My Doorman is a Drone Man
That chopper buzzing by your building is probably his.
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE…
• Dept. of Trying So Hard: Lame Window Boxes
• Weird Trash Pile #1
• Feature: My Doorman is a Drone Man
DEPT. OF TRYING SO HARD
Lame Window Boxes
In my Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, some wealthy residents spend thousands on showy window box displays planted by a local professional who is, as it turns out, a former doctor from the Soviet Union.
Then there are the window boxes that are totally neglected. These are my favorites. While no one has bothered to care for them, they are hanging in there, and in some cases have even planted themselves, with touching results. Please don’t cry.
Weird Trash Heap #1
There’s litter, there’s regular trash, and then there’s the sidewalk trash pile that makes you say WTF?
This exquisite tableau was lurking at the corner of Clinton and Montague, in Brooklyn:
Yes, eyeglass cases and lemons. Something clearly went very wrong here. Or very right.
Please email me your trash pile finds and I’ll post them in a future issue: firstname.lastname@example.org
My Doorman is a Drone Man
When I interviewed my doorman John Santiago last week, I finally got to see what he keeps in his podium. It was very exciting. Paper towels, dog treats, bottles of Motrin, Excedrin and Tylenol, a notebook for writing important things.
“And I’ve been working on a rubber band ball for a few months,” he said. “Luckily I made friends with the mailman, so every day he comes through, he gives me a shitload of rubber bands. I started with one rubber band and now it’s this big.”
“I’m trying to make it the size of a soccer ball or a basketball at least,” he added.
Ah, the life of a doorman. Mr. Santiago, who is 40 years old, spends his days receiving packages, greeting residents and yes, opening the door. He’s good at his job. If you have a request, he’ll invariably respond, “Don’t worry, I gotchoo!” and he does. The residents in my 80-unit apartment building love him. Here he is with two of my favorite neighbors, Holly and Alfred:
Every afternoon, he greets my dog Minnie with a huge “HEY LOOK ATCHOO!!!” and gives her three treats.
I’ve been wondering about John for a while—I had feeling he’d done a lot before his doorman days. Turns out, he grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn and was a competitive boxer for eight years. Then, making use of his six-foot-five, 300-pound frame, he worked as bodyguard. “Do you know—?” he asked, naming a famous hip-hop star. “He’s an asshole, ‘scuze my language. I used to bodyguard his manager, who was another asshole. He was very full of myself and always got himself into a lot of trouble. It wasn’t an easy job.”
He later worked as a bouncer for seven years at Cielo, a hot nightclub in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. “It was very exciting,” he said. “I know it’s going to sound bad, but I liked the action. It’s a dangerous job, but it’s fun. And I was very good at it. I miss it a lot.”
He became a doorman in 2018 because it’s a union gig. With Service Employees Union International 32BJ—which includes 30,000 other NYC doormen, building supers, window cleaners, airport workers and security guards—he now earns $26.50 an hour and full benefits.
“So you made a little sacrifice for your family,” I said.
Mr. Santiago has six kids. While four oldest are off on their own, he still has two sons to support along with three cats, two dogs and a rabbit: “I have like a petting zoo.”
His life is fairly routine. But to fulfill his thirst for action and adventure he has a secret sideline: he’s a DRONE MAN. On his lunch break, he heads up to the building roof and spends an hour buzzing around the city. Wearing a set of goggles connected to a drone-mounted camera, it’s just like flying in the cockpit of a plane, he said. Last week he took me up with him.
He carries his gear in a camera bag. The two drones are clinging to the side of the bag, like spiders:
The black and green drone is a $2100 DJI FPV with a 2.5 mile range, which Mr. Santiago refers to as “the Green Hornet”. It can fly a mile high and reach speeds nearing 100 miles an hour. It has a GPS system programmed by the manufacturer so that if it flies out of range, it automatically returns, like a homing pigeon. It’s also programmed so it can’t fly into restricted areas —aka most of Manhattan. The whole borough is cordoned with FAA geofencing that does for drones what electric fences do for dogs.
Until recently, Mr. Santiago enjoyed taking the Green Hornet to the Brooklyn Promenade during his lunch break to chase ships cruising the East River. Those days are over. While he has an FAA-issued Remote Pilot Certificate, passersby insisted that his flights were illegal. “I had a lot of Karens—or Marens, male Karens bothering me,” he said. “They think I can’t fly in NYC. They’re telling me I can’t do this and can’t do that.”
The other chopper is a camera drone he built himself from $300 in parts purchased through online hobby shops. He learned how to design and program drones watching Youtube videos, of course. This is one is partially held together with duct tape. The battery is fastened on with a velcro strap.
“I call her Sucia,” he said. “It means ‘dirty’ in Spanish. Because as you can see, she’s dirty. She won’t stay clean.”
Sucia has no GPS, so if she flies out of range, she’ll just keep going. Mr. Santiago pilots her in the park when there aren’t many people around.
He gave me a Green Hornet demonstration flight, connecting his iPad to his goggles so I could share the view. The drone took off like mosquito, shot over a nearby church, then careened 90 miles per hour over Brooklyn Bridge Park, along the BQE and back east to Downtown Brooklyn.
“Oh my goodness!” I said. “Wow!” This is incredible!”
It whizzed around a bright red crane atop a skyscraper and stopped to hover at the roofline of a 20-story art deco office building to get a close-up of the wolf and cougar gargoyles. “No one ever sees these,” he said.
He never peeks in people’s windows, he promises: “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a creeper.”
Just buzzing around the rooftops is exhilarating enough. “I feel free,” he said. “To do what I want to do. I go where I want to go, fly how I want to fly.”
A minute later, I heard the high-pitch buzz of the drone just before it landed at our feet. Mr. Santiago loaned me his goggles so I could watch the replay. I had to hang on to a pole while I watched.
“Whoa this is so cool,” I said. “Whoa. Ohhhh. I’m going to throw up.”
Mr. Santiago has shot thousands of ariel videos all over New York City, which he posts on his Instagram page. And he now has a side hustle going, selling shots of NYC icons he shot with his drones.
He also gets hired by real estate brokers to take videos of apartment buildings, and by party planners to capture outdoor events.
But he has no intention of becoming a full-time professional drone man—he’d miss being a doorman.
“Have fun!” he said. “Honestly there’s a lot of of miserable people in this world. And if they had a little bit of fun they’d be so much better off. Live your life.”
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!