It was a hot September night and almost everyone from my 25-unit building was in my pristine, newly renovated apartment. Multicolored ribbons dangled from hundreds of helium balloons that hugged the freshly painted ceiling. Platters of food were spread out on the purposefully pitted, reclaimed-wood dining table. Glimpses of the polished butcher-block kitchen island peeked out from under piles of plastic glasses and bottles of soda and wine. The new wide-plank, natural-oak floor was being pounded by more than 60 pairs of shoes that had not been left in the hall.
These people were not here for an annual meeting. Nor were they attending a housewarming or a “thank you” party as neighbors who had endured the dust, noise, and inconvenience of nine months of construction in the space my husband and I had lived in for 28 years and that we had recently gutted and rebuilt. If that were the case, I would have invited only a few of these people. The rest were simply acquaintances, a handful of whom I did not know, along with a couple of people who had caused so much trouble in our small co-op that I generally did not want to share an elevator with them.
And yet here they all were: laughing, mingling, making crumbs, and leaving scuff marks. It was not my first choice to host this party. But I did it to honor the one person capable of fixing whatever these people broke: our building superintendent Luis, who would be leaving us the following week.
The Dance Begins
It had been five years since Luis had told me he planned to retire in 2014. I had met him for the first time in the autumn of 1986. It was in the lobby of this converted storage building in a not-yet-trendy Tribeca. Hugely pregnant, about to be interviewed by the co-op board and desperate to move in before giving birth, I asked the kind-looking man standing outside his office what the board members were like. He walked me to the elevator. “They’re all nice,” he said as the doors closed between us. “You’ll be fine.” I rode up deciding his confident smile was a good sign, unaware that he had started on the job only a few weeks earlier.
And so began our dance. Whether he was qualified or not for the task, this former army paratrooper made it work. Fixing plumbing and electrical problems was easy for Luis. But his real specialty was playing the role of the helpful relative: the handy husband, the compassionate father, the funny uncle, the wise grandfather. Glue together a cruddy but favorite old plate. Remove children’s art projects too precious to throw out but too clutter-making to keep. Watch the baby in his office for a second while I run upstairs for my gloves. Call me when the mailman comes with college acceptances. Hold the dog at the curb while I run across the street for milk. Sit in my car while I bring down the suitcases. Help to set up a crib, a jungle gym, a trampoline. When a friend asked me to store an inflatable bounce house that was going to be used for an upcoming street fair, Luis and I moved my sofa and coffee table out of the way and blew it up in my living room – where we bounced and flipped and laughed ourselves silly for what seemed like hours.
I knew my experiences with Luis were not unique. For years, he was as integral to my neighbors’ lives as he was to mine. But in the 28 years since Luis had signed on as super, this lower Manhattan neighborhood had evolved from a diverse Manhattan outpost to a posh enclave. Our building survived the 2001 terrorist attacks down the block, the blackout the following summer, Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy. But no one outruns time. After almost three decades of being there for us, Luis was tired. He was slowing down. And ready to go.
Save the Last Dance
While Luis ran out his self-imposed clock and the board searched for a new super, my neighbor Cathy and I started to kick around ideas for a retirement party. First we had to clear it with the guest of honor. Chances were good our weary super would politely refuse the idea. Instead, he lit up, and doubled down. Could we do it on his birthday, the Friday before his last day, making it a combined birthday-retirement party?
Why not? Now we had to work on a plan. After decades of going to bed at 8 P.M. and getting up at 4 A.M., Luis was unable to stay up late, even on vacation. So we decided on a short, early, family friendly cocktail party. And if we were going to do this right, we had to invite everyone, even people who had complained about the super, and people we did not know personally, and people we could not stand. We might wind up with a small party but at least our neighbors would have the option to join in if they wanted.
We needn’t have worried: ten minutes after the party’s official starting time, my apartment was packed. The guest of honor arrived with several family members and soon the toasts began: a young man recalled how Luis had stepped in after his father’s sudden death to help out. (What I had not known until this party was that Luis had distracted the child from his loss by taking the newly fatherless boy to a professional wrestling match.)
Another resident recalled how Luis took him fishing. Still others recounted how he had helped when they were in trouble: the shelf fell down, someone was locked out or locked in. The stories, thankful and heartfelt, shared a common theme: Luis was there when it mattered.
In my toast, I described how Luis had once saved my Christmas. Twenty years earlier, when the top of our Christmas tree had snapped, Luis glued it back together. I took a Polaroid of the moment and attached it to our gold star at the top of the tree. All of our Christmas trees since then had been crowned by the now-ragged gold star framing a surprisingly non-faded Polaroid of a much younger Luis posing with the tree he had fixed.
The toasts continued. Neighbors I most dreaded having in my apartment cried when recalling Luis’s many kindnesses. Kids who grew up in our building and were now out in the world returned to lower Manhattan to honor Luis. One brought his baby, our collective grand neighbor.
Tonight, we were not co-op shareholders bickering about leaky windows or a broken elevator. We were not jockeying for space in the storage room or explaining why our bikes/strollers/boots/boxes in the hall were okay but yours were not. Tonight, we were good neighbors. And we had Luis to thank for it.
Life Without Luis
Our new super started soon after that, and he was rock solid on electrical and plumbing issues. The common spaces were cleaned and freshly painted. Long-needed repairs were underway. How much of him we will get to know and how much he will connect with us will take time to sort out. For my part I tried to be mindful of how hard it must be to step into someone’s well-worn shoes and make them new again. In his first few weeks the new super and I began to forge a relationship as he fixed my shower thermostat, twice, and replaced the valve on one of my radiators, sparing me the frustration of chasing down my contractor. He was not Luis. He was John and John was okay.
On a cold rainy night in mid-December we brought home our Christmas tree. We had traditionally placed it in front of a wall that had since been demolished. We looked around the renovated apartment for a new spot, choosing a north-facing window. Before I got a feel for the tree, the first ornaments I hung slid off the pliable branches and crashed to pieces on the floor. My first thought was that Luis wasn’t here to come up and glue them back together. I thought about calling John for help, but then decided that perhaps it was time to try to take care of such things myself. Hours later, the patched ornaments drying and my fingertips sandpaper rough with coats of dried glue, I stood on a stepladder and hung the gold star on the top of the tree. Before climbing down, I paused to look at the Polaroid of my old friend taped in the center. And smiled.