The first time I came to New York to visit the man who is now my husband, I was 20 and a senior in college.
I walked into the lobby of the building and was greeted by a bearded man in a janitor uniform. Greeted is probably too strong a word for our exchange at that moment thirty years ago. But that was the first time that I stepped foot into what is now my home and the first time I met Sixto.
Sixto was one of the doormen in our building. Sixto didn’t talk a whole lot. He kept his face formal and closed for the most part.
When my older son was two for some reason he developed a crush on Sixto in the inexplicable way that two year olds fall hard in love with someone or something.
One of my kids had a friend who at that stage fell in love with the letter W. I remember having a crush on dump trucks. My son had a crush on Sixto.
Each time we would leave the building he would yell out his name. Think of a teeny bopper calling out, “Elvis!” to get a sense of what that moment of crush was like, and then he would grab Sixto around the knees and give him a big hug.
Sixto’s public formal face cracked under the weight of two year old love. From then on Sixto used to give me a big grin when he opened the door for us. My husband still got the formal face.
When we were sitting Shiva for my mother in law several of our visitors told us that Sixto told them how fond he was of my husband, what a nice man he thought my husband was. We had no idea that Sixto felt that way about my husband.
Sixto began working in our building when he was 16, as a porter. At some point he was promoted to the job of doorman. At first the job was still partially janitorial. As our neighborhood gentrified so did the job of doorman. Son after the building went coop the building staff got traditional doorman uniforms complete with braid and peaked hats.
Sixto’s brother worked here until a few years ago when he became too ill to work. His son has been on staff for the last ten years or so.
What I didn’t understand when I first walked into the building thirty years ago is that the staff, particularly if they are long time workers in the building slowly become part of your family. A doorman may be the person who sees your kids doing something stupid on the street and tell them to stop. A doorman will know how your life has changed over the decades . A doorman watches over you in ways subtle and not so subtle.
Nine months ago Sixto was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Last weekend he went home to Puerto Rico for a long planned last trip home with his family. Sunday he died surrounded by his family .
I took this photo when my son was in Israel. For his birthday I asked people to pose with the birthday sign and I emailed all of the photos to my son. When I asked Sixto to pose first he told me how fond he was of my son. He talked about how close he feels to all of the kids in the building, how he treasures watching them grow up, how he feels that all of the kids are in some part his own children.
I had no idea that there was so much emotion behind Sixto’s formal face. Tomorrow we bury Sixto.