When John Riley, a beloved doorman, died of a sudden heart attack several years ago, residents from his Upper West Side apartment building were shocked and saddened. One tenant posted a poem in the elevator, others attended his funeral in Harlem. But it was journalist Ed Grimm who started writing a reminiscence of the experience - which eventually evolved into the recently published childrenÕs book, The Doorman (Orchard Books $16.95).
ÒEveryone loved John,Ó recalls Grimm, who wrote the book shortly after RileyÕs death, then waited several years for a break in friend and illustrator Ted LewinÕs schedule to take on the project. Ò ItÕs really a tribute to all doormen and the job they do.Ó
Illustrated throughout with LewinÕs realistic and detailed watercolors, The Doorman features characters based on real people who live in the building at 86th Street and Riverside Drive; including a group of children, shown in one scene, rushing into the lobby with balloons. Bill, the night doorman who replaced Riley, is also incorporated into the story; as is Grimm himself who turns up as Mr. Ramirez, an avid jogger.
Recounting RileyÕs last day on the job, the story depicts John as the heart and soul of a busy apartment building. He helps elderly Mrs. Klein into a taxi, jokes with the children in the lobby, takes care of packages and mail, directs repair and delivery persons to their proper destinations, and even remembers young Nellie HarriganÕs birthday. The following day, John doesnÕt come to work and the tenants learn the sad news. The story concludes with residents both young and old remembering how much they loved him. ÒItÕs a shame John had such a bad heart,Ó says Bill, the bearer of the sad news. ÒHe did notÉ He had a good heart,Ó insists Nellie.
Since a parentÕs natural impulse is to shield children their from sorrow and grief, some might question the appropriateness of using death as subject matter. A first-time childrenÕs author, Grimm wondered about this as well, but was reassured by Ted Lewin, who has illustrated a number of childrenÕs books and received a Caldecott Honor in 1994 for Peppe the Lamplighter.
ÒWhy donÕt you turn it into a childrenÕs book,Ó he recalls Lewin suggesting to him. ÒKids can handle that these days.Ó
Since The Doorman was published this past fall, both author and illustrator have gotten to witness kids'reactions, having done a number of readings in New York City schools. ÒWe preface our readings by saying, the happy things are real and the sad things are real,Ó says Grimm. ÒWhen we read the books at school, theyÕre saddened; but it triggers anecdotes and stories of their own, and of relatives who have died.Ó
Though he is now retired as a business journalist, Grimm is working on several other ideas for childrenÕs books.
ÒThe nicest thing has been the reaction in my building and in the neighborhood,Ó he notes. ÒEveryone loves the book and remembers John.Ó
Ed Grimm and Ted Lewin will read and sign books at the Bank Street Bookstore, 112th Street and Broadway, Thursday April 19 at 3:30pm. For further information, call (212) 678-1654.