It was a day like so many others, just another sunny day in Tampa. William Bradford waited for the elevator at the Bay Shore Retirement Village as he had done every morning this week. William was nothing if not punctual and the Bay Shore’s breakfast service began at 8:30, giving William time to go out for a short stroll to buy a copy of the Tampa Bay Times and the Wall Street Journal. Had it been Sunday, he would have added the New York Times, but today was Wednesday. William had his meals in the dining room, even though there was a kitchenette in his apartment. He was afraid that if he didn’t force himself to go out, he’d never leave the apartment at all.
William had accepted that this was his life, but he was not content with it. This was not where he expected to be at his age. He had expected to be very wealthy, with an apartment on 5th Avenue, a beach house in East Hampton, and a cabin in the Catskills. He had expected to have celebrated a golden anniversary with his wife and to be the patriarch of a dynasty of Bradfords. That had been the plan. But the plan had derailed.
Instead, he was thirty years divorced. His children called him occasionally, and he visited them once a year in their homes. He had had to sell the 5th Avenue apartment, the beach house and the cabin in order to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in a retirement village and have a small annuity to augment his social security income. As far as William was concerned, he had fallen far from his pre-war apartment and his Wall Street career. This was a relatively nice retirement village, but it was not what he had spent his life working for. William knew he had failed. Failure was the biggest sin he could imagine. The family and the life he was born into meant that success was expected and deserved.
A restrained ding announced the elevator. William stepped in to find the car already occupied. He smiled politely, but vaguely, at the man in the car’s corner. The other man looked quizzically back. William turned to the bank of buttons and pushed the one for the lobby, even though it was already lit up. He stared at the doors as they closed. He saw in his peripheral vision that the other man was still looking at him. The elevator had begun its descent when the man said, “Mr. Bradford. Sixth floor.”
William turned to look at the other man, who was grinning broadly, his eyes shining with genuine affection. William looked more closely at the man’s features. Could it be? It had been so long ago. Make the white hair jet black, take off a few pounds, make the face smoother, and put him in a fancy uniform with epaulettes and brass buttons, wearing a brimless hat.
“Raymond?” asked William, “Is it you?”
“It is!” said the man. “What a small world it is, Mr. Bradford. Do you live here? It’s a lovely place, isn’t it?” He and William had reached the lobby.
William looked around the lobby and saw the clean and well-designed space with fresh eyes. There were little seating groups for chatting or reading. The dining room to the left was bright and cheerfully decorated. The staff was friendly. It wasn’t bad at all, really.
“It is a nice place. I moved in last week,” said William, and added, “Raymond, I think you needn’t call me Mr. Bradford. My name is William. Actually, my friends call me Bill.”
It had been over sixty years since anyone had called him Bill, but William wanted Raymond to. He liked the name Bill, and he had always liked Raymond in the years they had known each other.
Raymond smiled, “All right, Bill,” he said, “You can call me Ray. You know, I never knew your first name all those years, and you probably didn’t know my last name. It’s Harris. Ray Harris. Times sure have changed since then, haven’t they?”
“They have at that,” said William. “It’s nice to meet you properly.”
They stepped out of the elevator, and William held out his hand.
“I guess we’ll see each other around,” said Ray, shaking hands, nodding and turning toward the activity room on the right.
William proceeded on his way to get the papers. As he walked, he remembered when he first saw Ray.
William was doing well at the brokerage firm and had bought an apartment a few months before for his tiny family in a fashionable building on 5th Avenue. It was 1965, William was 27 years old, a graduate of Princeton, married with one child and another on the way. It was September, his birthday, and William was rushing home to change so that he and Emily could go out and celebrate.
When the elevator doors opened in the lobby of his building, there was a new operator, a Black man about William’s age. He stepped inside.
“Where’s Gerald?” asked William.
“He’s retired, sir. Which floor would you like?” asked the operator.
“Oh, yes. Of course. I’d heard he was going to retire. Sixth floor,” said William.
“Yes, sir,” said the operator, closing the doors and starting the car on its way up.
“What’s your name?” asked William.
“Raymond, sir,” replied the operator.
“I’m Mr. Bradford,” said William, admiring Raymond’s spiffy new uniform. It was fancier than Gerald’s had been. Raymond even had a carnation pinned to his lapel.
“Is the flower part of the new dress code?” asked William as the elevator rose steadily.
“Oh, no sir,” replied Raymond, “It’s my birthday. My wife pinned the flower on me for luck in the new job.”
