From his first day on the job, I thought of my co-op’s super as a magician. In the past six years, John has reassembled everything I’ve broken, rehung everything I’ve knocked down, resealed every leak and ungunked countless clogs. And that’s just what he’s done for me. For our Lower Manhattan building, John has dazzled and amazed by conjuring cures for gas leaks, boiler breakdowns, intercom outages, insufficient roof vents and, most recently, digging deep into his wizard’s hat to get our old elevator back in service.
But until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to what John thought of us. If anything, I assumed our super saw my neighbors and me as we see ourselves: a bit quirky but generally polite, appreciative and respectful. Then I read Lee Conell’s new novel, “The Party Upstairs,” and suddenly I’m not so sure. Conell, daughter of a Manhattan super, offers a sobering look at the job from the perspective of a fictional Upper West Side super named Martin and his efforts to navigate the cringeworthy behavior of the co-op’s clueless shareholders and their families.
The residents in Martin’s building dress up their work orders as favors. They make gestures of generosity to Martin to secure favoritism. They criticize Martin under the guise of assistance and empathy. Though Martin fears being fired for not silently adhering to these conventions, he continues to expertly perform what he sees as his primary job – saving residents from disaster.
I don’t know if that’s the job of every super, but it certainly is at my co-op. From the start, John has saved us from disaster countless times in countless ways. Unfortunately, it is John’s vast knowledge and creative problem-solving that enable some of us to take it personally when our lives are disrupted by the pitfalls of home ownership. Even with John at the helm, stuff still breaks at inconvenient times. And though he will hop on his bike and ride uptown to get a part, we are often at the mercy of availability and delivery. Clever as he is, John cannot prevent scheduling conflicts between contractors, water shut-offs for plumbing repairs and a boiler that shuts down in the middle of a cold winter night. Perhaps it is our grumbling over these inconveniences that makes the behavior of Martin’s shareholders seem uncomfortably familiar.
Now that I think about it, I, too, try to sugarcoat my requests for John’s help. But when I ask John how his weekend went, does he just think I’m buttering him up? And when it comes to tipping, I’m sure John would agree that even my best efforts don’t match his value.
When Martin started in his co-op, the residents made more money than he did, “but not much more.” In the years since, he watched their apartments morph from homes into “investment opportunities.” Similarly, in my building, the real estate market has been kind to earlier shareholders but less so to more recent buyers, who paid much more for their apartments and are unlikely to make a big score in the near future. And like Martin’s residents, we are curious but clueless about the mysterious spaces in the basement and the roof that feel off-limits to us but are important to John.
I think back to a conversation I overheard years ago in a Tribeca park. One mother was gushing about how the new babysitter loves her child “as if he were her own.” The other mother, clearly more seasoned, said, “She may be very good at her job, but it’s a job. If someone pays her more, she’ll turn in her notice, and the next family will think she loves their baby, too.” In the same way, I wonder if our reliance on John’s talent and strong work ethic leads us to mistake his job for a vocation.
After all, few of us can change a smoke detector’s squawking batteries or bulbs in a ceiling light fixture without something, or someone, crashing to the floor. I have lots of tools I don’t know how to use – except for the large mallet which is great for spatchcocking a chicken but usually destroys anything I’m trying to fix. YouTube repair videos make me think I can fix the spring in the dishwasher door or open the drain trap to pull out a fallen earring, but repeated and costly failures have convinced me to close my laptop and call John.
Reading Conell’s book through the lens of 2020, I wonder how often John hears respect and appreciation in our words rather than criticism and condescension. Of course, if I asked John how he sees us, he would likely say he hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about, which is exactly how Martin would reply, because no matter what John thinks of us, we remain his employers. And yet to me, he is holding all cards.
John does his job expertly, and I think he enjoys it. But at the end of the day, though we’re still dependent on him, he’s ready to go to his own home, his own repairs, his own family. And while he will respond to disasters in the middle of the night, surely he’d prefer to hear from none of us again until he shows up for work the next day. Having spent time in Martin’s fictional building, I have become more conscious of how I interact with John. In return, John hasn’t noticed – or acts as if he hasn’t.
All I can do is try, fully aware that any day John could land a better job. But to find another super like him – that would take magic.