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Porters, Handymen, and Doorman, or PHD's Blog
  Worth Matters  
  by Glen Stoltz    this article appeared in March 2006 issue of SUPER!  

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” -Theodore Roosevelt

When we moved to New York City in 1980 as newlyweds, the first apartment my wife and I landed was in an early 1900’s 40-plus apartment building on a noisy street a short block off the Grand Concourse, just a few blocks north of Fordham Road in the Bronx.

We found a decent one bedroom one bath apartment on the fifth floor with hardwood floors and pretty good light overlooking the front entrance. The super, a friendly enough Hispanic man in his twenties with a wife and a baby, who spoke very little English and in a heavy accent, lived in the basement, directly across from the boiler room.

He was seldom seen. Rumor had it that he had another full time job outside the building, but we never knew for sure.

The first time we found ourselves without hot water a few weeks after moving in, I hesitated to call management, thinking someone else who had lived there a long time and had a relationship with the people in the management office must have already called.

Many hours went by with no change before I finally called. They took issue with me, saying that I was the only one to complain. “Are you sure? Just let it run for awhile.” When it became clear to them that I WAS sure and wasn’t going to take the brush off easily, I was told to knock on the super’s door.

It became obvious to me that out of their previous experiences the other tenants held both super and management in low esteem, expecting little or nothing in exchange for taking the time to make a long distance call to complain.

I came to understand over time that the only reason the so-called super lived in the building was to satisfy the requirement that there be someone nearby who could tend the heavy oil boiler when necessary. That was his whole skill set; he was a super in name only. We didn’t have a way to get in touch with him by phone. There was nothing else that the “super” was responsible for as far as we could see.

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.”  - Arnold Toynbee

It soon became abundantly clear that we were not a high priority to that owner or to the management company. It was an investment that he felt held little growth potential. Nonetheless, we usually got hot water back within 12 to 18 hours of the first complaint.

At least we had that. By comparison with a number of buildings I knew back then, we had first-rate service. Even today there are many buildings full of tenants who don’t know to whom to complain - besides the City - when there is no hot water or where huge numbers of violations are ignored year after year.

The point I’m getting to is this: We are important to this city. The work of supers and resident managers, porters, handypersons and doormen is essential to the apartment dwelling people of this city. Do you realize that? Do you take satisfaction and pride in your vocation? When you meet someone and are asked what you do, are you ashamed to admit to being a building super?

You’ve got to grasp and appreciate your worth. Do you understand that as a super you play an absolutely critical role in the lives of your residents on a daily basis? To put it this way is not to overstate the case. Building support workers are essential to the life of this city. Many residents of the buildings we serve have no idea what we do or how hard we work. Nor do they care for the most part, but that’s a subject for another column.

But despite our innate value, both to ourselves and to our residents, we are often relegated to the basements, service entrances and boiler rooms of the buildings in which we work.

“If I despised myself, it would be no compensation if everyone saluted me, and if I respect myself, it does not trouble me if others hold me lightly.”  -Max Nordau

Some white glove buildings don’t allow their building support staff even to arrive at work through the main entrance. That’s what the service entrance is for, dontcha know? What does that say to us as a society about our profession and what people think of us - even how we see ourselves?

Tenants and apartment owners are not alone in their low regard of us; management is quite often accountable for the same thing. Even though they hire us, they don’t want us to be too knowledgeable, or too skillful, or too gregarious. Sadly, this is all too often the attitude that is demonstrated, although probably never verbalized.

Even more sadly and to the point, this is quite often the mind-set we reflect back to the world, that we are nonentities and our work is unimportant, that we have little value and our work is, if not worthless, at least worth less.

Dick Koral, a professor at CityTech College in Brooklyn, a founding member of the Supers Technical Association and the godfather of all New York City residential building workers everywhere, said this to me in an email conversation recently: “It is a constant grief to me that so many supers seem to have incorporated in their psyches what management regards them as; that is, low class.”

I heartily agree. Supers are no more or less human than the general population, and humans do have a remarkable tendency to see themselves, over the long run, as others tell them they are.

