This is the tale of two men and part of a larger story of how one old elevator became a raft they rode together on the river of their lives.
The Lakeside Shores apartments—the Lakes as most of the locals called them— were now in a quiet renaissance bloom. The building itself was an architectural gem, tastefully decorated in the lobby, and with tastefully decorated common areas. On the walls, carefully selected artwork matched the polished hardwood flooring that slept beneath. The exterior building stonework was visually remarkable as well, all of it seeming to belong to another place, to some other more graceful time. The accouterments were a nice balance in aesthetics, welcoming to older generations, while still alluring to the young, to those with artistic spirits.
It was a chilly, damp late fall in 1978 when both men—Tony Bertram and Steven Keller—moved into residence at the Lakes, located at the intersection of 10th Street and Delaware Crossing. Neither man knew each other; in fact, they had no reason to know each other. But that would change soon enough, for they would both travel hundreds of miles together in the years ahead, without ever leaving the confines of their apartment building. Most of those miles would be marked within the space of a particular old elevator, in a dark shaft maintained by H.L. Mercury Industrial.
Tony Bertram was, by trade, a clothier. He was a learned man with an old-fashioned civility, a gentleman of taste, hewn with a fascination for life and for living with style. He had retired from the iconic Mabry’s Department store, situated up on 24th Street after an industry employment record of 42 years. Tony had started work as a back-room stock boy, working his way up over the course of the years, until he ran the entire men’s clothing wing at the department store. Certainly, the last six years of his career were more of an honorary position, one in which “Mr. Tony,” as he was affectionately known, advised and coached a younger cadre of men and women in order to keep the department moving along as the top selling, most attractive floor of the operation. Undeniably, he was a legend in the industry, but as these things go, even legends must eventually take their sweetly deserved rest.
As times changed, life moved to a new department. Following a modest retirement party at the store on a particularly stormy Friday night, Mr. Tony prepared to move into the Lakeside apartments by himself the following week. His beloved wife Betty had left him alone to carry on in the clothing business after 47 years of marriage. Mr. Tony had no children, and carried a quiet grief for the fast-moving cancer that had taken his lovely wife during that short and horrific six-month period.
As he prepared to leave his past behind, Mr. Tony himself did not change. Even as he oversaw the stout young men who moved his furniture, his beloved Steinway piano, and his handsome wardrobe, Mr. Tony was dressed tastefully in a crisp, blue blazer with a brilliant, sharply printed paisley bow tie, and neatly pressed slacks. The rough movers with their calloused hands delivered his fine possessions to his new apartment. Mr. Tony thought it the perfect place for his retirement, a tidy apartment on the fourth floor at the Lakes, with a view of the waterfront.
Two weeks later, a big-hearted, curly-headed young graduate student named Steven, thanks to the help of a sizable down payment gift from his parents, moved into the Lakes alone, save for his dreams of a future as a teacher. In contrast to Mr. Tony’s fine hardwood furnishings, Steven’s place sported only a couple of hand-me-down dressers, one slightly decrepit bean-bag chair, and an old comfy futon couch where he would sleep for the first two years of his life at the Lakes. Steven liked to joke that his decorating style was “Early, want this?”
Steven’s eighth floor apartment, though quite spacious with three bedrooms and a study, faced away from the lake and looked down across a busy city intersection, a small and lively coffee shop, and a used bookstore. Steven considered his view and vista perfect, while Mr. Tony wouldn’t have chosen any such arrangement himself. For Mr. Tony, in all things there was a subtle order, one that had to be met, or the placing would be a time of second-guessing, a living with less than what should or might have been.
If—as Anaïs Nin would have it—each friend is a world that is born when first meeting, then the new world of discovery for Steven and Mr. Tony was birthed in an old elevator ride one crisp December morning. Steven entered the elevator in the lobby and saw Mr. Tony, sharply dressed in his tailored blue blazer, standing with his back against the rear of the elevator.
