Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, October 2008
From the Editor 3: Staff
By Tom Soter
“We love our super,” the long-time board member said to me when we were talking about problems in his building. So what was he to do when the love affair went sour? One of the porters had apparently gotten angry with the superintendent – his boss – and an angry exchange soon got ugly as each side refused to back down – until the super threatened his porter with a lead pipe.
It was no lead pipe cinch what the board should do next. Sure, the board could discipline both men, but could they really retain a Captain Bligh as the one in charge of their employees? What if he had hit the porter with the pipe and the porter had sued – or, worse yet, died?
I don’t know how that co-op resolved the problem – they were probably going to have to dismiss him – but the incident got me thinking about the supers and staff of my youth, and the Upstairs Downstairs kind of world they inhabited: employees, true, yet still a kind of remote family, inhabiting a world of their own, which would occasionally intersect with ours.
Some of the moments I recalled are bizarre: there was a super named Mr. Brown, a big bear of a man, who once asked my dad to hold him by the legs as he hung from a window to help him make a repair (my father, naturally enough, refused); I also remembered the personable doorman named Fastino who was fired for having prostitutes visit him on the night shift.
Then there were two other doormen, both named Eddie. One was twinkly, the other dour. Twinkly Eddie, who worked the morning shift, looked a little like Jimmy Durante and would engage in endless chatter, repeating the same bad jokes over and over (he’d feed our family dog, Charlie, candies in the morning, while quipping, “Charlie Chan,” cackle, cackle, “Charlie Chan has a sweet tooth”). Dour Eddie was hardly as animated – which was not surprising since he worked from midnight until eight – and when I’d occasionally see him, he would be half-asleep in his chair. When twinkly Eddie died (he was buried in his doorman’s uniform, or so the story went), dour Eddie used his seniority and union clout to get the morning shift, a spot the board had wanted to give to a more talkative man. Needless to say, he never made Charlie Chan jokes.
That world of supers and doormen is quite different from the reality of most co-op or condo owners who often have very little contact with the staff, outside of hellos and goodbyes and the can-you-send-someone-up-to-fix-my-door-it-squeaks type questions. It is a world that some managers look on with amazement. “No matter how charming they may appear, smart they’re not,” a veteran agent told me. “They can’t remember things. You talk to them, you tell them stuff, they go, ‘Okay, okay, yeah, okay, I, got that.’ You go up in the elevator, and then come back down and ask them again [what you told them to do] and it’s nothing like what you told them. The co-op owners don’t get it. I say to them, ‘You’re all just lucky the elevator only goes up and down. Because if it went sideways as well, nobody would ever get home at night. They would never be able to figure it out.”
This manager wasn’t surprised by the pipe battle between the super and the staff member. “There’s the whole issue about pride and machismo. You don’t know what it’s like dealing with them at times. They can be like children. These guys fight sometimes in the employee lockers over who ripped off a newspaper. ‘He took my newspaper!’ I go crazy. And you’re thinking to yourself, ‘It costs what? Fifty cents or a quarter.’ If it were me, I’d say, ‘Let him take the Goddamn paper.’ But it’s not about that. It’s at some other level that you don’t even want to know about.”
Maybe so, but there are some great supers and staff members out there, none better than Nick Orozco, a superintendent at the Manhattan co-op where my family lived for 33 years. Diligent and hard-working, he seemed like he could do almost anything, always with a smile and a “Don’t worry about it” when you’d try to thank him for completing some seemingly impossible task. I’ve kept in touch with Nick over the years, and when my father recently had an emergency at his new home, he called me – and asked me to call Nick. I did, explained the problem, and help was there within minutes. When I tried to thank Nick, he waved me aside. It’s understood, he seemed to be saying. It’s family.