Super-men? Super-duper? Super-bad? Those are a few descriptions that apartment dwellers have for their supposed protectors and know-it-alls of a building complex -- the one and only super.
You know these gentleman well. Dressed in a grayish- or blue-colored uniform, the scripted letters “Superintendent” written across the breast pocket of their shirts, they live in your building rent free and are in charge of the building and its staff. They understand the intricacies of the place from top to bottom, keeping a watchful eye on who’s coming and going.
They know everyone's name and the condition of every apartment. They know (boy do they know) the boiler and its cranky misfirings, and why the pipes often bang in the middle of the night. They are all too familiar with which pipes lead to which valves, which door leads to what room, and which of those doors opens with one of their keys that jangle in bunches from their waist connected to another, bigger key ring.
But, who are these men (yes the vast majority are still men), really?
Certified. No, not that kind of certified; this kind -- it's what you have to study and do to be officially classified as superintendent material so you can obtain a position as a building superintendent. Easily accessible through the Thomas J. Shortman program, courtesy of our local union 32BJ, if you happen to be a member. Having certifications in electricity, plumbing, fire safety and, nowadays, anti-terrorism training is great; a boiler license is required for any buildings that burn #6 heating oil.
Related. To the previous super, that is. At the very least, they are probably of the same ethnic background mainly because your current super's relatives or friends heard about a retiring fellow countryman through the community grapevine and made sure to hook them up. While this practice of hooking someone up is common in many building trades, it happens among supers as well. In New York, a great majority of supers are Russian, Irish, Greek or Polish, creating a bit of a monopoly on the title.
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Responsible. For a lot of stuff. “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Definitely so, but with a lot of special perks. Supers are paid. They are paid a lot in part to be available to hysterical residents of their building, to residents who need things fixed, to a building that sometimes has a mind of its own. They rake it in big during the holidays. They get tips also during the year along with envelopes or gifts from companies that supply service to a building. They sometimes get a little extra money for a job they had no part of. The last bit isn’t practiced much anymore. But there was a time when it was customary for a doorman and, as I later discovered, handyman or porter to “throw a bone" the super's way for a side job they came across.
Overbearing and annoying. As far as the staff goes, and the staff in this case includes doormen. We're constantly under surveillance by the camera in the lobby. If a super is home, he'll take a peek guaranteed. And if he sees something he doesn't like -- a plant that looks like it's wilting, for example, the handyman lingering in conversation with the doorman -- it's the doormen who hear about it, often in the form of barked orders: "Sweep outside" (that's a popular one), "You're late" (not by my watch or cellphone), "Stop fraternizing with everybody" (Hey, I'm just trying to be your friendly building doorman, ever ready to help). Our motto for getting along with the super: Just say "Yessir" and if possible, do what he asks.
Performer. Now, in terms of job performance, I tend to put supers into two categories. The first is the no-nonsense, by-the-book type. Don’t look for any special treatment from these guys. A resident can try and flash a few dollars as an incentive, but it doesn’t always work. So, if someone has a plumbing problem and the super is busy with another person’s problem, he won’t prioritize your drip. The second is the super whose priorities can be bought. Usually, these are the guys who have worked in the same building forever. All right, more than 20 years, which only seems like forever. Knowing they have job security, they aren't in a rush to do anything. (In my years as a doorman, I've heard residents wonder aloud why some of these supers are still supers, since they seem to be good-for-nothings, maybe even drunks.) So, go ahead -- curry their favor.
Working with either kind of super can be a challenge for doormen and you have to develop the relationship along slightly different lines. The stickler, by-the-rules guys can be inflexible. A doorman needs to be flexible, we need to respond to what's happening (and who's happening) at the door and in the lobby. My policy is to show the super that I respect his rules and apologize for the times I have to, well, bend them.
For the long-termer, the rest of his staff sometimes has to put up and shut up: You may end up doing some of his job, while he gets the credit for keeping the place humming along and the situation under control. But from my perspective, that's life in an apartment building.