This is the tale of two men, and a 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, or the Lakes as most of the locals called it, was now in a quiet renaissance bloom. The building itself was an architectural gem, tastefully decorated in the lobby, the common areas with tasteful furnishings. Carefully selected artwork to match the polished hardwood flooring that slept beneath. The stonework adorning the outside of the building was visually remarkable as well, all of it seeming to belong to another place, to some other more graceful time. The visuals were presented as 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 of 1978, when both men, Tony Bertram and Steven Keller moved into residence at the Lakeside Shores apartments tower, located at the intersection of 10th Street and Delaware Crossing. Neither one of the men knew each other, in fact, they had no reason to have known one another. That would change soon enough, for they were both soon to travel hundreds miles together in the years ahead, without ever leaving the confines of the Lakeside Shores apartment building. Most of those miles would be marked within the confines of a particular old elevator, in a shaft maintained by H.L. Mercury Industrial.
Tony Bertram was by trade, a clothier, a learned man of an older civility, a gentleman of taste, hewn with a fascination for life, for living with style. He retired from the iconic Mabry’s Department store, situated up on 24th Street, after an industry record of forty-two years. Tony Bertram 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 of the department store. Certainly, the last six years of his career were more of an honorary position at the store, one in which “Mr. Tony,” as he was affectionately known, advised and coached a younger cadre of men and women 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 thing go, even legends eventually must take their sweetly deserved rest.
Things 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 forty-seven years of marriage. Tony had no children, and carried a quiet grief for the fast moving cancer that had taken his lovely wife in only a short, bitter, six months time.
Mr. Tony, dressed tastefully in a crisp, blue blazer with a brilliant, sharply printed paisley bow tie, neatly pressed slacks, oversaw the stout young men who moved his furniture, his beloved Steinway piano, handsome men’s apparel into his new apartment, the perfect place for his retirement, overlooking the water on the 4th floor at the Lakes.
Two weeks later, a big hearted, curly headed young graduate student named Steven, with the help of a sizable down payment gifted from his parents, moved into the Lakes alone, but for his dreams of the future in a teaching job. In contrast to Mr. Tony’s fine hardwood furnishings, Steven’s place sported only a couple of hand me down dressers, one slightly haggard looking bean-bag chair, and a comfy futon old couch where he slept for the first two years of his life at the Lakes. Steven’s apartment, though spacious at three bedrooms, and a study on the 8th floor, faced away from the lake and looked down across a busy city intersection, a lively small coffee shop, a used book store. Steven himself would consider that vista perfection, 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 have been.
If, as Anais 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 on a crisp December morning. Steven entered the elevator in the lobby to find Mr. Tony, sharply dressed in his tailored blue blazer, standing with his back against the rear of the elevator. Standing with his back to the wall of the elevator was to be a trademark position for Mr. Tony. He 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 in that smallish space as possible. Steven threw Mr. Tony a quick nod, unwittingly shaking off a few droplets of mushy, melting snow upon Mr. Tony’s carefully polished day slippers several feet below. Mr. Tony didn’t flinch, he only snappily returning the greeting with a slight grin, a “Good morning to you.” Steven turned his back to Mr. Tony, reached out with a cold, wet finger from under his old coat, pressed the brass encased button for the 8th 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 towards becoming everyone’s beloved saint of the Lakeside Shores.
At some point, Mr. Tony simply began forgoing the act of selecting a floor to travel to. 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, winsome pleasantries soon became something that apartment residents looked forward to. Residents of the Lakes unwittingly found a refuge for themselves, an encouragement during their daily brief rides with Mr. Tony in the elevator. Those who didn’t know who he was, 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 carried such a warm personal presence that it seemed to envelope anyone who entered the compartment. There seemed to be some off-the-charts ability Mr. Tony carried, some empathy that could connect right through the cheap veneer that masked so many people, so many who were desperate to be known in life. He was an emotional chameleon of sorts, someone who could disarmingly connect with the gruff, the angry, the broken, with a childlike ease.
As Steven and his girlfriend, Laura, stepped off the elevator, they told Mr. Tony thanks again for the warm congratulations he had given to them both. It had been four years now of living at the Lakes, riding daily in the elevator with Mr. Tony. Steven was now a graduate, soon to start a teaching job located only a few miles from the Lakes. His friend, Mr. Tony had never failed to offer encouragement in a few words each day, thoughts, sometimes timely questions. When Mr. Tony had sensed the need to for Steven, or anyone for that matter, to engage in further conversation, he merely stepped off the elevator with them, speaking to them in the hallway, the lobby.
