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Men's Spring Fashion Issue

When One Door Closes

Sometimes Clothes Do Make the Man

April 07, 2002|STEVEN IVORY

The day I answered the ad for the position of doorman at a swank West Los Angeles high-rise apartment building, I'd reached the end of my rope. It was the mid-'70s, and after a particularly rough year of living like a refugee, I did something many young creative types liken to suicide: I got a real job.

A disinterested building manager hired me on the spot, throwing a young, labor-challenged trainee into the den of parking valets working the evening shift. I wasn't supposed to last long. Indeed, even as I filled out my first time card, I pondered what I considered more honorable employment, like robbing 7-Elevens. But when the eagle spread its wings that Friday, the sensation of a meager, steady paycheck plus tips got the better of me. I decided to get measured for that uniform and, for the time being, write by day and open a door at night.

Over several weeks, the valets schooled me on the rite of the hustle. I became obsessed. On my watch, no tenant or visitor ever got the opportunity to touch that door. I was a ninja on it.

Among the building's collection of wealthy retirees, foreign diplomats, kept women, well-to-do working-class, financiers, high-class hookers and corporate execs was a show business quotient that included composer Marvin Hamlisch and Elvis' legendary manager, Col. Tom Parker.

I remember introducing tenants Sly of Sly & the Family Stone and "Roots" author Alex Haley to each another in the elevator. Each was tickled to make the other's acquaintance, with Sly even coming out of a haze long enough to be sociable. (Later on, Sly got behind on his rent and the office banned him from the building for a time. Usually following house rules to the letter, I looked the other way when Sly and entourage would sneak through.)

However, my favorite tenant was hair-care icon Vidal Sassoon. Though he'd made a fortune in the haughty beauty business, Sassoon, a fit and handsome then-50something Brit, was affable and down to earth. He'd return from the office in the evenings and we'd chat briefly about whatever was going on in the world. With an ex-wife, a tribe of kids and, at the time, a gorgeous, flirty young girlfriend in and out of his daily life, it was clear that Sassoon loved women. Yet every now and then his eyes would do a quick, discreet dance over me with a purpose and gleam that I could only decipher as . . . The Look. Not a leer, and certainly not offensive. Just, you know, The Look. I interpreted various strains of The Look for the better part of a year until one Monday afternoon, when I received great news: A music magazine wanted me full time. I was overjoyed, but torn. Why venture back into the rickety world of creative employment when I'd come to enjoy what the artistic sector smugly referred to as "civilian life"?

"Because writing is what you do," Sassoon said rather sternly during our evening chat. "Is it your ambition to be a successful writer or a doorman?" The following evening, he congratulated me on submitting my week's resignation notice.

"Tell you what," he said in a chipper English accent. "On your last day, when you complete your shift, come up to the apartment and we'll celebrate with a toast."

"Oh, that'll be late," I said. "I don't get off until after 11."

"That's OK."

"That's pretty late, Mr. Sassoon," I pressed, not wanting him to feel obligated. "Not too late to have a drink with you. To celebrate your new job."

"But . . . "

"Let's do it. I won't take no for an answer."

With that, Sassoon stepped onto the elevator. As the doors closed, he gave me a wink, a smile and then laid it on me--a deluxe version of The Look.

Friday night I clocked out for the last time. I changed into my jeans and secretly made my way up to Sassoon's apartment. Employees were prohibited from socializing with tenants. I was no longer an employee, but I was nervous about Sassoon. I knew The Look. As straight as an arrow, I had no interest--even if I was flattered. And curious.

In anticipation of my arrival, the apartment door was slightly ajar. As I stood in the hallway, the silence was sliced by a female's lusty giggle from within. My knock was answered by the voice of Sassoon: "Ah, my friend! Bring those broad shoulders on in here."

With some trepidation, I pushed open the door and found Sassoon and his girlfriend relaxing on a couch in his sumptuous living room, sharing a joke. I apologized for intruding, but Sassoon simply waved it off, stood up and poured me a glass of Champagne. "Here's to your new job," he toasted. Glasses clinked and we sipped.

While the three of us sat and engaged in small talk, I found myself miles away, recalling mid-'60s Oklahoma City--a child sitting with Daddy in our powder-blue '50 Chevy Bel Air, parked outside Dr. Porter's white middle-class home, waiting for Mama to get off work. Five days a week Mama cleaned Miss Porter's house, cooked meals and helped raise kids. Then she'd come home and do the same thing for us.

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