Why Doormen?

We have recently been discussing the meaning of work in my first-year interdisciplinary “Created and Called for Community” course. Both of the authors we have been discussing–Dorothy Sayers and John Paul II— focus on the sacred value of even the most ordinary tasks and vocations.

This was the intellectual grid through which I read James Collins New York Times op-ed on the social utility of doormen. (The context for the piece was the recent threat of a doorman strike in New York City). Collins has convinced me that doormen really do serve a purpose. Here is a taste:

Why then does the institution persist and thrive? Tenants value their doormen, I believe, because they provide an extra layer of face-to-face social connection that is not strictly “necessary,” but is tremendously gratifying nonetheless. As the sociologist Peter Bearman points out in his fascinating book, “Doormen,” the doorman knows the tenants; he knows their comings and goings; he knows their friends; he knows what kind of food they like; he watches their children grow up; he may gossip to them about other tenants; for tenants he likes, he will break the rules.

Radical class distinctions no longer exist — not even the best buildings can provide them anymore — so the doorman, while still socially distant from the tenants, has risen from the status of a servant. Rather, in the big, indifferent city, he is like a small-town shopkeeper or postman or cop who knows your (and others’) business, looks out for you, helps the community cohere and talks mostly about the weather. (Mr. Bearman’s statistics confirm this.) As with those small-town figures, the doorman’s knowledge of a person can be worrying, but it is comforting, too. The doorman is a touch of Gemeinschaft in an ever more Gesellschaft world.