Before he took the doorman position 18 years ago, Mr. Santorelli worked in the building as a porter and handyman for 10 years, enjoying the opportunity to tinker whenever he had down time. Earlier, he was the assistant floral designer at the St. Regis Hotel, but left when salaries were cut.
An East Harlem native, Mr. Santorelli remembers his mother’s drawing of a tiny bird on a branch and the question that she posed to him, “Did you see the bird fly?” In his young head, the bird grew feathers and took off, he said. Soon, he was drawing, too.
“If you wanted to go to the Boys Club early in the morning, you could go to the art room,” he recalled. “A German ex-paratrooper named Ralph gave me a huge piece of paper and one direction: ‘Do something.’ ”
These days, when Mr. Santorelli is not in the Lenox House foyer, spending time with his five children and five grandchildren or recycling treasures, he views New York, and his life, through a camera lens. Taking photographs as he walks — sometimes 20,000 steps a day — he said that art provides the freedom to see the world the way one wants to. “I’m 73 and everything is new.”
Marlon Moreira, 49, splits his duties at 320 East 72nd Street in Manhattan: On some days, he’s a handyman in khakis, on others a doorman in a black Pershing cap. He was just 17 when he moved to the Bronx from Ecuador. His parents had left him with grandparents eight years before. “It created a kind of anger in me,” he said. “I remember seeing paintings by Frida Kahlo and that was my escape from being angry. I just focused myself and painted.”
Mr. Moreira pulls the 1930s-era scissor gate shut and sends the service elevator a flight down to his handyman base of operations. Above the lift’s brass wall panel, he has taped a photo of the eldest of his three sons, superimposed upon an American flag. “He did three tours in Iraq,” said Mr. Moreira, ratcheting open the gate. “He’s O.K.”
In the basement, a tidy maze of halls and doorways, an image of another American flag, roughed up with sandpaper, hangs over a desk. “I brought the paint from home and worked on it during a break. Sometimes, when it’s a real heavy day, I might go in the back and sketch a little. I wish I had 30 hours a day and not 24.” Intricate abstract drawings in marker lean against a wall in a packed closet.
Apartment building salaries pay for rent, health care and raising families. For these artists, they also pay for musical instruments and paint brushes and canvases. Most do not earn much money from their art, if any, but they cling to the same ambitions that they had when they were young.
Julius Gaston, 58, a porter at three of Argo Real Estate’s rental buildings on 83rd Avenue in Kew Gardens, Queens, is a painter who works in acrylics and pencil. He has sold his still lifes, landscapes and figures for as much as $1,800, but relies on his regular paycheck. Mr. Gaston has taken care of the property’s three buildings for 11 years.
“I make sure to do a great job, so the flow of money isn’t interrupted, but the art is always on my mind,” he said. “All day, I think about how to mix the colors to get the look, so when I’m mopping the floor or taking out the garbage, I think of those things.”
He paints for about three hours each night, after work, sometimes in the basement workshop that comes with his day job. “To put a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, oh, it’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s the most fantastic thing.”
The notion that the creative process never ends is not lost on these particular artists. Striving is inherent in their outlook and seems to galvanize their discipline, their disposition and their optimism.
“I am always looking for inspiration,” Mr. Gaston said. “I have not done my best work yet.”