Victor, R.I.P.

Tribute

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.”

Victor's plaque

The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby

What Goes Around and Around…

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About six weeks ago, while doing my laundry in the basement, I noticed a pile of clothes someone had dumped in a laundry cart. The clothes looked damp, like whoever was cleaning them put them in hadn’t put in enough money to really get ’em dry. Someone else had needed the dryer and had tossed the half-dry clothes into a cart. As the days and weeks passed, I noticed the pile of clothes still sitting there, and figured they had been abandoned. (There are a number of apartments in my building which seem to host constantly changing itinerant folks, so my guess was the clothes belonged to a long-gone person.)

Cut to this morning, as I came downstairs to wash some of our linens. I’d been out of town for nearly two weeks, and the abandoned clothes were still there. For some reason, seeing them still there more than a month after they first appeared depressed me. I don’t know why, but after I put my clothes in the washer, I shook out the abandoned clothes and folded them. They were mostly sheets and towels, with three clothing items — a hoodie, a shirt, and a pair of pants — so it was a pretty quick job. Then I neatly stacked them on the laundry room folding table and went upstairs to my apartment.

Returning twenty minutes later to put my washed linens in the dryer, I immediately noticed that the abandoned clothes were gone! In six weeks no one in the building had touched them, but the moment I folded the clothes they were taken? It’s like someone had been waiting for me to make them more presentable! Was it the original owner? Someone else doing their laundry? Or a basement denizen I’ve never seen before? A mystery.

But the story gets weirder.

A half hour later, when I came down to the basement again to pick up my dried linens, I found another surprise. My laundry had been taken out of the machine and folded! Again, a mystery. Was it the same person who took the other clothes? Or a completely unrelated event? I may never know. But if this doesn’t prove the existence of karma, I don’t know what does.

Stampede of the Elephants

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Our upstairs neighbors moved out last week. The owner, a Nigerian gentleman named Obi, sublet the place for the first 4-5 years, to a procession of folks who woke us up with really loud music, or overflowed their kitchen sink and caused water damage to our kitchen, or did the same thing to our bathroom from their shower. Each time Obi was fairly swift about responding to our complaints and paying for necessary touch-ups and repairs.

Then, about 5 years ago, he brought back a Nigerian bride. She was sweet, but their adorable newborn eventually turned into a not-so-adorable toddler who enjoyed nothing better than running up and down their hallway about 50 times a day — when he wasn’t riding a Big Wheel (or whatever modern equivalent little boys have nowadays). I’m pretty sure the kid had the strength of Spider-Man as it also seemed he rearranged the furniture on a regular basis. Then, a couple of years later, his little brother was born, and that kid seemed to be able to run right out the womb. The amount of noise those pipsqueaks could produce was truly awe-inspiring — it was like two baby elephants lived upstairs. When friends would visit, their eyes would shoot up to the ceiling in alarm. We shrugged — we live on a fairly noisy boulevard, and after a while you can get used to anything. (And now we have a kid ourselves, who’s not exactly light on her feet.) When we would run into the kids’ mom on the elevator, she would look at us in chagrin. We asked her only two simple favors: to not let the kids begin their Olympic trials until after 7 each morning (which is when Phoebe generally wakes up), and if the mom could make sure to do her house-music-accompanied-personal-trainer-morning exercises in the living room — as opposed to the bedroom above ours.

Anyway, Sari ran into Obi on the elevator last week, as his family was loading their last things into the moving van. (They’re moving back to Nigeria, to Lagos.) She wished him luck and he took her hand in his. "I just have to thank you," he said in his courtly way. "You have been the best downstairs neighbors anyone could every have. So patient, so gracious, I can’t imagine how bad it must have been for you." Sari shrugged demurely. "Hey, you know, that’s big city apartment living."

In any case, the folks who bought Obi’s place? A family with FOUR kids.

The 5th Floor is Jinxed

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comAn apartment on my floor was destroyed in a fire the other night. This is the second time that’s happened on my floor. The last time was about three years ago, when 5B, the apartment next door, went up in flames. I was out at basketball and Sari was at a yoga class, so the firefighters broke down our door to make sure no one was home. They also broke out the window in our bedroom, ostensibly for safety reasons, so the fire wouldn’t spread or something. (Thankfully, our building is old, brick, strong, and well-designed to keep fires from spreading.) Anyway, there was a hell of a mess for us to clean up, but amazingly enough, no damage — unlike 5B, which was trashed.

This time I was out playing basketball again (Sari also wasn’t home again), and I returned to that same heart-stopping sight of the firetrucks and ambulances in front of my building. Thankfully, no one was hurt in either fire, but this most recent one, in 5I, was a real bad one; the whole place is gutted. Word is the damage is so bad, it’ll be at least a year before the occupant will be able to move back. Supposedy, the fire was started by a cheap extension cord attached to a radio. The woman was out of the country at the time, and was due to come back the next day. I feel real bad for her. How can you predict an unattended radio will set fire to your apartment? Sheesh.

After the fire in 5B, Sari & I purchased insurance for our place, and made noises about backing up our files and keeping them in a safe place (i.e., not in our apartment). I also bought a little fire extinguisher. Whatever we could save, however, wouldn’t be enough. Seeing this damage so close by, just a couple of doors down, reminds me (of course) of Katrina, and how every individual person down there was affected.

Two fires on the same floor of the same building really makes you think — is this floor cursed? Are we next? Maybe what I should be investing in isn’t fire extinguishers and backup systems but one of those tokens that wards off the evil eye. Shoo! Shoo!