The Things a New York Elevator Repairman Has Seen (and Smelled)

Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; Photo Andriy Popov/Alamy

For Craig Taylor’s latest book New Yorkers (modeled after 2011’s Londoners), the author spent over six years interviewing 180 of us, 75 of whom made it into this small volume: a private tutor, a cop, a doctor, a lice consultant, a personal-injury lawyer, a gay-rights activist, a Salvation Army bell ringer among them. During these 400 hours of interviews, Taylor writes in the introduction, New Yorkers “did their self-​mythologizing on the go … They watched their life, related their life, made sure it was already a story, almost before the moment was done.” Throughout the week, we’ll be highlighting a few particularly interesting characters he met. First up: an elevator repairman who has … seen (and smelled) some things. “One night I sat alongside David Freeman* at his local in Queens for a few hours as the volume of the music on the house stereo increased, song by song,” Taylor recalls. “Freeman is also a painter and often contemplates the subjects of his work — Lincoln, the legacy of slavery, the state of the nation — while testing the heavy machinery in the elevator shafts.”

New York City can be divided into those people who piss in their elevators and those who don’t. Every housing project in New York, people pee in the elevator. Piss is like ocean salt water, so it rots out the door locks because the door locks are run with copper wire or wires that have copper contacts. It’s rotting out the door bolt. That’s made of steel. So even if you paint tar over that, eventually that piss finds a pinhole and starts rotting out the door bolt, unless it’s made out of stainless. NYCHA uses a lot of stainless.

We’re on top of these cars, cutting out these piss-​soaked cars. I remember asking this dude, “Why do you piss in elevators over here in the projects?” He lives there and he’s like, “I don’t know. I guess the kids get tired. I think sometimes it’s the kids, sometimes it’s somebody’s on drugs and they just pee in the elevator.”

Dude, it destroys the elevator and every 20 years they have to build new elevators in NYCHA. I’m telling you the truth.

One time I hit the top of the car and it was covered in dead mice. It was in the projects and it was like the mice went there to die. Every mouse in this project went down on top of this motherfucking car and just went to hell. Right there, on the spot, like, I surrender to the will of God, I’m a dead mouse. And they’re dried out, they’re like mummies.

So I went up there with a broom and I tore the car apart. I looked down at the mice, and the guy I’m with is an ex-​con — ​because the elevator industry is one of the few that hires an ex-​con — ​and he’s like, “I can’t deal with this. This sucks.” I grab a broom, I start sweeping shit off ’cause I’m just a hillbilly, right? I’m a fucking Black hillbilly.

I grew up in Indiana, but I’m half Black. My Black relatives were all from Tennessee and Kentucky. And Mississippi, originally. And all my English relatives, they’re from Newcastle on Tyne. They’re fucking Geordies. I am a fucking Afro Geordie. It’s true.

Sweep all the mice off. Okay. So now we are ready to start demolishing the car. So we hang it.

Gotta hang the counterweights up here ’cause you reuse them, get the car landed and then start cutting all the bolts on the dome. Then I got to get up there and cut off that crosshead and we started demolishing it.

We got down the pit. What we hit was an inch of sludge, because the car had shoes, not rollers. Good shoes means that oil has been running up and down the rails for 20 years and dripping down there. But because people have pissed on it, it kind of turned into linoleum. So I had to take the scraper, like an ice scraper, and physically scrape this shit up. Big curls every time you did it. You get a blast of piss gas right up in your face.

The uric acid cured the oil into what looked like linoleum. And it was golden and it smelled like piss when you cut it. And I’m not lying to you, you could stand on it and it was like a sheet of ice. You’re scraping the shit up to get down to the steel so you can clean up this area and build a new elevator.

There’s the type of person I’ve worked with directly, who has an absolutely analytical understanding of an elevator, whereas mine is emotional and still based on hunches.

People want what I have. Kids will ask you if you’re an elevator man. They’ll beg you for keys. They offer you money. All kind of kids. Old ladies. This old white lady on the Upper East Side said, “I know you guys have keys to put this on ‘independent.’” She told me that she was going to give me $200 for the key. It’s a $5 key. But I was like, “Nah, I can’t do that. I could get in trouble if they found out I gave you a key.”

This was an old patrician white lady. A war bonnet like Dan Quayle’s wife. Got that war-bonnet hairdo talking about giving me $200 for my key. She is the type of lady that has dogs and they’re like little dog babies. So she wants them upstairs and in their dog box real fast.

I work with all kinds of people, everything from Soviet conscripts, to bikers, racists, lesbians, you name it, all kind of weird people work with me. And I’ve got to get along with the sons of bitches.

You usually find out that most people on some level do have some kind of inner life, they have a place where they find joy. And even people whose beliefs you revile, they actually have saving graces that you don’t understand completely at first but you see … It’s like, it’s odd to say, but what it is is … a kind of forgiveness, where it really counts.

You’re in a situation where you have a lot of desperate people doing a dangerous goddamn job and, well, after a while you love them. Even if you don’t agree with them.

You know how many empty spaces there are in the city? There’s whole floors of buildings. You could actually house, very inexpensively, every homeless person in New York. There’s enough building space. There’s nice spaces. Everybody could have a $1,000 apartment. They’re empty. They don’t do shit with it.

There’s one building that has the best room I’ve ever seen in my life and it’s been empty for 25 years. It would be the most bomb studio you could ever have. I can’t give you the address any more than I can give you Jerry Seinfeld’s. (Which I’ve been to.) Curves in the wall, early 20th century, high windows, spectacular light. Lower Manhattan, see the world, see the harbor. Look out the window. Nobody will rent this space. It has access by one elevator. Beautiful little space. It’s wild, too, because nothing’s been touched. All you have is outlets and sewing lights. You go in there and you can paint like a bastard for fucking 50 years. That’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever come across. Did I feel hateful that I couldn’t get in there? Yeah, I was angry. I looked at that empty-ass space and I said, “Damn, That’s how it oughta be.”

There’s whole floors like that throughout the city, wasted, empty space that no one uses and people restrict access to that. They’re not going to rent it for less. So there’s all this inert space all over Manhattan.

There doesn’t have to be a homeless person in New York City.

*David’s name has been changed.

Excerpted from New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time by Craig Taylor. Copyright © 2021 by Craig Taylor. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

The Things an Elevator Repairman Has Seen (and Smelled)