The Super in the Building
When I was first hired as a super at 258 Broadway, NYC, I was the only one living in the
eight story building. The workmen who were converting the place from an office building to coops all packed up and left in the afternoon, so at night it was just me walking up and down those long zig-zagging cement floor hallways, half expecting to see someone around each turn, listening to the sound of my own footsteps, wandering through the empty spaces that weren’t apartments yet, just big rooms that smelled like paint and sheet rock plaster.
The first floor had a big wrap around window on Broadway and down Warren Street. It had a high ceiling where the discarded office desks and cabinets and chairs were piled into a mountain, a giant insect tangle that threw pencil drawing patterns of shadows on the floor from the street lights outside. I walked around, carefully, trying to be quiet and to listen in case someone else was inside the building with me. Of course there never was. The elevator or pipes groaned and creaked on their own. They seemed to whisper to me. Up on the eighth floor, I sat on a tool chest and looked down on City Hall Park and across to the Brooklyn Bridge where the red tail lights of cars drove out of Manhattan and the white head lights of cars drove in. I sat and drank beer and pushed up the big heavy wooden windows to let in the spring time air.
It was my second night in my big house when the intercom buzzed. A friendly voice
asked if I’d come down. He just wanted to say hi and welcome me to the neighborhood, and like that. So, I went on down, a little skeptical and also kind of glad that someone even knew I was here and wasn’t completely seperate from the wide city around me.
He shook my hand out on the sidewalk, a thumb brother shake that made me feel like I was in on something with him. He smiled and said,
“Hey man, I work in the neighborhood too, but you know what man, I’m kind of stuck. I just need like five bucks to get out to my family in New Jersey. I’m not bull shitting you man. I’ll even leave my work shirt. See that’s my name, Lou, here above the pocket, that’s me. I work right over here on Chambers. Man and if you can front me like five bucks I swear I’ll
bring you back ten tomorrow. I’m not fucking with you man. Honest to God, I lost my wallet, and just need some help, you know man?”
That shirt hung in my closet for a while and then I started wearing it around the building when I was mopping the floor or down to the Raccoon Lodge bar at night on Warren Street so that some of the guys I knew used to look up and smile when I came walking in for a beer, and say “Hey, what’s up, Lou?”
When you’re a super they’ll call you any time day, or night. There’s no escape, there’s nowhere to hide. It was the old Korean woman this time. Her English wasn’t too good. It was 6 o’clock in the morning. The phone rings.
“Man is up here.”
“What’s that? Man is up there?”
“On six floor is here in hall.”
“Alright. I’ll come up.”
Like with most jobs there’s no rule book you can check to see if this is something you’re supposed to know what the fuck to do or what, or if you should just go, “Hell, that’s not my problem. Call the police, lady.”
But of course I just put on my sneakers and pants, walked down the hall and took the elevator up to the sixth floor. Some of the other neighbors were peering out of their doors.
“He’s down there!”
At 258 Broadway the hallways are really windy. I walked along, made the turns and came upon the guy lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. He wasn’t real old, like maybe 30, or something. He had a ripped sport coat on like a professor who’d fallen from grace. And his big shoes were beat up from trampin’ the streets and worn through to a hole on one foot so you could see the skin peeking through.
“Hey man,” I told him, “You got to go.”
“Awww, man, ” he said.
“Yeah, you got to go, man.”
He reached his hand up and I took it and pulled him to his feet. He looked around. He hadn’t shaved in a while. You could tell he wasn’t real sure where on earth he was. I had to help him along. He was stumbling into the walls, mumbling about how he was tired and about how he was cold. I got him down to the lobby okay. But then he sat down against the wall. And he goes, “Sorry, my friend.” I had to lift him up again. I got my hands under his arms. He was just a bag of bones. I was leaning against the door and kind of pulled him out onto the sidewalk, where already some of the Wall Street go getters with their shiny shoes and brief cases were hurrying on down to offices and meetings and wheeling and dealing. And he kind of staggered a few steps and then fell in with them, the tops of his shoes flapping like clown shoes on the cold cement, as he headed down Broadway in the snow.
Because I sat around reading Joyce and Wallace Stevens and Shakespeare or spent time checking out museum shows and galleries and walking up and down the streets of the city, I had a superior attitude and even thought I was hot shit compared to pawns and poor assholes
who had to wear suits and lug suit cases around and sit in cubicles.
But of course I was just the super vacuuming the hallway rugs, mopping the lobby, and at the tenant’s beck and call. And also felt put upon and embarrassed by my lowly position on the ladder of success, being right near the financial district and the World Trade Center and all that. I was convinced I was an artist of some kind, and there’s nothing better or higher on a different ladder than that, I thought.
A woman who was a curator at the Whitney lived with a commodities broker on the top floor of the building. So, one day when I was tying off a tube of trash, I was inspired by those long industrial metal compactor trash bag ties and saw that they looked like long spirits drifting with the large loop end as the head and the small loop end feet flowing out behind. And I got to work creating a spirit world of garbage ties drifting, tacked to a board down in the compactor
room of the sub-basement, my studio, where I worked away, oblivious to the smell, except when, now and then, a bag of kitchen trash, or cat litter came crashing down. I’d look up for a second, then get back to work on my installation of lost garbage tie ghosts I almost believed would one day be displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art.