The Man in Front of the Door: Derrick James opens up about life as a doorman

By Carter Mohs
Medill Reports

Sitting comfortably behind his desk in the quiet lobby of the Streeter Apartments, just over a quarter-mile east of the Magnificent Mile, Derrick James greets residents and visitors with an infectious smile, as if he’s known them for years. Sometimes he has. Born and raised on the South Side, the 36-year-old switched four years ago from working the counter at his family’s dry cleaning business to manning the door. It’s a place where studios start at more than $1,500 per month. He likes his job because all he just needs to be himself both on the clock and off. Between catching up with residents and accepting food deliveries, James talked with me about the job.

Do you ever have a hard time transitioning between your work self and your personal self?

No, that’s just me in general. It’s weird to make eye contact with somebody and not speak.  I’ve been in customer service all my life. So just being nice comes naturally to me. Now, I do have to turn off the customer-service voice. You know, that’s not all 24 hours a day, but it comes in handy sometimes. But just being nice, that’s just natural. Here, I do it constantly. I mean, I don’t have to. Yeah, but to me it’s just weird to have people constantly walk up and not say something. Most of the time it is the same folks coming in and out, you know.

When you first started, what surprised you the most about this job?

How nice everybody was. You wouldn’t expect that. My first impression was like, “Wow, people with money,” so they can be kind of uppity or whatever but they’re cool, like, famous people working here and they’re just as cool as the folks I see on a regular basis.

Before you worked here, had you ever thought about what this job was like?

Only from watching TV. When you see shows like, out in New York, where you got guys standing up outside, you know, dress like they’re down in London. Even some of the fancier hotels around here, where you have guys that whistle for cabs, I always thought that that was all. That was what they did. They’re outside in the cold and all. I didn’t like that. 

So how long do you see yourself doing this?

My hours are cool. I work second shift so 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.five days a week so it allows me to still do other things. So I come here work and still have an outside life and do other things but I mean, it’s not bad. You get out what you put in. I’m nice to people and they’re nice back. If I sit here and not speak and look at people funny, they’re gonna not speak and look at me funny too. And then complain and then I’m gonna be outta here, so you know it’s not rocket science.

Who is your favorite resident?

I’ve been here to the point where me and the residents are cool. The building throws functions, and I come to the function in casual clothes. You’d be surprised, people don’t know me if I’m not dressed like this, in this funny-looking tie. But you know, everybody is my favorite.  They know what they’re supposed to do and I do what I’m supposed to, so we’re all happy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Derrick James sits at his desk in the Streeterville Apartments. (Carter Mohs/MEDILL)