Furthermore, we have been led to believe that those in the arts or finance, medicine or government or education – these are the folks who really matter in this city. Or that those with the highest salaries are somehow better, more important. With the opposing implication being, quite simply, that those in our income strata or job level or field of work do not matter.

”That you may retain your self-respect, it is better to displease the people by doing what you know is right, than to temporarily please them by doing what you know is wrong.”  -William J. H. Boetcker

As a society we give too much weight to wallet size. It’s "all about the Benjamins," in the parlance of our times. What this ends up saying about us as a society is that we have come to believe that our worth is measured only in dollars. How frivolous and dizzy and superficial such an attitude is. And ultimately how damaging.

Am I of higher intrinsic worth than you if I make much more money than you? Our society, of which we are a part, tends to look at it that way, and we, by tacit agreement, accept it as universal truth.

To personalize it a bit, we believe, and perform as though we believe, that it is the developers, owners and property managers who are the most important players in the real estate industry. Even if that WERE true, and I’m not saying it is, it doesn’t mean that by comparison we do not matter, or even that we matter less.

First of all, your worth cannot be accurately measured by comparison to someone else. It’s baseless. You are the only person with the real measure of your own value. If you believe you are worth a lot, then you are. If you believe that you’re worth little or nothing, then sadly, you may be on to something.

If a thought or belief about ourselves is reinforced often enough - whether done by ourselves or others and no matter how erroneous - we start believing it. When we start believing it, we will soon, if not immediately, start performing as though it’s true. If we believe – and act as though it’s true - that we are second rate or beneath others, it is detrimental not only to our whole society and to our industry in general, but also to us as individuals in particular.

Dick Koral went on to say: “Although it is an uphill battle, I am hoping that the Supers [Technical Association] can change how supers feel about themselves to [take] pride in the absolutely critical role they play in the lives of their tenants and to say, ‘I don't give a damn if the (owner, manager, board, tenants, etc.) thinks I'm less than they; I know what I am worth.’ ”

That is the direction in which we need to move, the place to which we need to transport ourselves. This is who we must become. We need to reinforce our own self image and encourage each other to take pride in who we are and what we do.

“They who are of the opinion that Money will do everything, may very well be suspected to do everything for Money.”  -George Savile

We may do well to remind ourselves (at least daily) and each other (at least monthly) that we DO carry inherent worth, both as a group of supers, and in and of our selves individually as persons and as supers, that we ARE partners with management and residents, that we DO play a very important role in the lives of our residents.

In effect saying to ourselves and each other: “I don’t care how others describe the people of our profession or what they think about me as an individual OR building superintendents as a group, I STILL KNOW and understand who I am and what I’m worth. And I’m worth a bundle. I am important to the life of this city. I and my industry contribute mightily to the quality of life for all. I will hold my head up high and take pride and satisfaction in my work and find fulfillment in it and in who I am - and (even more importantly) in what I am becoming.”

Yes, it is an uphill battle, this fight to see ourselves individually and collectively as we should. And to encourage others (you cannot enforce, you can only encourage) to see us and our vocation as they should. But it’s a battle worth fighting. Let’s see and understand and espouse the truth about ourselves, which is that the work we do is extremely important to all the people who live in an apartment in this city. That’s roughly all of us.

Our work is worth doing. Let’s do it well, and with pride. As much as I must hold my nose, sometimes literally - sometimes figuratively, to do my work at times, it is well worth it. It is honest work, and we have nothing to apologize for in doing it to the best of our abilities, and with pleasure.

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”  -Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the past we have been a sort of “silent majority,” just doing our work and allowing others to make false assumptions about us and our vocation. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." This should matter to us. Let’s not be silent about it. There’s too much at stake, and we’re worth too much - both to ourselves and our families and to this city - to keep silent.

So everyone, go to your windows, open them, and shout “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Ok never mind. That was just a moldy goodie oldie movie many years ago.

But do shout within yourselves daily that you are somebody, and you’re proud of who you are, of what you do, and of who you are becoming.


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