We Don’t Call ‘Em Supers for Nothing

The author, David Sachs, in an NYC mechanical room

We regularly visit buildings across New York City to diagnose problems with their mechanical and steam systems.  But one visit impacted me in an unexpected way. Typical of many multifamily buildings scattered across the City, it is a pre-war masonry apartment building. The super was friendly and gave me access to the entire basement, as I requested. He also said that he would be in the office if I needed anything.

As I went about my routine, I noticed one of the main steam pipes led straight into his office. When I approached the office to do my testing, I saw two pairs of shoes in the doorway – one of which I assumed belonged to the barefoot super, and the other likely belonged to a porter or a friend. Opening the door, I saw them both sitting on a couch watching a soap opera.

I paused for a moment, perplexed by the fact that the floor seemed to be at least as dirty as the bottom of my shoes, and I’m ashamed to admit that I wondered why the building super was lounging around watching TV with his buddy at 3:00 pm while I was sweating in the boiler room, trying to improve their building.

But when I noticed that the nearly windowless adjacent room had a bed and a dresser, it occurred to me that their shoes were off because this dingy basement “office” isn’t merely an office, it is this man’s living room. The bathroom, with no ventilation, is where he gets ready in the morning, and the dusty, moldy, water-bug inhabited corridor in which I was standing is the entrance hallway of his home. (Of course, living in a NYC basement has its upsides too; this super’s several thousand square foot “apartment” is spacious enough for a ping-pong table, a bench press, and anything else he could ever want.)

I took off my shoes and entered the office, careful to work as respectfully as I would if I were entering anyone’s home, wondering how many of my friends and family could tolerate such living or working conditions. Then I realized that I had greatly misjudged the situation. Yes, he was socializing and watching TV during the workday, but his workday isn’t 9-5 or even 8-7. When a toilet gets clogged, ice freezes on the stairs, trash needs to be taken out, or a resident is looking for a punching bag to hit with complaints, he is working to resolve those issues and make his residents feel comfortable and safe, day or night. So what if he takes some breaks during the day?

As I left, I noticed a large crowbar near the door. Now, it is entirely possible the super had casually placed it there after using it, but it is much more likely that its placement was intentional as a ready-to-use defense weapon. After all, his front door is also the basement entrance. And in fact, it is common to see baseball bats, machetes and other weapons stashed in these basements, even in neighborhoods most people would consider safe.

I don’t presume to know anything about this man’s personal life or whether he is happy with his job, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that all building staff have the same situation.  But what I do know is that it is the building staff who keep our basic needs met, who deal with the repugnant rodent or insect in our apartments, and who can often be our first line of defense against intruders. 

This experience was an important reminder to me of how critical their jobs are in making our lives livable and how easy it might be to overlook their real value. They should be respected, not pitied or judged.  And particularly during these cold winter months, it’s important to remember to be grateful to one’s building staff, both at work and at home, and perhaps even to flash a friendly smile the next time we see them.