed on the subway platform and was taken to the hospital by paramedics.
I remember him talking to his wife and daughters on the front desk phone in the morning and again in the afternoon, gently admonishing them. He had a sister he was very proud of who went to Harvard, whom he would talk about with loving impatience.
After he collapsed there was a brief period of hope. People from our building visited. We got ready to go, then didn’t. I was looking forward to bothering him about not quitting smoking, a subject I had been bothering him about for years. Then he took a sudden, quick and awful turn for the worse and died early one morning.
He was memorialized, beautifully, in a small Catholic church in Hell’s Kitchen. Many of the building residents were there. We somehow all arrived half an hour early. How much this would have amused him made it easier to wait. We exchanged memories of him in hushed tones, our laughter rising up and echoing in the silent church like pigeons fluttering in an empty courtyard.
Then came the procession. A beautiful, simply dressed woman shaking with tears walked in on the arm of a man in a sweatshirt and work clothes. Raoul’s double appeared, albeit better dressed (his brother from the West Coast); trust Raoul to show up looking dapper to his own funeral.
During the service, we heard the story of his singing to his children each night. His wife spoke in Spanish and then a woman whom I believe is a sister translated. Every single day would be different because of his loss.
In wrapping up the ceremony, the priest remarked that we feel happier about the loss of someone we care about when that person is remembered well. This he was. And I’m not religious, but it is also consoling to imagine Raoul knitting together the people of another building somewhere with his warmth, sense of humor and raffish charm.
But our lobby will never be the same.