“You have to stay sharp.”
At 70, Mickens is both an instantly familiar and an easily ignored figure in Center City.
His elegant gloves caught the eye of a street photographer who snapped an iconic image that inspired Mickens’ employer to upgrade the attire for a nation of doormen. Yet harried strangers rush past the gentle man in the perfectly pressed suit without glancing at his face, let alone his hands.
“Many people see a person who’s a doorman and think of him as less or subservient,” notes District Attorney Seth Williams, who has known Mickens for ages. “But there are so many layers to this guy. Wherever I go, he’s always there and so pleasant. He’s a great ambassador for the city.”
Detailer to the stars
Mickens has done more than open doors, of course. Between 1977 and 1998, he and his siblings ran Mickens Bros. Car Cleaning Service, West Philadelphia’s finest auto spa. Mayor Wilson Goode, Charles Barkley, politicians, and players alike trusted their four-wheeled alter egos to the fastidious family. (One Mickens Brother once quipped, “Our yard was nothing but dirt, but it was clean dirt.”)
Urban radio listeners may know Mickens by voice from the programs he has cohosted with Georgie Woods (on WDAS) and Cody Anderson (on WHAT). Tune into WURD some Sunday and you’ll hear Mickens, a member of 59th Street Baptist and a proud Prince Hall Mason, interviewing prominent African American men such as Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, Sheriff Jewell Williams, and Mayor Nutter.
“I have known Mr. Mickens for decades,” Nutter confirms. “He’s a man with a quick smile, a quick handshake, and a quick wit.”
Watching Mickens stay cool amid chaos for a decade, his bosses at Philly Towne Park dubbed him “the best doorman in the city,” the employee who should always be the first and last face hotel guests see.
Studying Michael Penn’s ethereal photo of Mickens’ outstretched hand, taken this year for the artist’s “Philadelphia Project,” company executives immediately ordered identical gloves for hotel staffers across the country, aiming to revive a style from another era.
“We’re looking for a look that set us apart,” explains district manager Steve Maiden. “That’s Leroy.”
Smiles for strangers
Mickens had the gloves before the gig, wearing them at Masonic meetings and to weddings as a show of formality and “purity.”
The Wynnefield resident, a father of two, considers hospitality his life’s calling, “an opportunity” as much as a career. If it’s possible to know what someone needs before they do, this doorman does. (I witnessed him summon a valet after he had merely heard the click of a guest’s heels on concrete.)
And though he’s paid only to tend to hotel customers, on a given afternoon Mickens seems to know every third person who walks by.
Patrolmen pulling a double shift to testify at the Criminal Justice Center earn a promotion when Mickens calls them “Sarge.” Every woman, especially those of advanced age, gets a “Hello, young lady.” (Most grin and blush.)
Even grumpy cabbies desperate for an airport fare get a bow and a nickname like “Premier.”
“I see people who pass here and look so unpleasant,” Mickens explains. “So I study and try to think of something to say that will put a smile on a person’s face who might not have had a chance to smile all day.”
“That,” he says, “is what I’m good at.” That and keeping white gloves spotless on the job in the gritty city.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.