“Well, what do you know?” said William. “It’s my birthday today, too. Happy birthday to us.”
Raymond smiled shyly as he brought the elevator to a smooth halt on the sixth floor. There was an art to running an elevator. Raymond’s timing was perfect as he leveled the elevator to the floor.
“Here you are, Mr. Bradford, sixth floor,” said Raymond as he opened the doors. “Many happy returns of the day, sir.”
Bill smiled as he thought of the fifteen years that Raymond had greeted him each morning and evening. He had always exchanged pleasantries with Raymond, even giving him a cigar when Emily had given birth to their second child. Emily had told him that just wasn’t done. Bill never really cared about what was or wasn’t done. His parents had been like Emily, too, always very proper, always telling him as a child to keep separate from “the help.” Bill liked “the help.” He enjoyed getting milk and cookies in the afternoon in the kitchen with Mrs. Barry and he delighted in picking flowers for his mother in the garden at the summer house, carefully snipping only those flowers that Cedric, the gardener, told him he could cut. He’d take them to the kitchen and arrange them with Mrs. Barry’s help and they’d put them in the dining room. His mother would tell him not to bother Mrs. Barry or Cedric at their work, but Mrs. Barry and Cedric both told him in secret that he wasn’t bothering them at all. At prep school, too, Bill preferred the company of the scholarship boys. Townies, they were called, although New York City could hardly be called a town. His parents frowned upon these friendships, but never forbid them. They grudgingly accepted the fact that their only son seemed to have been born an egalitarian. They did, however, refuse to call him Bill, like his friends at school did, and he was William at home. Emily also only called him William and so the name Bill faded away. But, in the elevator, seeing Ray Harris, William decided he wanted to be Bill again. He bought his papers and turned back to walk home, his step livelier than it had been in a long while. He wondered if Ray was still a big reader. One evening, soon after Ray had started as the elevator operator, Bill had noticed a paperback thriller on his stool in the car’s corner. Bill was also a fan of thrillers and said so. Throughout the years, Ray would recommend to Bill new authors he had discovered at the library, and Bill would give Ray his own purchased paperbacks after he had read them. Bill meant these as gifts, but Ray always returned them after reading them. Bill realized that this was a point of pride with Ray and so he never insisted that Ray keep them.
Raymond walked into the activity room to set up for the AA meeting scheduled for after breakfast. Times sure had changed. Who would have thought back in 1965 that a Black elevator operator and a Mayflower descendant would someday live in the same community? Mr. Bradford—Bill—had differed from the rest of the folks who lived in that building, even way back then. Most of the other tenants considered Ray to be invisible, just a cog in the mechanism of the elevator. But Bill had treated Ray with respect, always greeting him and wishing him a good day or evening. They talked, if only for a minute, about the news of the day or how the Yankees had played that day. Bill even offered Ray his condolences on the death of Dr. King in 1968, which Ray had truly appreciated. Bill had understood the enormity of that loss. He had been ahead of his time, thought Ray.
Ray had had the elevator operator job for 15 years until 1980, when the building upgraded to user-operated elevators. Bill had known that this was in the planning stages and had told Ray about it, so that his firing would not come as a shock. Bill was the one who suggested Ray use the GI bill to pay for a training course for a new career. He had entered the elevator car one evening with a folder full of information on how Ray could change careers, since being an elevator operator was a dying job. Ray had taken his advice and enrolled in an elevator repair and maintenance course. Being an elevator technician in New York City was a good living, and Ray had raised three boys and two girls, who had all gone to college. He had never seen Bill after he left the 5th Avenue apartment building. That was just how things were then. Bill and Ray could never have been friends. They could only be Raymond and Mr. Bradford. Ray shook his head at how ridiculous that was as he put the last chair into place and made his way to the dining room.
Ray was sitting in a sunny spot of the dining room, drinking his first cup of coffee, when Bill entered, newspapers folded under his arm. Ray waved him over and Bill smiled, crossed the room, and stood there.
“Sit down,” said Ray. “We have a lot of years to catch up on.”
A frown passed quickly over Bill’s face, but he sat.
“Tell me about your life,” said Bill. “I often wondered how you were doing. Did you finish the elevator repair course?”
“I did,” said Ray. “That was a good idea of yours. And I thank you now. I put five children through college with that job. Well, with the help of some scholarships, too.”
“How wonderful!” Bill said. “Sounds like you did well for yourself. I’m pleased to hear that.”
“How about you?” asked Ray. “I thought about you on our birthday in 2001. That was a terrible day. I prayed you weren’t working in one of the towers.”
