Victor, the long-time superintendent of my apartment building, passed away on Friday, 11/11/11. He was 71 years old.
It may seem strange to write a tribute to your super, but Victor was an amazing man. He took care of the building for more than 30 years, before ill health forced him into retirement in 2010. He knew all the residents, all 78 units in the building inside and out, and the boiler was like his own child. We moved here 11 years ago, and from the beginning, Victor looked out for us and our apartment. He had a scratchy voice, barely speaking above a whisper, the result of a throat operation, but his condition never deterred him. He was constantly animated, with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip — I learned more about the building’s history and the other residents from him than I ever have from personal experience.
From my prior bouts in New York City apartments, superintendent were usually gruff, unmotivated, and difficult to get ahold of. Victor was the opposite in every way. He was literally always around, available at a moment’s notice from his basement apartment. In all the years we lived here, I don’t remember Victor ever taking a vacation. He took it as a point of pride that he was a constant presence. We always used to say that the building was his life. We used to joke that he would die in the building.
And in the end it proved to be true. In his last years, diabetes had made him practically immobile, and he was sub-contracting his superintendent work to underlings. He basically couldn’t do his job anymore, and the co-op board was put in the unfortunate position of forcing him to retire and hiring a new super. They allowed Victor to stay in his basement apartment ’til the end of the year, and even arranged for a large, low-rent apartment for him and his family to move into in another neighborhood. But it became increasingly clear that Victor would never leave; the building and its residents were too important to him.
* * *
Sari and I went to his viewing on Monday night, at a local funeral home. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket (if you don’t count the Balinese cremation ceremony I witnessed back in 1992), and the first time I saw someone I had known after they were dead. It was quite weird, though not quite as unsettling as I anticipated. And in fact, I would have barely recognized Victor if I hadn’t known it was him. In his heyday, Victor’s hair was tousled, he was wearing grease-stained overalls, and there would have been oil or grease on his face and hands. Now his hair was combed and he was wearing a suit. A slight smile was on his face. His skin was powdered — he looked a little out of focus, or like a wax effigy of himself. His family had put a set of rosary beads in his hands, and his casket was decorated with a giant New York Yankees logo. The logo was actually larger than his name.
Many other building residents came to the viewing as well, to greet the family and extend their condolences. Also there was Van, the building porter and Victor’s long-time right-hand man. He sat uncharacteristically somber, contemplating Victor’s body. But then he nudged Juan, Victor’s replacement, and said, “You better watch out — this building kills supers.”