The Delivery Man
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
When I was ten years old, my family moved from a modest $80,000 starter home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana into a luxurious Upper East Side Manhattan apartment located on the corner of 64th Street and Third Avenue, minutes away from multi-million dollar Park Avenue town houses, expensive Fifth Avenue fashion boutiques, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We lived on the 18th floor of a building that was fully-equipped with closed-circuit security cameras and a fleet of doormen and bellboys who knew all the residents' names.
The foundation that awarded my mother the year-long research fellowship in New York City also offered our family an enormous housing subsidy. We only paid a nominal fee of $800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment whose rent was at least five times more expensive. Without this subsidy, there was no possible way that my family could afford to live in the Upper East Side. Our neighbors were stock brokers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who all made at least $200,000 a year. My parents' joint incomes barely matched half of that figure. We knew that we were given a rare opportunity to live among the privileged. This marked the beginning of one of the most fun-filled years of my childhood.
I felt grateful to be able to live in such an affluent part of New York City. My family was not rich by any regards, but we knew that people would think we had money simply because we lived in a luxury apartment building. We learned to act more upper-class and to speak to our neighbors with confidence and poise. It was fun to pretend to be rich for a year. We learned how rich people lived. We observed that delivery men would roll shopping carts into the apartment building and carry bags of groceries upstairs where they would be greeted at the door by old ladies and their checkbooks. It seemed like rich people did not go out to buy groceries; they just phoned-in their orders to the supermarket and had people deliver to their doors.
One evening our dear family friend Grandpa Yao came to visit us in our apartment. (Kids would call him "grandpa" in Chinese as a sign of respect for elders.) It was his first time entering a luxurious Upper East Side residence. He stopped at the front desk and handed the concierge a slip of paper containing my parents' names and apartment number (my parents had written down their information for him earlier because they knew that he couldn't speak English well enough to tell the concierge where we lived). Security was tight in our building; residents must personally approve all visitors before they could enter the elevator. The concierge called us on our closed-circuit TV phone that rested by our front door. Whenever somebody wanted to visit us, the concierge would call us and a live video of the visitor waiting at the front desk would display on the phone's monitor. As soon as I picked up the phone that evening, I saw a black and white video of Grandpa Yao holding a bag of Chinese food. The concierge asked me over the phone, "Do you want to send him up?" I told him yes, and within minutes, Grandpa Yao rang our doorbell.
As soon as we welcomed him into our apartment, he gave us his usual friendly smile and handed us a plastic bag containing boxes of Chinese food that he had bought for us in Chinatown. He was wearing an old baseball cap with nondescript sweater and jeans. He told us that the doormen had escorted him to a special elevator, and he sounded extremely excited about his elevator ride. He recounted the story loudly in Chinese as we sat around the dinner table eating Peking Duck and fried noodles: "After the nice man at the desk called you, he told me to follow the other man to the back of the building. I passed by the elevators near the lobby and saw several people waiting there. The man led me to an elevator in the back that was all empty. I didn't have to wait at all! Haha! Those other people had to wait but I didn't! What did you guys say to the man at the desk? How come I got to ride in the special elevator?"
My parents quietly smiled at each other when they heard Grandpa Yao's story, but I didn't understand what was so funny until after he had left. Back in the lobby, the concierge saw that Grandpa Yao was a shabbily-dressed Asian man who was carrying a large bag filled with Styrofoam boxes and pungent-smelling food. He naturally assumed that Grandpa Yao was a Chinese food delivery man coming to bring food to us. The standard policy for delivery men was that they were supposed to take the service elevator in the back of the building. The wealthy residents did not want to ride in the same elevator as working-class laborers. Grandpa Yao's wait-free "special elevator" was actually the service elevator assigned to mechanics, servicemen, and food delivery personnel.
Grandpa Yao sincerely believed that we had put in a good word for him over the phone so that he received better treatment than the residents by not having to wait for the regular elevator. In fact, he was marked as a lower-class citizen simply because of the way that he presented himself. I now understood why my parents just smiled and said to Grandpa Yao, "Oh really? Special elevator! Haha, that's funny," and then quickly changed the subject. They couldn't bear to tell Grandpa Yao the truth that he had been discriminated against based upon his looks. They saw how genuinely happy he was to come see us and to have the opportunity to take the special elevator. They didn't want to ruin his jovial mood or to hurt his pride.
It wasn't until after he had left that my parents cracked up in laughter and let me in on the joke. It was a bittersweet moment. My parents did not feel sorry for Grandpa Yao, though. They could laugh because they admired his good spirit and happy nature. They knew that Grandpa Yao didn't need their pity or sympathy. He was from a different world, even though he lived only a few miles away from our apartment, a world where everybody looked like mechanics or janitors or delivery men. My parents understood that appearances were everything in the rich, superficial world that we had temporarily entered for the year.