SMOOTH OPERATOR

NEED A LIFT? SEE BOB HANKLE.

A woman enters the elevator at the extreme rear of the Jean Nicole department store on the 16th Street Mall. A choice is at hand. Either she travels up one floor, to 2, or down one, to B. In order to do so, she will have to select one of two buttons, step back, allow the automatic door to close and be on her way. An easy task, perhaps, but that has not stopped Jean Nicole management from making it easier. Today, elevator operator Bob Hankle, in simple tweeds and a club tie, is on duty.

"Which floor, ma'am?" he asks.
"What?" the woman exclaims. "Wait! You're an elevator operator. The last time I saw one of you guys, I was sixteen!"

"And that was a long time ago," Hankle says, sotto voce, after the woman has exited. This is not the kind of thing he would say within earshot of a customer. It does not fit into his vision of the Jean Nicole elevator atmosphere, which he likes to think of as "very cordial" and sometimes even "very, very cordial."

"I am often asked something like, `What are you doing here?'" he says. "My favorite response is, `It's a service to you, because you're important to us.' That puts them in a good mood. A joyful mood. Ninety-five percent of them are very cordial."

Hankle talks in percentages for a reason. Until his retirement three years ago, he'd been an accountant all his working life, first at U.S. Steel and later at MCI. Now 68, he's been a part-time elevator operator for two and a half years, working from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, with a ten-minute afternoon break, during which he is accustomed to reading part of a magazine or newspaper.

"If I worked any more," he says, "I couldn't feel retired."
The contrast between number-crunching and Jean Nicole's cut-rate couture--thigh-high stockings, mini-kilts and velour leggings--is clear to him but of little concern. He does not socialize with his former button-down co-workers, nor does he miss them; meanwhile, he says, he finds the Jean Nicole staff either "very pleasant" or "very, very pleasant."

Manager Ed Fix feels the same way about Hankle. "I'll tell you," he says, "if Mr. Hankle would work a five-day week, I'd have him, but he won't. If he's ever sick or missing, all the customers ask where he is. It's a unique service, and he makes it that way."

Indeed, some customers remark that the man 95 percent of them refer to as The Elevator Person reminds them of a bygone age at a bygone--and admittedly higher-end--shopping venue. If there is another downtown department store with a similar amenity, they have yet to see it.

Neither has Denver's chief elevator inspector, Jim Pardikes--and he's intimately familiar with most of Denver's 4,500 working elevators. "I haven't even seen this Jean Nicole person," he adds, though he knows the store's refurbished United States Elevator Company model. "He can't have been there long if I haven't seen him," he says of Hankle. "Okay, two years, part-time? If you boil that down, he's been there--what? Four weeks altogether?"

Hankle prefers not to look at it that way. Maneuvering between B, 1 and 2 for two days each week is the high point of his schedule.

"I don't do very much during the rest of the week," he admits. "I sit around and watch TV. Sometimes I take a walk. But this job was almost a PR job in the beginning."

This is because his elevator can be difficult to spot through the forest of NOW MARKED DOWN TO $5 and ULTIMATE SALE signs that pepper the store's main showroom. "At first I had to go out on the floor and find ladies with wheelchairs and walkers and explain to them that my service was available," Hankle recalls. "Finally, they knew. There are several who come every Thursday or Friday. They are very loyal and proud of our store. They show me what they buy, and I usually say something like, `That's very nice.' Ninety-five percent of them say thank you in return. They say they feel safe with someone in the elevator, in case the elevator should suddenly stop."

This, however, has not happened. Not even once. "No," Hankle confirms. The elevator, he says, has been "very faithful," even when high-density shopping has pushed its envelope. Hankle remembers World Youth Day as a packed-to-capacity mob scene in which 95 percent of his passengers did not speak English. "I've had as many as ten in this elevator," he reveals. "But there's always been a very cordial person who makes everyone else laugh and lightens the atmosphere."

Even the occasional "very, very angry" customer who flies into his elevator demanding to be taken to a floor where the cash register line is shorter can be soothed. Hankle will offer her a seat in his folding chair--he doesn't sit on it himself unless he's thoroughly alone--or observe that he's "very sorry, and it's just something that happens."

It's that kind of personal, but not too personal, remark that brings the customer back for the return ride to 1, which is exactly where Hankle wants to see her. "They could take the steps," he admits, "but they're steep. I've walked them myself, and I'd much rather ride the elevator.

 
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