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He’s Happy His Life Has Its Ups and Downs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ruben Pardo has spent 11 hours a day for the last 22 years in a 6-foot-by-8-foot cubicle, and he is not unhappy about it. Pardo is an elevator operator par excellence, a man you can honestly describe as dedicated to his work.

The tenants of the Wilshire Tower (the old Desmonds Building) at 5514 Wilshire Blvd. on the Miracle Mile--architects, gallery owners, fashion designers, screenwriters, MTV producers--can attest to his dedication. Monday through Saturday, Pardo delivers them up to their offices and studios, and down to the lobby at the end of the day. He has not missed a day of work in 22 years.

Elevator operators are an almost-extinct breed in Los Angeles. In downtown Los Angeles, the Oviatt and Bradbury buildings are among the handful that still have manual passenger cars. Elisha Graves Otis introduced his invention at the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition in New York, astonishing spectators by rising to the top of the elevator shaft, then cutting the cable. His innovative safety hook, basically the same device that modern elevators rely on today, broke his descent.

“Safer than stairs,” the Otis Co. boasted of its product over the years.

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Pardo, 56, is a trim figure dressed neatly in jacket and tie, his dark hair combed straight back. He exhibits the suave demeanor of a diplomat, expert at jokes, small talk and the virtues of discretion. The professionals in the building see him as an extension of their own businesses.

“He’s the first person our clients see,” says Bradley Wigor of Helios Productions. “Ruben considers it his job to make the building more productive. He’s helping L.A. by taking us to work. He’s ecstatic when the building is completely occupied. We’re his family, and when we’re all here, his family is all working.”

The Wilshire Building, an eight-story tower set on a two-story base, was designed by L.A. architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood (who also designed Terminal Annex and Yosemite’s Ahwanhee Hotel) and completed in 1929, when the Miracle Mile shopping district was hyped as the “Fifth Avenue of the West.” The exterior features a unique combination of zigzag Moderne and Streamline architecture. The lobby--with its gray, black and white terrazzo floors, ornate chandeliers, Art Deco peacocks etched on the doors of the old Llewellyn elevator, and Pardo--invites one into a graceful era in urban history.

Susan Parr and Lisa Nugent are principals in Reverb Productions, an image and design firm.

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Says Nugent, “Ruben has respect for everyone who comes in that elevator. Even though they may be contentious or mean or whatever. He’s always responsible in a genteel manner, like an old soul.”

And this from Parr: “He’ll take you up and down. At the bottom floor, he says, ‘From here the choice is up to you.’ That always struck me as rather profound.”

Born in Mexico City to parents from Barcelona and Madrid, Pardo grew up in Chicago--that great city of elevator operators. The South Side world he inhabited as a teenager was straight out of “West Side Story.” Those were the days, he says, “when the bad guys wore leather. The rest of us were good.” His father, a steelworker, took his three kids out of school for four weeks each winter.

“We used to say, ‘Let’s go West!’ We did it every year. My old man wanted to give us a good memory.”

The vacations usually ended in Pacoima, where Pardo’s grandmother lived.

“All our conversation at the dinner table was about how beautiful California was. We’d say, ‘Why don’t we move there some day?’ ”

Pardo began operating elevators 40 years ago in Chicago and Gary, Ind.

“I’ve been working all my life,” he explains. “I’m the oldest in the family. My father depended on me to help. My first job was part-time, I was a paper boy for about seven years. . . . Then when I got to 17, I became an elevator operator.”

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He attended barber college in Chicago and tried barbering for few years, but he realized the elevator business was his true calling.

“It doesn’t bother me. I don’t get dizzy,” he explains, adding with a mischievous grin, “I was born to go up and down.”

Before he came to his current job, he operated lifts at several venues downtown: the Ross Loose Medical Center, the old Bullocks department store, the Roslyn Hotel, the King Edward Hotel. On holidays at the hotels, he learned to pinch hit as a switchboard operator, a desk clerk and a housekeeper.

None of those jobs was as exciting as his current assignment at the Wilshire Tower, which rents to a creative clientele; among them, art dealer Doug Christmas’ Ace Gallery.

“Through Ace Gallery,” Pardo explains, “I get to meet movie stars. They stand right next to me: Robert Wagner, Mick Jagger, Farrah Fawcett. Sylvester Stallone came to an opening at Ace. I didn’t even know it was Sylvester Stallone. I told him I loved his boots. He said, ‘Don’t tell nobody, but they’re made of real crocodile.’ ” Pee-wee Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, used to have an office on the fifth floor. “We got along well. His name is Reubens, and my name is Ruben.”

In addition to operating the elevator, Pardo takes packages, screens visitors and keeps an eye out for potential troublemakers. Unlike the days when you could spot a bad guy by his leather coat, nowadays, he says, “We don’t know who’s bad or who’s good. We have to be more alert.” He analyzes people just by talking to them, and he prides himself on his accuracy.

“I started from the bottom a long time ago. I learned right away how the public is. Since I know the public very well, I judge the whole world as the good, the bad and the ugly.”

He’s learned how to deal firmly with those who do not belong in the building.

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“But I have never felt threatened, because officially I know myself very well. I don’t feel threats from nobody because I don’t feel fear inside of myself. The only fear that I have is against God, against what I cannot see. But as long as I can see you, I have no fear of you.”

Pardo lives in the Pico/Fairfax area with his wife, “a California girl,” he says affectionately, and his 16-year-old son, who likes computers and dreams of becoming a detective, and two cats. His 85-year-old father also lives in L.A. On holidays, the extended family gathers in Puente Hills, where “we make a barbecue and we dance and we cry and we laugh and we are sociable with each other like every family.”

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On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, Pardo’s elevator is suddenly overwhelmed by the arrival of a busload of architectural historians touring Art Deco landmarks.

“We’ve got a full house,” he shouts, securing the heavy metal doors in front of his passengers. At each stop, he lines up the elevator and the floor of the building with the accuracy of a Zen archer.

“I have driven elevators for the past 40 years,” he says with pride, “and I have never had an accident. I have a clean record.” He pauses. “Put that in your paper!”

In an era when job satisfaction is hardly commonplace, Pardo’s delight in his chosen work can seem, well, startling. What is his secret?

“Don’t think anything negative about your job,” he advises. “Just concentrate.” Boredom is never a problem. “When I’m working, I concentrate on the machine 100%. Otherwise, I read the paper, I talk to everybody, I sing.”

Pardo’s work ethic has inspired several of the creative souls who have passed through Wilshire Tower. One of them was a Swiss filmmaker named Urs Baur, who lives in Topanga Canyon. “Ruben,” Baur’s nine-minute film, won a prize at the 1994 independent film festival in Lucarno, Switzerland.

“I was full of questions about my film career,” Baur explains, “wondering how to make films, about what makes people tick. Then I met Ruben. He’s spent all these years in the same box, and he has that inner peace that we’re all searching for.”

To the tenants of the Wilshire Tower, Pardo is indispensable; he’s as much the resident philosopher as the elevator man.

“An earthquake can come any place in the world,” says Pardo in Baur’s poetic documentary, “and if it’s your turn, you’re gone. When it’s my turn, I’m going to take it like a man. You’re not supposed to think about negative perspectives. I’m a very positive man. If God wills it, I’m going to die in the elevator. But that’s not the point. The point is, do you love your life? Are you dedicated to what you’re doing? See, that’s what you have to ask yourself. If you cannot answer that, then you should find another career.”


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