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Elevator operator's overriding story: joy

The loft-like offices at 5514 Wilshire Blvd. are largely the domain of the young, who work in jeans and T-shirts at flat-panel screens.

They are Web branders, search engine optimizers, e-tailers of underground clothing lines. They do the virtual jobs that became jobs only recently.

Ruben Pardo works in the building, too, in a job that dates to the late 19th century.

Pardo operates one of the last manual elevators in Los Angeles.

The young people are not easily impressed — but something about Pardo awes them.

Each morning, the 69-year-old arrives at the Art Deco tower in wool trousers, a button-down shirt and a sweater vest.

Photos: Elevator operator still on the ride of his life

Six days a week, for just over half his life, he has been steering the same 6-foot-by-8-foot car up and down the same 11 floors.

"He's been in this elevator longer than I've been on the planet," said Mani Nabavi of digitalgravel.com on the fifth floor, who turned 35 just after Pardo's 35th anniversary.

Young people come. Young people go. Eleven hours each weekday and nine hours each Saturday, Pardo greets them warmly and transports them to and from airy work spaces with concrete floors and views of the ocean, downtown and the Hollywood sign.

His cushioned, charcoal-gray cross trainers put bounce in his step. His voice dances with the lilt of an old-time 78.

"Hello, Matt!" he calls out, stretching each syllable. "Good mooor-ning, Victor!"

"How's life?" they ask.

"Up and down," he quips.

Pardo lives in El Sereno — three bus rides and a subway trip away. He is in the elevator when the young people show up and when they leave.

Again and again, he goes through the motions — yanking the heavy outer doors, stretching the safety gate, steering the car while counting the floors as doors flash by.

And day in, day out, this small man with thin salt-and-pepper hair exudes a joy that leaves his passengers marveling.

Luis Zavala, a 33-year-old Web graphic designer, works at the Ace Gallery on 2. Sometimes, he said, he drags his way into the day.

As for Pardo, "It's like a glass of fresh water every morning. I don't know how he does it, but every day for him just seems to be a bright opportunity for something."

::

"Good morning, Saaaa-mi!"

"Good morning, Ruben."

"How are you, Sami?"

"Good. Yourself?"

"Wonderful, wonderful! Nice to see you. It's good to live another day!"

::

Pardo's elevator is a thing of beauty.

Video: Elevator operator is still on the ride of his life

Peacocks preen among tropical fronds on its verdigris outer doors. Inside is honeyed wood, carved with more fronds and flowers.

The elevator was new in 1929, when the building opened. It was the first major retail tower on the Miracle Mile and still sports the large sign of its long-gone flagship, Desmond's clothing store.

When Art Deco buffs wander into the Wilshire Tower lobby to admire the terrazzo floors and pendant lights, Pardo proudly shows it off.

"It was the high-rise of that era," he says. "Then, a little bit at a time, they started building buildings, you know.... It starts with a desert and then eventually it grows into a city."

On a vertical panel in the elevator, a numbered button lights when the car is called. But summonses that once rang like California mission bells now have a modern, impatient buzz.

Below the buttons is a brass lever called a car switch, which Pardo glides along an arc. Left goes up. Right goes down. Slow and steady levels the car with the floor where it stops.

"The elevator has to be straight like this," he says, stopping perfectly on 4. "And that's what you call professional, because that's what I am. If I get it wrong, I have to say, 'Please step down,' or 'Step up and watch your step.' But 99% of the time, I always hit it right."

He won't say how much he makes. That's for him to know. But he loves his work so much, he says, he rarely takes a vacation beyond the big legal holidays, which he sees as treats. "Can you imagine, not working for 11 hours and getting paid?"

He's delighted, too, by the elevator's new smoky-blue leather "executive chair," presented to him by the building owner for his 35 years there.

Pardo first "took a chance driving an elevator" years ago at the Rosslyn Hotel. In his day, he operated many, including one at Bullocks Wilshire. For a stretch, he says, he had three jobs at once.