As Steven would discover, standing with his back to the wall was to be a trademark position for Mr. Tony. The elder gentleman deeply enjoyed other people, so it was not in any loathing that he stood clear of them, but out of a wish to give them as much room as possible in the small space of an elevator. Steven nodded quickly at Mr. Tony, unwittingly shaking off a few droplets of mushy, melting snow on Mr. Tony’s carefully polished day slippers. Mr. Tony didn’t flinch, he simply returned the greeting with a slight grin and a friendly “Good morning to you.” Steven turned his back to Mr. Tony, reached out with a cold, wet finger from underneath the tattered sleeve of his old coat, and pressed the brass-encased button for the eighth floor. It escaped Steven’s notice that morning, as it would for several more trips, there were no other floor selection buttons glowing. Mr. Tony was simply there, now journeying toward his new role as the beloved saint of the Lakes.
At some point, Mr. Tony simply began forgoing the act of selecting a floor when he rode the elevator. He preferred what was the rather odd, lonesome routine of engaging elevator travelers in dialogue, rather than simply traveling to the floor of his own residence. The Lakes was a busy place and Mr. Tony seldom had to wait more than a minute or two before the next vertical traveler or group came aboard. His gentle exchanges and pleasantries soon became something that apartment residents enjoyed. People at the Lakes unwittingly found a refuge for themselves, an encouragement during their brief daily elevator rides with Mr. Tony. Those who didn’t know him, those who didn’t live at the Lakes, simply knew him as the elevator man. He wasn’t always there, but when he was “in residence” in the elevator, he exuded such a warm personal presence that it seemed to envelop anyone who entered the compartment. Mr. Tony carried some otherworldly ability, some empathy that could permeate through the cheap veneer that masked so many people, of those lonely souls who were so desperate to be noticed. He was an emotional chameleon of sorts, someone who could disarmingly connect with the gruff, the angry and the broken, and all with a childlike ease.
As Steven and his girlfriend, Laura, stepped off the elevator, they again thanked Mr. Tony for his warm congratulations. Steven had enjoyed his four years of living at the Lakes and his daily elevator rides with Mr. Tony.
Steven was now a graduate, soon to start a teaching job at a school just a few miles from the Lakes. His friend, Mr. Tony had never failed to offer daily encouragement, never failed to share his thoughts or ask timely questions. When Mr. Tony had sensed the need for Steven (or anyone for that matter) to engage in further conversation, he quietly stepped off the elevator with them, speaking to them in the hallway or the lobby.
Steven and Laura would have enjoyed having Mr. Tony visit them in their apartment, but Mr. Tony had politely excused himself until another time. The large box, resting at an angle outside apartment door, caught Steven’s notice immediately.
“Where you expecting something?” Laura asked. “No, nothing,” Steven replied.
Carefully lifting the brown paper parchment box, Steven couldn’t help but notice that it bore none of the usual scuffing or marks typically seen on delivery boxes. This one was clean, expertly wrapped with crisp corners, and pristine. Only the name, Steven Keller, was printed in neat blue ink letters across the front of the package. Steven picked up the box and took it into their apartment.
Once inside, Laura found her curiosity rising up within her like slowly climbing mercury. She gently pulled gently away from Steven’s lips, his embrace, and murmured showing him her best pouty face. “Well, are you going to open the mystery package or not?” “Actually, I’d just like to open you up, first,” Steven whispered huskily. Laura playfully slapped at him. “Later, I want to know what’s in that box!” He sighed, reluctantly releasing her warm body. “Okay, let’s see what’s so important that you’d turn down more of my kisses.” Laura grinned and pulled the package across the tiles of the kitchen island top towards him.
Steven carefully unwrapped the box, trying to gently peel back the paper on the meticulously sealed box. It seemed such a gentlemanly looking package; he didn’t want to be a brute about ripping it open.
“Wow, look at that,” Laura said softly. She lifted her eyes and took in Steven’s silent appreciative face. Steven, still quiet, fingered the edges of the crisply folded great overcoat, ran his fingers across the soft, supple leather of the gloves, and touched the fine fabric of the men’s scarf. They were very fine things, exquisitely made, seemingly from some other more genteel age, some place where men made an effort to be well-groomed and nattily dressed.
“It’s a gift from Mr. Tony, isn’t it?” Laura asked. “Yes, yes it is,” Steven replied, still speechless at the meaning of this deeply personal gift. “These are really nice. Amazingly nice, and expensive too,” she said, her eyes glowing with a warm appreciation. “We should go thank him right away.” Steven paused. “No, no, I’ll write him a handwritten note. It may sound funny, but that’s exactly what he would appreciate the most.”
