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Elevator operator's overriding story: joy

For 35 years, Ruben Pardo has steered the same elegant car up and down an Art Deco office building on Wilshire Boulevard. His happiness with his job — and his life — runs floor to ceiling.

October 15, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Ruben Pardo, 69, who for 35 years has manually operated the elegant elevator inside the Art Deco office building at 5514 Wilshire Blvd., gives a ride to office workers. He loves his work so much, he says, that he rarely takes a vacation.
Ruben Pardo, 69, who for 35 years has manually operated the elegant elevator… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

The loft-like offices at 5514 Wilshire Blvd. are largely the domain of the young, who work in jeans and T-shirts at flat-panel screens.

They are Web branders, search engine optimizers, e-tailers of underground clothing lines. They do the virtual jobs that became jobs only recently.

Ruben Pardo works in the building, too, in a job that dates to the late 19th century.

Pardo operates one of the last manual elevators in Los Angeles.

The young people are not easily impressed — but something about Pardo awes them.

Each morning, the 69-year-old arrives at the Art Deco tower in wool trousers, a button-down shirt and a sweater vest.

Photos: Elevator operator still on the ride of his life

Six days a week, for just over half his life, he has been steering the same 6-foot-by-8-foot car up and down the same 11 floors.

"He's been in this elevator longer than I've been on the planet," said Mani Nabavi of digitalgravel.com on the fifth floor, who turned 35 just after Pardo's 35th anniversary.

Young people come. Young people go. Eleven hours each weekday and nine hours each Saturday, Pardo greets them warmly and transports them to and from airy work spaces with concrete floors and views of the ocean, downtown and the Hollywood sign.

His cushioned, charcoal-gray cross trainers put bounce in his step. His voice dances with the lilt of an old-time 78.

"Hello, Matt!" he calls out, stretching each syllable. "Good mooor-ning, Victor!"

"How's life?" they ask.

"Up and down," he quips.

Pardo lives in El Sereno — three bus rides and a subway trip away. He is in the elevator when the young people show up and when they leave.

Again and again, he goes through the motions — yanking the heavy outer doors, stretching the safety gate, steering the car while counting the floors as doors flash by.

And day in, day out, this small man with thin salt-and-pepper hair exudes a joy that leaves his passengers marveling.

Luis Zavala, a 33-year-old Web graphic designer, works at the Ace Gallery on 2. Sometimes, he said, he drags his way into the day.

As for Pardo, "It's like a glass of fresh water every morning. I don't know how he does it, but every day for him just seems to be a bright opportunity for something."

::

"Good morning, Saaaa-mi!"

"Good morning, Ruben."

"How are you, Sami?"

"Good. Yourself?"

"Wonderful, wonderful! Nice to see you. It's good to live another day!"

::

Pardo's elevator is a thing of beauty.

Video: Elevator operator is still on the ride of his life

Peacocks preen among tropical fronds on its verdigris outer doors. Inside is honeyed wood, carved with more fronds and flowers.

The elevator was new in 1929, when the building opened. It was the first major retail tower on the Miracle Mile and still sports the large sign of its long-gone flagship, Desmond's clothing store.

When Art Deco buffs wander into the Wilshire Tower lobby to admire the terrazzo floors and pendant lights, Pardo proudly shows it off.

"It was the high-rise of that era," he says. "Then, a little bit at a time, they started building buildings, you know.... It starts with a desert and then eventually it grows into a city."

On a vertical panel in the elevator, a numbered button lights when the car is called. But summonses that once rang like California mission bells now have a modern, impatient buzz.

Below the buttons is a brass lever called a car switch, which Pardo glides along an arc. Left goes up. Right goes down. Slow and steady levels the car with the floor where it stops.

"The elevator has to be straight like this," he says, stopping perfectly on 4. "And that's what you call professional, because that's what I am. If I get it wrong, I have to say, 'Please step down,' or 'Step up and watch your step.' But 99% of the time, I always hit it right."

He won't say how much he makes. That's for him to know. But he loves his work so much, he says, he rarely takes a vacation beyond the big legal holidays, which he sees as treats. "Can you imagine, not working for 11 hours and getting paid?"

He's delighted, too, by the elevator's new smoky-blue leather "executive chair," presented to him by the building owner for his 35 years there.

Pardo first "took a chance driving an elevator" years ago at the Rosslyn Hotel. In his day, he operated many, including one at Bullocks Wilshire. For a stretch, he says, he had three jobs at once.

But long before he made an elevator move, he was a small boy studying others doing it. "That's when I started to pick up the vibes of how to drive the elevators," he says.

You watch and you learn and you make life your classroom.

"By observing, you can learn a lot of things. You can learn how to be an electrician, a gasoline attendant, a parking attendant …," he says. "For the hard stuff, like plumbing and doctors and lawyers and all that high career, you have to go to school. But if you observe, you can teach yourself a lot."

::

In the world according to Ruben Pardo, life is what you make of it.

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