Where was the more important action at the TD Garden on a recent Thursday night? On the ice, where the Bruins were playing the Ottawa Senators? Or in a much smaller arena, the Garden’s 6-by-9-foot elevator No. 3, where operator LaKish Washington was working her magic?
“This is you, baby,” she cooed to an elderly gentleman leaning on a cane when they reached his floor.
“Nine, hon,” Washington said to another passenger, retired correctional officer Mike Doliner.
“I love it,” he said. “My wife never calls me honey.”
In a world filled with people too plugged in to pay much attention to anyone else, in a sports complex where the stars earn millions to her hourly wage, Washington’s gift is simple: She makes her passengers feel taken care of. And she does it in less than the two minutes it takes for even the longest trip: from floor 2 to floor 9, where many of the Garden’s guests with disabilities sit.
If Washington hears a season ticket holder has missed out on a team giveaway — a T-shirt, maybe, or a commemorative poster — she’ll score one. If a guest tries to get on while holding a beer can — not allowed at the Garden — she’ll not only find the guest a plastic cup, but pour the Bud Light. She lets children push the elevator buttons (while making sure they go to the right floor). And she has a way of shepherding passengers that sounds as warm as a declaration of love.
“Where’s my five?” she’ll ask, in a motherly way, when a distracted rider forgets to exit when the doors open.
Washington often works a six-hour shift with one 20-minute break, in a car with no seat. But at the end of a night, she seems to have more energy than the fans who’ve been sitting the whole time. She creates such a party atmosphere that one rider likened her windowless office to a bar.
“It’s like the old Cheers,” said Kenneth Sarni, the owner of Sarni Cleaners, as he and his son took a ride. “She makes you feel welcome.”
Small gestures? Perhaps. But Ralph Amoroso, a Boston police officer who rode with Washington that night, captured their importance.
“There is so much sour out there, it’s nice to feel good,” Amoroso said. “You just hope her mood rubs off on you.”
“I love her, I do,” said one of her regulars, Russell O’Sullivan, a retired trucker who uses a motorized scooter. “She knows it’s a tough situation, and she makes me feel good.”
Moments earlier O’Sullivan was delighted to be on the receiving end of Washington’s good-natured teasing, after he (somewhat) jokingly offered to let an attractive young woman sit on his lap . . . to ease elevator crowding. “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’!” said Washington, who’s known as Kish (pronounced “keesh”) to her friends.
At 35, Washington has been working at the Garden for 15 years, most of them running an elevator. But last year, following a renovation that “took away my [elevator light] dimmer” and the car’s cushioning carpet, she decided to work as an usher. She lasted two weeks on the outside.
“I said, ‘Put me back in my elevator,’ ” Washington recalled.
Garden executives have noticed Washington’s work, especially when fans ask where she is if she misses even one shift. She’s got a bubbly yet low-key vibe, and a smile so friendly it should have its own Facebook page. Like other employees, she has taken the GuestPath customer service training course, but frankly “she could teach it,” said her manager, Shawn Polk.
That’s saying something. Washington deals with thousands of fans each night, some of whom are drunk, or angry about a team’s loss, or stressed because they’re late to meet a client, or grumpy because their kids are begging for pricey snacks and souvenirs.
And like her riders’ lives, Washington’s isn’t without bumps.
“My elevator is my sanctuary,” she said during her only break of the night. “I have two ill sisters and my mother, who is 66, has diabetes and other health problems.”
Washington grew up in Boston, the youngest of six. She had periods of homelessness in high school, and lived in a housing project in Southie. Her father died when she was 18.
“Believe me, I have stresses,” she said. “I have bills, and sometimes I’m short. I’m not always the happiest person running around, but I can’t bring that to work. I’m in the entertainment business.”
In a life with virtually no free time — she’s a single mother with two children, she works a second part-time job, and she’s studying for an associate’s degree — the elevator is “my social,” Washington said. “It’s two minutes, and it’s over.”
With that, her break ended. It was showtime.
“I’m going down, but you come on in!” she told a guest who wanted to go up.
“Do you want a big pizza or a little pizza?” she asked a rider who was seeking concession-stand advice.
“There’s no gambling in my elevator,” she jokingly called out to a pair who were buying state lottery tickets from a vending machine.
Then, with the game tied and heading into overtime, the elevator temporarily emptied. She took time to answer a few questions: Has she met any players? Yes, among them then-Celtics rookie Paul Pierce, and she teased him about not knowing how to hold a baby. Does she have a favorite floor? “I’m going to get in trouble for this,” she said, “but I like eight,” a rarely visited storage floor that’s very quiet. Is she a sports fan? Surprisingly, no.
Three minutes and 38 seconds into overtime, the Bruins’s Patrice Bergeron scored, and the game was over. It was time for fans to go home. Except that not all of them wanted to leave the elevator operator.
“We just want to ride with you,” one woman said when she reached her floor and stood chatting in the doorway, like a guest leaving a dinner party.
“This was a good night,” Washington said. Soon though, there might be fewer of them. She’s working toward a degree in exercise science at Quincy College and may cut down on shifts after she graduates in 2014 — bad news for her fans.
Like her mother, who worked as a nurse, she feels a calling to help people. “I want to work in rehab,” Washington said, perhaps unaware that she already does.