“No,” said Bill, “I was living on Long Island by then, doing day trading from home. How about you?”
“I was the boss by then,” said Ray. “I was in an office way uptown. I actually had the contract for the twin towers’ elevators, but luckily none of my guys were there that day.”
“You were the boss? Worked your way up, then? Good for you,” said Bill.
“I bought the business from the previous owners when they retired,” said Ray, grinning. “You taught me that. Always look for the opportunity in the misfortune.”
“I taught you that?” asked Bill. “When? We saw each other for two minutes each day. How could I have taught you anything at all?”
Ray looked at Bill and laughed.
“I learned a lot from all the tenants in the building. Whether they wanted me to know it or not, I knew a lot about them, too. I knew who was having an affair, whose kid was flunking out of Yale, who had money problems. People talk in front of the elevator operator. You always treated me like a human being. Not everybody did back then. Not everybody does now. You warned me when I was about to lose my job and you had a solution for the problem. I don’t know that I’d have thought of the GI bill. Couldn’t really think straight. I was so stunned I was going to be out of work. I had kids to feed. You turned my problem into an opportunity. And then, in 1990, when the company I worked for was going to shut down because the owners couldn’t find a buyer, I remembered how you had taken my previous misfortune and turned it around and I went looking for an opportunity. I talked to the owners and made a deal to buy them out. A grant from a minority business group and a low-interest loan from the bank were the solutions. I built a successful business and then I handed it over to my daughter when I retired at seventy. I’ve been here for about ten years.”
Bill looked down at his coffee. He hadn’t realized that he had had such an effect on Ray’s life.
“Ray, I think you’re giving me too much credit. I was just trying to help. You had been an outstanding employee for fifteen years. You deserved more than you were getting from the co-op board. In fact, I was furious with them, but they outvoted me on giving you a severance package. You deserved at least that much,” said Bill.
Ray smiled. “And so you went out of your way to find me a solution. But tell me about your life.”
A dark look passed over Bill’s face. He scowled.
“My life has not been as successful as yours. My fault. Greed blinded me,” said Bill.
Ray looked confused. “Hard to believe,” he said.
“Oh, it’s true enough. I lost a lot of money for a lot of clients because of the Wall Street crash in 1987. Lost my job, too,” said Bill.
“Oh, I see,” said Ray, “Yes, that was a bad time for Wall Street. But you weren’t the only one. The crash seemed to take everyone by surprise.”
Bill laughed sardonically and shook his head.
“It shouldn’t have taken any of us by surprise. All the signs were there, but we ignored them because we were greedy and arrogant,” he said, “That’s why after the crash, after I got fired for losing so much of my client’s money, I concentrated on day trading with just my own money. I had survived the crash better than most because I had diversified my own holdings more broadly than those of my clients.”
Bill shook his head again. “Oh, sure, the clients were begging me to sink their money into high-risk investments because of the big returns, but it was my job as a broker to keep them dealing in reality and I didn’t. I let them buy up the world. Who cared? I got my commission. And I thought I could do no wrong. I was badly mistaken, as was everyone else, and it all came tumbling down like the house of cards that it was. It followed the same pattern as the Crash in 1929. You could have plotted it on a graph and it would have overlapped almost perfectly. But, we thought we were smarter than that. We thought we would know when to stop. It’s like an addiction, though. You don’t know when to stop.”
Ray nodded his head. “An addiction. Yes, I can see how it could be that way.”
Bill looked at Ray and wondered whether to tell him all of it. It was so shameful, even now, after all these years. He decided to get it all out and be as honest as possible about it. If it meant that the only man left in the world who respected him would no longer think highly of him, then so be it. Bill sighed.
“I also lost my wife,” he said. “She divorced me soon after the crash. I don’t blame her. We had to sell a lot of assets and her life was nothing like it had been. She had only ever been my wife. That was how it worked back when we got married. I provided, and she made a home. She chose me. She put all her eggs in my basket and I let the basket fall to the ground and I broke all the eggs. I gave her the apartment on 5th and I moved to the house in East Hampton year round. Emily remarried, but I never did. My lifestyle wasn’t extravagant out on the Island. There wasn’t any social life to speak of three seasons out of four and when the summer folks came, I’d see old friends and acquaintances and it seemed like a life of sorts.”
Ray opened his mouth to say something placating to Bill, but Bill had more to say.
“So, that’s why I was in East Hampton on September 11th, 2001,” said Bill. “And that’s how I messed up the second time. Apparently, I hadn’t learned my lesson. What did you say I taught you? How to find the opportunity in the misfortune? Well, I found the opportunity for me in the misfortune of others.”