Steven, and Laura would have enjoyed having Mr. Tony visit them in their apartment, but Mr. Tony had politely excused himself for another time. The large box resting at an angle against the wall outside the door of Steven’s place caught Stephen’s notice immediately. “Where you expecting something?” Laura asked. “No, nothing.” Steven replied. Carefully lifting the brown parchment paper wrapped box, Steven couldn’t help but notice that it bore none of the usual scuffing, signs of rough housing that was usually present on a delivery box. This one was clean, had crisp corners, with the paper wrapping the box expertly wrapped, unstained. Only the name, “Steven Keller, was printed in neat blue ink letters on the center of the front facing of the box.
Laura found her curiosity rising up within her like some slowly climbing mercury. She pulled gently away from Steven’s lips, his embrace, murmured using 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 slapped at him playfully, “Later, I want to know what’s in that box!” He sighed, reluctantly releasing her warm body from his. “OK, let’s see if we can find out what’s so important that you’d turn down more of my kisses.” Laura grinned, pulled the package across the tiles of the kitchen island top towards him. Steven carefully unwrapped the box, unconsciously giving at least some effort not to simply tear open such a 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 as she flickered her gaze up to Steven’s silent, appreciative face. Steven, thoughtfully fingered the edges of the crisply folded great overcoat, ran his fingers across the soft, supple leather of the gloves, the fine fabric of the men’s scarf. They were remarkable things, expertly made, seemingly drawn from some other age, some place where men once made efforts to be well groomed, winsome in their visage.
“It’s a gift from Mr. Tony, isn’t it?” Laura asked. “Yes, yes it is.” Steven replied, still at a loss of expression for the depth of the 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.” “No, no, I’ll write him a handwritten note. It may sound funny, but that’s exactly what he would appreciate most, you know?” There was a way to go about these things, and it seemed that at least some of Mr. Tony’s impeccable gentlemanly skills had rubbed off on Steven. The results of a quiet, gentle tutelage molded over the years. Yes, a handwritten note from the heart, a coat to wear into the future, into the chill of the winters to come.
The cold snow of that winter, 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, parents and by a quiet old man who guided him through the many vertical miles in the elevator at the Lakes.
They 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, a merriment they shared, one larger than the season. Mr. Tony’s smile was larger, brighter than all of theirs combined, but today he neglected to hug the girls, choosing instead only to pat their damp little hatted heads with his big, warm old hands. He stood rather stiffly against the back of the elevator, perhaps crowded by the tight little group of happy humans sharing the small space with him. Mr. Tony’s eyes, old now, still held the warmth of a welcoming fireplace.
His tastefully colored paisley tie echoed the bright banter of the girls, and yet a slightly pained expression passed his face, like some coming and going of a quiet ghost in night. The big old elevator lurched unexpectedly, the first time that Steven ever remembered something like that happening. The lights even flickered for a second, heralding some unwelcome change in the unapproachable steadiness of the big machine. A moment later, the soft bell rung, the doors opened and the rolling bundle of the Keller family spilled into the hallway and was gone. As the burnished brass doors closed, Mr. Tony watched them briefly, his warm, dancing old eyes caught in the cool bask of the hallway lamps. He stood very stiffly against the back of the elevator. In the lighting, Mr. Tony looking as if he was almost a part of the interior of the old elevator now.
“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, placed the small blue cup down carefully on the tile next to the kitchen sink. “Look, he always comes by to spend a few minutes with the girls at Christmas, to open his gift. You remember the girls got him some nice, warm slippers? Just tell him that his toes are going to freeze off if he doesn’t stop by.” Steven grinned, agreed to take one of the girls, see if they could tempt Mr. Tony into coming by to share some Christmas cheer with them.
An short time later, Steven returned to the family apartment. Jennifer at the front desk, with her bright youthful smile, oversized Christmas bow fastened to her blazer lapel by Mr. Tony himself, 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 Mr. Tony often did. No one knew, and no one ever saw Mr. Tony Bertram again.
Laura placed her hands on Steven’s back, rubbing his shoulder’s gently. “Worried about the board dinner tonight?” No, he told her, giving way momentarily to 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 quietly coached Steven in that old elevator over 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 slight grin, he agreed and they rode down to the lobby together.
As the doors opened on the elevator to the lobby, Laura stepped off. Behind her, Steven froze as if suddenly facing some gigantic invisible thing, some sudden wellspring of realization, one that welled up in him like a never-before-noticed volcano. As Laura watched, Steven spun around inside the elevator, placed his hands bare against the back of the elevator wall, bent his head forward to touch the back of the elevator with his forehead and wept softly, his body racking against the tears like a small child standing in a heavy wind.
Laura stood there, blinking back the gathering tears in her eyes, blocking the closing of the doors, unspeaking, letting Steven’s tears have their overdue 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 through flowers. She realized, as Steven suddenly had, that Mr. Tony had never left the elevator that day.