But long before he made an elevator move, he was a small boy studying others doing it. "That's when I started to pick up the vibes of how to drive the elevators," he says.

You watch and you learn and you make life your classroom.

"By observing, you can learn a lot of things. You can learn how to be an electrician, a gasoline attendant, a parking attendant …," he says. "For the hard stuff, like plumbing and doctors and lawyers and all that high career, you have to go to school. But if you observe, you can teach yourself a lot."

::

In the world according to Ruben Pardo, life is what you make of it.

It is small only if you see it as small. It is as big as you dream it.

"Life is wonderful if you look at the positive side," he says. "I try to pick up the high points."

He was born in Mexico City, the son of a shop owner. But the shops went bust and the family went north, settling in Chicago when he was 7.

His father worked in the steel mills. Still, money was tight. So at 9, Pardo became a newsboy — calling out "Extra, extra, read all about it!" after school.

"I learned the punches of life at a very early age," he says.

Video: Elevator operator is still on the ride of his life

In class, Catholic nuns taught him "to be a good soldier" and obey. But his formal education ended after the ninth grade, when he got a full-time job to secure his younger siblings' futures. Before his family moved to East Los Angeles in 1962, he found work where he could, painting garages, shoveling snow.

"I was like a sacrifice," he says — one that paid off for others.

His brother became a public defender. One sister is an accountant. The other retired as a pharmacist assistant.

"Everybody had a good position and guess what? They all got houses and three cars, four cars in the garage. And I'm the one with the little apartment," Pardo says.

That's the small version of Pardo's life: "But we are happy. Me and my wife, we are really happy.... As long as you're happy, as long as you are full of happiness, that's all that matters."

::

Mounted on a wall of the elevator car is a black rotary phone.

It brrrng-brrrngs when Pardo's wife, Trudy, checks in.

"That will be wonderful, my dear," he coos to her one morning when she tells him she's cooking a surprise dinner.

"I'm looking forward to that. I love you, my dear."

Pardo enjoys a surprise.

So each day Trudy keeps secret the sandwich she's packed him.

Salami? Bologna? Ham? He never knows until the first bite.

He and Trudy married in 1972. They have one son, 29, and one granddaughter, 11.

Trudy, retired from Carl's Junior, keeps the house and cooks the food.

And on his day off, Pardo celebrates her.

They ride the bus around, "MTA cruising." They go to a restaurant.

"I take her out every Sunday so she can relax," he says. "That's my personal gift to her until God takes us away."

On Saturday night, the two choose their Sunday spot. It could be Denny's or IHOP or Norm's.

Each week until they decide, it's a delicious surprise.

::

The young people in the building have led big lives already.

They've been to college. They've seen the world.

Recently, two of them got married.

Tracy and Josh Ryan, the founders of Jett Media Group on 6, were taking off for their honeymoon — to London, Ibiza, Barcelona and Paris.

In the elevator, Pardo wished Josh well.

Pardo has seen the world, too, he says — when he was young. Each Christmas, his father would drive the family from Chicago to Mexico or California.

Heading west, they took Route 66.

"Some of the states we saw end-to-end. Some of them we just saw in parts.... In Arizona and New Mexico, we saw a lot of those rocks, in different shapes, different colors, like in the old cowboy and Indian movies. To us kids, it was like looking at a dream," he says.

All day, as he rides up and down, he lets his happy memories roll around in his head.

Chicago, a place so cold "you have to dress like bears." The windy, rainy day he first spoke to Trudy at a bus stop after gathering her school papers, which had blown onto the street. The time he was in the elevator in an earthquake and "it swayed 20 to 30 times, can you imagine?"

"My mind is so full of all the adventures I've been through," he says.

They sustain him, as do life's daily surprises.

"I love my small, little world."

Video: Elevator operator is still on the ride of his life

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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