Seeing Ray about to interrupt, Bill said, “No. I did. In the aftermath of 9/11, there were a lot of investors left without advisors, so I ended up with about 50 clients as well as myself. And do you know what I did, Ray? I advised them to invest in Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund, the largest Ponzi scheme in financial history.”
“Hoo boy!” said Ray, “Oh, no. Did you and your clients lose everything?”
“No,” said Bill, “I advised them to put only 10 to 20 percent of their investment money into Bernie’s fund. And I bet you’re thinking that was smart, that I had learned from the first time to better advise my clients. But you’d be wrong. Greed, again. There had been whispers in the financial world about Bernie’s fund since 1998. No one could truly believe the returns. They were too consistently high. Again, we all should have known. And I didn’t follow my own advice. I put half my money with Bernie. And my clients and I lost it all in 2008.”
Bill sighed and shook his head. “At least none of my clients went bankrupt because of my advice. But now I couldn’t afford to live on the Island anymore. It was well past time to retire, anyway. I was old and tired.”
Ray looked at Bill and said, “I still think you’re being too hard on yourself. You must have ended up okay to afford to live here. This place is not a dump, Bill.”
“No, it’s not a dump. It’s quite nice. And the reason that I can live here is that I benefited from someone else’s misfortune, again. When Emily got the apartment in our divorce, it was for her lifetime and it would revert to me if she pre-deceased me. She died in early 2009. Cancer. She was a widow by then. I sold the apartment and the house on Island, also another house up in the Catskills. It gave me enough to invest in an annuity—a safe one—that allows me to live here.”
Bill poured another cup of coffee from the carafe on the table. He took a sip.
“So, that’s my sad story. Yours is a story of success and mine a story of failure,” said Bill.
Ray looked long and hard at the man across the table from him. Bill’s story of his life didn’t jibe with the way Ray remembered him. Ray was an excellent judge of character. All those years in elevators, either running them or maintaining them, being invisible to the surrounding people while he did his job, all the whispered fights he overheard, the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath at 8 AM, the black eye badly concealed with makeup, all that noticing of small details in an enclosed space had taught him a lot about human behavior. Ray concluded Bill had been wallowing in self-pity for much too long and needed a bit of help.
Bill looked back at Ray, expecting him to console him and tell him it wasn’t his fault, or worse, look at him with disgust. But Ray just looked matter of fact. He tilted his head a bit, as if sizing Bill up.
“Boo hoo,” said Ray.
Bill’s head snapped back. “What? What do you mean?” Bill asked.
Ray sat up straighter, “I mean stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. “You made mistakes in your life. Everybody does. Right now, in the meeting room across the hall, there are a bunch of folks who made some mistakes much bigger than yours. I made mistakes bigger than yours. In fact, I’m supposed to be in that room, but that’s okay. I’ll catch a meeting tonight.”
“You’re in AA?” asked Bill.
“Yes,” said Ray, “I started drinking too much after my wife died, and it took a few years to find my way again. I did it with the help of those people over there. I have to tell you, sober alcoholics are some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. But, what I’m trying to say is that you can rebuild a life. You can do the wrong thing, you can fail, you can hit rock bottom. And then you can stand up again. Doesn’t matter how many times you fall. What matters is how many times you get up and dust yourself off.”
“I’m 80-years-old, Ray,” said Bill. “How much more life do I have?”
Ray sighed, “You know what the biggest mantra is in AA? ‘One day at a time.’ It’s a good way to live your life. You may as well take one day at a time because that’s the way the Good Lord gives them to you. When’s the last time you helped someone else?”
“I try to keep to myself,” Bill admitted.
“Well, stop doing that. It isn’t working,” said Ray. “Stop keeping to yourself and get out there and do some good. Best way to help yourself is to help someone else.”
Ray was right. Bill smiled. He remembered all the times that Ray’s down-to-earth cheerfulness had lifted his own mood. Sometimes he’d enter the lobby of his building in the evening, moody after a bad day at the brokerage firm, and by the time he’d exited the elevator car on the sixth floor, he’d be smiling.
Bill felt hopeful for the first time in a long while.
Ray stood up.
“Bill, I have to go fold up the chairs in the activity room. It’s my turn to do that. And then, I have to set out tables and chairs for the bridge club. Shall I see you here tomorrow for breakfast?”
“Yes,” said Bill, “I’ll be here.”
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser