Going up?

Helen Jenkins

Photo By Larry Dalton

Helen Jenkins, 78, has been an elevator operator at the Capitol for almost 23 years. In a profession that is increasingly disappearing from existence, Jenkins is in it for the long haul. Born in Santa Ana, she moved to Sacramento when she was just 2 years old. Throughout the years, she’s been married three times and become the proud mother of 11 children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And, of course, she cares for the Capitol’s legislators, staffers and visitors’ elevator-button needs. You can find her there every day the Legislature is in session, sitting on her swivel chair, with a small fan circulating air in her cubicle of an elevator.

What is the most interesting thing you have seen as a Capitol elevator operator?

I got a kiss from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Danny Glover in the elevators when they were guests of members.

The king of Spain came to visit the Legislature once, and he rode in my elevator. Well, one of his aides came back later and asked if I was married, because he liked me.

Also, I’ve seen what they did when they had that sting when they arrested the senators [in the 1980s]. I seen the men that were doing it, and all of them were talking about who they were going to take out. I heard it in the elevator—that there would be a big sting.

Before it happened?

Yeah, I knew who they were going to target.

The FBI agents said all that in front of you?

All of us elevator operators, we hear a lot of things. I am going to write a book when I retire about all of the Legislature’s ups and downs, and the legislators and their secrets.

Have you started to write it?

Not yet, but one of the tour guides wants to help do it. I have personal notes at home.

I am the eyes and ears of the Capitol, but my lips are sealed. I will only talk and tell about this when I retire, because I can get in trouble.

But if you want to know where members’ offices are, or where the library is, or where the bill room is, or where the tour office is, or where the governor’s office is, I am very helpful.

When people ask me, “Where’s the information office?” I say, well, you are looking at her, because I know more than the information people. I do tell them where it is, but I laugh and they laugh.

What else do people ask you?

One time, one thing very interesting, some people from Austria came, and they wanted to know where the governors’ pictures were. I told them, and they came back and said, “How come Arnold’s not there?” I said that is where past governors’ pictures go, and he has not been terminated. I didn’t mean to say terminated. I meant termed out.

I hear you like to use the slot machines.

I am a gambler. I was a big winner in the Nugget in Sparks, Nev. And in Reno at Harrah’s, but now I do not go to Reno no more because I am a winner in Thunder Valley, the Indian casino.

I am a Thunder Valley mama. That’s what my license plate says: “Thundermama.”

What’s your biggest winnings?

[She takes out a picture of herself holding a check.] I won $15,000 on June 19 this year. The other day [she takes out a Polaroid], I won $2,500. My total winnings at Thunder Valley are $75,000.

How did you get into elevator operating?

The supervisor at the Capitol asked her secretary if she knew an older lady who might be interested in operating an elevator, because the younger operators would never last. So, her secretary asked me.

I said, “I can’t do those tests,” and she said, “It’s not hard, and you are dependable.” So, I applied, and it was a verbal test, and I answered correctly, and she told me this would be temporary, every once in a while. And this was on May 7, 1983, and I have never missed a day.

I am never sick, and I am never late, and I got a Senate Resolution on my 76th birthday saying I do a good job. Right now, I am going on 79. I have had three husbands. They all died, though. They all died happy, and I still have a big family. I have 11 children and then 30 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.

When do you plan to retire?

With the Lord’s help, and if they still have elevator operators, I plan to retire at the age of 86.