En Route To Iowa: Jaycee Bryant Is “Jaycee Park”
This Chicago doorman has experienced his share of hardships, but his tenacious heart is felt in every greeting and farewell.
It’s four in the morning, and Jaycee Bryant is already out of bed. The 59-year-old’s home in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood is enclosed by four other houses — one neighbor is a drug dealer, one has four pit bulls that rule their yard, one parties from Friday straight through Sunday and the last one is “full of gangbangers.”
By 5:40 a.m., he’s on the bus to work a 7 a.m. shift at his first building. At 3 p.m., he’s at Burnham Park Plaza (BPP) until 11 p.m.
Bryant runs on three hours of sleep and no caffeine. He says he’s never really liked coffee, so he flies from back and forth between two buildings in the South Loop to two buildings in the Gold Coast on pure mental strength alone.
His BPP uniform, like his three others, is spotless — no lint, no creases — just a sea of navy poly-cotton embellished with a matte-silver name tag. Sometimes he wears his glasses, but they seem to melt away past his crowded brown eyes and rooted, warm voice.
“Hey first lady, welcome home — ”
“Hello, sir,” a BBP resident says.
“Good to see you,” Bryant replies, walking swiftly to the second lobby door’s handle before the resident can.
“Good to see you too.”
The deep cherrywood floors flood up the grey-blue walls, stopping just before meeting simple frames that house black and white photographs of iconic Chicago landmarks. When residents walk into the lobby, they inhale traditional elegance and exhale urban comfort. The front desk — which holds Bryant’s personal legal pad, security monitors and a sign-in binder — has no bell on the counter.
His nights might be long, but the real journey has been even longer.
Bryant’s children all have their Master’s degrees. “Everyone but himself,” he says, matter-of-factly. He doesn’t mind, though, because he insists his job cannot be taught in school. In all of his six-foot glory, Bryant pegs himself as a people-person. And although this may have always held true, those skills trumped his computer operating degree from Kennedy College after he was laid off from a $50,000 a year position at the Mercantile Mart with four mouths to feed at home.
“[My boss] called me into the office and I said, ‘What did I do?’” Bryant paused — still searching for an appropriate response.
“He said, ‘You didn’t do anything.’ And, as sure as I’m looking at you, my boss walked to me and said, ‘Give me my keys.’ Okay? And ever since that day, there’s been something chasing me. I told my wife when I went home, ‘This can’t happen again.’”
Bryant keeps one eye on the two mirrors that face towards the outside of the building and the elevator. As he opens the door closest to the elevator, he places a stopper under it, allowing multiple residents to come and go with ease.
When Bryant is on duty, there are very few circumstances where they will have to open that door themselves.
“I know where I’ve been before,” Bryant presses. “I know this says Burnham Park. It doesn’t say Jaycee Park. They can come say, ‘Hey, give me my uniform.’”
He excuses himself and glides to the lobby entrance. The resident is returning home from a long day at work, and as quickly as Bryant sparks conversation with them about the NFL game the night before, he’s wishing them a great rest of their day.
The thick sheets of snow that piled on Chicago’s west-side streets didn’t stand a chance against a young Bryant’s shovel, as he paved the way for entertainment junkies while they abandoned their cars for a few hours at the Chicago Stadium — currently located where The United Center is today. Mr. Sykes — also known as “Mr. Hussle,” or “Mr. Two-or-three-steps-ahead —” gave Bryant a better idea of what working smart looked like, versus working hard. Sykes, a neighbor of Bryant’s, labored construction, parked cars, raised a family, ran a store and gave Bryant a job when he was 16.
Sykes was constantly moving.
“We used to freeze our butts off parking cars for the Bulls,” Bryant says, rubbing his hands as if the chill from those nights still frosted his fingers. “Long before Jordan, long before you were born. The Bulls were lousy. I remember standing on the ‘L’ on the radiator. He would pay us $10 a night and say, ‘You know what? It’s better than nothing.’ And then I started learning the value of money a little bit.”
Bryant’s father was never present in his life when he was young. He called his mother by her first name and his grandmother, “mom.”