There was a proper way to go about these things, and it seemed some of Mr. Tony’s impeccable and old-fashioned manners had rubbed off on Steven. They were the result of a quiet, gentle tutelage molded over the years. Yes, he would write a handwritten note from his heart about a coat he would wear into the future, into the chill of winters yet to come.
The cold snow of that winter, and of many following, would drape the warmth of Steven’s fine coat, not touching the man beneath. He became a fine teacher, one beloved by his students, their parents, and, of course, by the quiet old man who guided him through the many vertical miles in the elevator at the Lakes.
The family all broke into grins upon seeing Mr. Tony. It had been a busy day of Christmas shopping, and now Steven, Laura and the girls crowded noisily into the elevator, giggling, juggling packages, dripping with the wet cold, but untouched in their silliness. It was a shared and intimate merriment, one larger than the season. Mr. Tony’s smile was larger and brighter than all of theirs combined, but today he neglected to hug the girls, choosing instead simply to pat their damp little hats with his big, warm old hands. He stood rather stiffly against the back of the elevator, perhaps crowded by the crush of the happy family sharing the small space with him. Mr. Tony’s eyes, older now, still held the warmth of their fireplace glow.
His bright and tasteful paisley tie matched the bright banter of the girls and yet a slightly pained expression passed his face like the coming and going of some quiet ghost in night. The big old elevator lurched unexpectedly. It was the first time Steven ever remembered something like that happening. The lights flickered for a second, heralding some unwelcome change in the steadiness of the big machine. A moment later, the soft bell rung, the doors opened, and the rolling bundle of the Keller family spilled out into the hallway and were gone. As the burnished brass doors closed, Mr. Tony watched them briefly; his warm, dancing crinkly eyes highlighted in the cool bask of the hallway lamps. He stood very stiffly against the back of the elevator. In this light, it appeared he was almost a part of the old elevator interior.
“Seriously, he wouldn’t just come by for a few minutes?” Laura asked. “No, he just begged off, and you know what it’s like trying to get him to change his mind, you know?” Steven said. Laura took a thoughtful sip of her hot tea, then carefully placed the small blue cup next to the kitchen sink.
“Look, he always comes by to spend a few minutes with the girls at Christmas, to open his gift. Remember, the girls got him some nice, warm slippers. Just tell him that his toes are going to freeze if he doesn’t stop by.” Steven grinned, agreed to take one of the girls to see if they could tempt Mr. Tony into sharing some Christmas cheer with them.
A short time later, Steven returned to the family apartment. He’d spoken with Jennifer at the front desk—with her bright youthful smile and oversized Christmas bow fastened to her blazer lapel by Mr. Tony himself— but she hadn’t seen him in hours. She even rang his room to no avail. Maybe he had gone out, off to help another resident as he often did.
No one had seen the gracious elderly man. No one ever saw Mr. Tony Bertram again.
Laura placed her hands on Steven’s back, rubbing his shoulders gently. “Worried about the Board dinner tonight?” No, he told her, gruffly complaining about some small matter in the governance of the city. Laura didn’t buy it. She knew this wasn’t about school or municipal matters. Laura knew down deep that her husband was missing the old man, the bright-hearted man who had quietly coached Steven in that old elevator during the course of so many years. She brightened, told him that since the girls were in school, and he had a rare day off, they should go out for coffee. With a weary grin, he agreed and they rode down to the lobby together.
As the elevator doors opened to the lobby, Laura stepped off. Behind her, Steven froze as if suddenly facing some gigantic invisible presence and a sudden realization welled up in him like a never-before-noticed volcano. As Laura watched, he spun around inside the elevator, placed his bare hands against the back of the elevator wall, bent his head forward to touch the wall and wept softly, his body racked with sobs and shaking like a small child buffeted by a heavy wind.
Laura stood there, blinking back her own tears, blocking the closing of the doors, unspeaking, letting Steven’s tears have their moment with her husband. And then, in the light of the sun streaming into the lobby, the knowing came to Laura like a sudden rush of warm spring wind. She realized, as Steven suddenly had, that their friend, the kind and gentle Mr. Tony, had never left the elevator that day.