A year ago they got him a transfer
from assembly line to Corporate Headquarters,
a "kindness" he repaid
Rather than hiring him into a position that he’s well qualified for, they’ve gotten him assigned as an elevator operator. The ironic quotation marks suggest the former classmates' attitude: that he ought to be as grateful as if they were being purely benevolent rather than repaying a favor — and repaying it in an insultingly insufficient fashion.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit "Elevator Man, 1949" by Rita Dove and leave a comment on the lyrics box