He had reached out to his uncle for guidance since he didn’t have another father-figure around, but he says that “most black families don’t talk about money or saving money” due to an unspoken “black jealousy” that permeates through even the closest of ties.
With the undying work ethic Mr. Sykes had set as an example, Bryant’s toolkit was set and ready to be passed down to children of his own eight years after he was finished thawing out post-parking cars.
“We were living as though we were below our means because that money was being spent at the same time,” Jaycee Bryant Jr, 33 and a social worker, recalls when he and his three siblings attended Ascension Catholic School — a private academy in Oak Park. “I first-hand saw how they had to budget money. They had four kids so they had to have enough food, clothes, school supplies and money for extracurricular activities. You can’t just randomly spend money because you had to get the necessities. I learned that.”
School was expensive, and it called for consistent haircuts and polished attire.
Even though on any given day, a stranger could walk into the Bryant household and see the family dancing to Bryant’s favorite Michael Jackson tape, or gathered around the floor model T.V. laughing at their favorite program, he never failed to stress the benefits of his children having their own bank accounts and jobs.
By the time they were all 16, those aspects of his children’s lives were locked in.
“All of us have our own apartments, we have our own cars, we all are educated — so we were taught to be self-sufficient more than anything,” Bryant Jr. says.
Also defining in the Bryant household was the importance of routine and discipline, which was passed down by Bryant’s grandmother. He half-jokes as he talks about her parenting style, which included “whoopings” until he was 21 and that he still watches what he says when he visits her grave.
Bryant made every attempt to be a present parent. He worked nights and his wife, Hermese Bryant, worked mornings to ensure their children got where they needed to be. Bryant would gather the kids in the morning, drive them to school and pick them up. When Mrs. Bryant returned from work around 7 p.m., Bryant would start getting ready to leave for his shift.
If Bryant Jr. and his siblings didn’t want to participate in a particular sport, that was fine. But not doing anything wasn’t an answer.
There was no profanity, chores had to be completed in a timely manner, appearances needed to be kept up and — trumping all — there was a level of respect Bryant implicitly expected his children to maintain so that “they would be able to grow into their own.”
The rigid structure Bryant enforced was a direct consequence of a lacking framework in his own upbringing.
That overcorrection in the original Bryant residence, though, taught Bryant Jr. how to preserve the parent-child barrier and a home’s integrity.
“My daughter, she’s five, and so I teach her when she gets up she has a plan,” Bryant Jr. says. “She gets up, brushes her teeth, washes in the bathroom, gets her clothes on and makes her bed. Then before she eats, she says a prayer; every morning it’s the same structure, to a point where if we don’t do one of the things in the routine, she’ll call me out on it. I get that from my house — everything had its place. My father — it came from him.”
Jaycee listens as I tell him what his son had said. It was the first time he places his hand on the desk.
He tilts over at the waist as if getting closer to my voice would make each word linger in his ears just a bit longer.
“Perfect,” Bryant smiles. “Couldn’t say it any better.”
He takes two large steps over to the lobby bench where I’m sitting, does a double-take to make sure no residents are about to enter or exit his space and plays three different videos he has on his phone of Jr.’s daughter.
In one of the videos, Bryant and his granddaughter are at the waterpark. While she is sitting, eating ice cream, he says — “Wave to Pops!” As she waves, beaming, so is he.
Residents haven’t been coming through the door for 10 minutes now, but Bryant still paces the lobby mat. He strolls around the desk to check his notes and the monitors, but he doesn’t once lean on the desk for support.
In an instant, the lobby explodes with activity.
Bryant opens the door for a delivery, and has them approach the desk as he runs around to grab the phone and call the resident about their food. Politely, he asks the delivery person who the food is for and what unit they are in — just to make sure no funny business is going down.
Another resident walks in. Jaycee excuses himself from the conversation at the front desk.
“Hello First Lady, have a great night!”
As the door closest to the elevators swings shut, a cart of packages from Amazon is being wheeled in from the other side.
“I’ll be right with you, sir,” Bryant says without blinking an eye.
As soon as the food deliverer is done signing their name and indicating the date as well as the time, Bryant is hanging up the phone, buzzing them through to the elevators and assuring them that he’ll see them in a few minutes.
