Miriam Marcano-Bender has a laugh that is difficult to describe. It is somewhere between a guffaw and a cackle, a hoot and a howl. It is, in many ways, like Marcano-Bender herself, hard to categorize and also, like the woman, a bit larger than life.
Born of Spanish Catholic-Jewish parents (her maternal grandmother was a Spanish Jew, but her mother was raised Catholic), Miriam Marcano-Bender has always managed to find her own way, bursting through traditional cultural roles and stereotypes as she goes.
When she and her husband, Alvin, purchased a cooperative at Wincrest Tenants Corporation in Yonkers almost seven years ago, she knew nothing about building bylaws, safety codes, shareholder contracts, or debt refinancing. But she learned quickly — so quickly that soon she was elected board treasurer, and within the year board president. Under her firm hand, the 65-unit Wincrest Tenants Corporation turned from being a desperately debt-ridden, nearly bankrupt property into a steady, financially solvent building. For her efforts, she was one of only 11 winners of Habitat's 2001 Management Achievement Awards.
"What I find fascinating is that most shareholders don't really know what's going on," she says. "They're uneducated and don't make an effort to educate themselves, so they need good leadership."
Independence and leadership comes naturally to Marcano-Bender's family. Her father was plant manager of Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan; in addition to raising four children, her mother owned and operated her own beauty salon before switching to a career in social work. Eclecticism, too, is part of Marcano-Bender's family tradition; her father renovated houses and worked also as a professional drummer. In fact, Marcano-Bender attributes much of her success in life to her upbringing: she describes her parents as "good, strong, wonderful people" who imbued her with a strong sense of responsibility.
Perhaps it was partly that sense of right and wrong that drew Marcano-Bender to Judaism as a child. Raised on the outskirts of Flushing, Queens, she decided not to join the Catholic Church as her mother had. Instead, she studied the Torah at home, and later attended a synagogue. Now, she occasionally conducts the shabbas ceremony at the reform synagogue she and her husband attend on City Island. She frequently invites the co-op board over for shabbas dinner, as well.
Anyone entering Marcano-Bender's apartment is likely to have the same reaction as her friend Sharon Brown, the board vice president and secretary. "She has nice paintings and everything — and then there are these...roosters and bunnies." Roosters and bunnies? Live ones? "No, no — on the mantel...like the kind you would put out at Easter — sort of kitschy, you know? And then there's the clock that chirps — oh, and the deep sea diving helmet in the entranceway."
Marcano-Bender's somewhat eccentric decorating style may be an extension of her many interests; in addition to their two boats, she and her husband enjoy skiing, diving, and horseback riding. They first met when she came to buy a car from him at his junkyard in Spuyten Duyvil. "It was love at first sight," she says. "He's wonderful; I love him to death." They were married on Valentine's Day 21 years ago. Their retirement plans include crossing the Atlantic on their 54-foot sailboat, "Mr. B," which they keep on the bay across from City Island.
She may be happily married, but Marcano-Bender's position as board president means that she "gives orders to a lot of men," according to Brown. "She likes ordering people around. And she's a natural business person, a natural leader, and a great salesperson. She could sell an Eskimo ice." She is also very diplomatic. "She can tell you something nasty in such a nice way."
Any time the board needs something for the building, Marcano-Bender researches it by visiting other buildings. "She can talk her way right past security, ask them about intercoms, roof gardens, elevators — whatever she wants," Sharon observes. "She's a charmer, and the men are impressed that this attractive woman asks such intelligent questions."
She also likes to undertake research at the library, doing whatever it takes to master her subject. She became so knowledgeable about everything from elevators to boilers that she was eventually hired to work as an agent by the building's management company (she doesn't manage her own). Marcano-Bender is such an effective board president that Brown can't imagine anyone taking over her job. In fact, she shudders at the very idea: "I will be there as her back-up, but I will never step into her shoes."
One thing Marcano-Bender doesn't take kindly to is rumors and gossip. Unless she gets concrete evidence to substantiate a rumor, she says, she tends to ignore them. She tells of the time there was a foul odor in the hallways of the building, and a rumor soon spread that one of the tenants had died in her apartment. The rumor persisted until the woman was seen in the lobby. The bad smell turned out to be rotten meat someone had thrown into the compactor.
"I rub a lot of the people in the building the wrong way," Marcano-Bender explains, "because I'm upfront and I don't let the super or anyone else get away with foolishness. I believe in setting a good example."
Whatever the stresses of being board president, Marcano-Bender clearly savors every moment. "I'm basically a very happy person. I was born with a happy soul." Tolstoy's thoughts on the matter notwithstanding, it is clear that in Marcano-Bender's case, all happy families are not alike — and then there's that laugh. A whooping crane, maybe...or perhaps — well, let's just say that once you hear it, you're not likely to forget it.
"In the warm months, when the windows are open, you can always tell when Miriam's home," Brown says. "You can hear her laugh throughout the whole building."
Marcano-Bender's advice for becoming a successful board president?
"Set the example, have vision — a vision of what could be, what you can achieve. I'm bothered when people do the wrong thing. Either be part of the solution or part of the problem: lead, follow, or get out of the way."