Still keeping his pace, he calls the Amazon deliverer over. While he unloads their cart, they talk about the weather and how Bryant couldn’t wait to get back to work after taking a 7-day vacation.
When they say goodbye, Bryant doesn’t pause to wipe the sweat from his brow. He starts logging each package in the desk’s delivery pick-up binder.
“The easiest way to get in — ” Bryant stops, leaning in and whispering. “Walk in. I’ve seen it time and time again. With the back door, if they see a lady with bags or the kids in the car, they’ll hold the door every time. Every single time. ‘I’ve got my keys in my purse — ’ ‘Oh, I’ll get you! Could you hit floor 17?’ The person got clear in the building.”
All of the humor in his face hardens, his voice becomes swift and sure.
His residents’ security is “the bottom line,” he says.
The boyfriend of a resident who would frequent the building took him by surprise three years prior when, after being off work for a few days, Bryant had missed the couple’s falling out. Bryant’s colleagues didn’t note the change in relationship, so when the boyfriend snuck his way through the back entrance and up to his ex-girlfriend’s floor, the front desk was held accountable for the attack.
“This guy, he’s a conman,” Bryant says, pleading as if he was back in court to testify about that night all over again. “He’d come down, laugh and talk — he knew when I was here.”
Although these high-risk scenarios are uncommon, Bryant blames both the slip in communication amongst the doormen and resident civility for letting this master-manipulator in the building.
After the scare, the front desk made sure guest check-ins — no matter the rapport the guest may have with the doormen — are mandatory.
But Bryant still experiences his fare share of on-duty distractions.
He laughs through one instance where a fight had started at the 7/11 on 8th and State Streets. The two men brawled their way through the back alley, out onto 9th Street and headed east. Left hooks and gut punches must have kept them from noticing their left turn into the BBP entrance.
Suddenly, Bryant found himself with two arms outstretched, trying to stop the grown men from getting at each other as well as getting to residents.
“So we have people walking by, asking me what’s going on and I said, ‘Well, I’m in middle of a fight, obviously, you know,” Bryant chuckles at the literal bind, still vivid enough for him to act out. “So I can’t get to the radio to call the janitor to come up here and assist me or tell them to call 9–1–1.”
Eventually, help from the janitorial staff arrived before any residents — or Bryant — were hurt, and the police were able to transform the lobby from a boxing ring back to the safe, efficient space it was when Bryant started his shift that day.
Like a long-distance runner, he refuses to let those nights damper his spirits.
Be it home or in the lobby, his “game face” is no different than his “relaxing face” or his “gathered around the dinner table with the family face.” That said, Bryant is a planner. His future in Chicago, as well as his time running from door to door, seems to be finite.
“In seven years, I plan to walk out of here retired, one-hundred-grand cash, move to Iowa City, brand new home from the ground up, two bedroom and four acres of land,” Bryant lists as if he’s rehearsed these lines again and again.
He has never considered living in a building with a doorman because he wants to avoid “party poopers and weekend warriors,” at all costs. Plus, he managed to make a few friends during his children’s time at the University of Iowa.
Bryant enjoys the fact that those friends keep a spare key under their front door mat and leave their back doors open.
“I lock my damn back door to take the damn garbage out,” Bryant laughs. “By 10 o’clock, all of the liquor stores are closed [in Iowa]. That’s enough to get me up there alone. I don’t want to ever live 15-feet by nobody again.”
He excuses himself, but this time, he keeps talking as he grabs one door for one resident and the other for the next.
“You know what the secret is,” Bryant says smiling. “I’m treating you like I’m coming through that door. I’m treating you like it’s me. This job here, the hours are unlimited. The lights never go off and someone will always call off. It’s like two jobs in one if you make it that way. You’ve got to have that frame of mind.”
The next resident that comes in greets Bryant with a hug before he can greet her.
She asks him how his vacation was and says how much he was missed. As he walks her to the door, he says how glad he is to be back.
And as he wishes her a great night, he starts pacing the mat again — telling me he still has so much that he wants to improve on.