Making the Year for a Superstitious Super
The Saturday before New Year's I ran into the super of the Times Square tenement where I've been staying lately. The building has an address on W. 40th St., right across the street from the massive south wall of the Port Authority terminal, but it's not really on the street. It's a relic of a time when Hell's Kitchen developers, trying to get as many (I presume Irish) swots and immigrant families as they could on each block, squeezed an extra row of tall, narrow tenement houses into the courtyards between street-facing buildings. So I go in a front door on W. 40th, stepping past the local crackies and alkies and the guys pissing on our steps, walk straight down a hall and out the back door, make three steps past the garbage cans in the micro-courtyard and into the door of my building. Because it's not actually on a street, sheltered by buildings on W. 40th and W. 39th, it's kind of quiet in there, except when the neighboring Mexican joint hires a live mariachi band, which is sort of pleasant, or some crackie on 39th has a screaming fit at 4 a.m., which makes you want to own a rifle.
It's five stories tall and two rooms wide. The current owner has been renovating the rooms into nice little furnished bedsits?I call them foreign exchange student garrets, as that seems to be most of my neighbors?on short-term leases. Besides me, the only adults in the building appear to be the super, whom I'll call Jimmy, and an ancient man who lives down in the basement, whom I'll call Nick. There may be a Chinese lady who takes in wash on the ground floor, but I'm not sure.
Jimmy is Greek, a friendly little wiry guy, usually in a wifebeater, who'll turn 69 this month and lives alone in a minuscule, unreconstructed room-and-bath up on the top floor. We bonded when I moved in. I collect mail for a former tenant, mostly bills addressed variously to Wiang Ju-Weng or Wang Jiu-Wang or Hwang Tsu-Cheng, and leave them by Jimmy's door for him to forward. They were buddies.
This simple chore has convinced Jimmy that I'm an all-right guy. That Saturday I see him in the hall and he says Look Johnny, I don't want to bother you, but I need to ask you a favor. Are you going to be here on New Year's Eve? Jimmy, I say, it's Times Square. I plan to be far, far away on New Year's Eve. He looks worried and says But look, can you come knock on my door on New Year's Day? I don't care if it's 5 in the morning, just come knock. I say Jimmy I don't know when I'll be back that day. What's this about? He says I'm superstitious. Last year nobody knocked on New Year's Day and I had a very bad year. Please Johnny can you do this for me? I wouldn't bother you but I don't know nobody else I can ask.
So what could I do. On the afternoon of New Year's Eve I come back from shopping and for a minute I think some Islamic atomikazes must have leveled the Port Authority (or as I like to call it, the Pork Authority), there are so many cops in the hood. There are men in blue everywhere?very everywhere?lining the streets, screwing up traffic, setting up sawhorses, making the crackies and alkies really nervous. At 3 p.m. the area is filling up with holiday-makers. If I don't escape soon I'll be trapped in there with them.
I bolt to Brooklyn. To a party that goes all night and then into the next day. I drop dead at 9 or 10 a.m. and am reborn around 3:30 in the afternoon on New Year's Day. And my first thought is Fuck, I gotta go knock on Jimmy's door. Drag myself into last night's clothes, stumble in the brutal cold over to the L stop, L to the A to Port Authority, in the door at W. 40th, down the hall, out the back, into my building, up five flights. Knock on Jimmy's door. It's 4:30. For a minute I hear nothing inside and think Fuck you, Jimmy, fuck you, you better be in there. Knock louder. A rustle of locks and chains. Jimmy opens the door a crack and throws on a huge, very relieved smile. "Hey Johnny! Happy New Year! Come in come in come in."
Jimmy's place is the same micro-layout as mine?tiny bedroom, miniature kitchen area and a bathroom about as big as one in a commercial airliner?only not renovated and lived in by a solitary guy for a long, long time. It's dark and smells like an old man. We sit at his little vinyl-tableclothed kitchen table. He pours us deep shots of Metaxa out of an unlabeled bottle with a piece of tape across it and METAXA handwritten on it in ballpoint. Cuts us two fat slabs of feta cheese.
This is real feta cheese, he says, from Greece. You know Astoria? I get it from an old friend out there. Not that fuckin' shit they sell here (he means the "international" food shops on 9th Ave.). Americans make feta cheese, he says. The French make feta cheese. Jews make feta cheese. But this is the real Greek stuff.
On the wall above us, slipping behind glass, a bunch of long-faded and browned snapshots. Jimmy at 21, standing ramrod short and proud, the day he got out of the Greek navy. Jimmy and his wife, some kids, some antique weddings.
Jimmy left Greece in the 1960s, after his wife died, and went first to Canada, where he worked in a Greek restaurant. Came to New York in the 70s and worked the counter in a Greek diner in Astoria for years. "I bring you a piece of cheesecake and coffee, $1.75. You leave $2.50. Those were good tips. Now, cheesecake and coffee $3.75, and you leave a quarter. No good, Johnny." He makes a hand-washing gesture. "I quit, come here."
Jimmy's been the super for 26 years, since the building was all rent-controlled ratholes filled with permanent old folks like Nick down in the basement. Nick is tall and cruelly stooped, with a hooked nose and stringy shoulder-length white hair. He looks like an old peasant out of Dostoevsky. Sometimes he crawls up out of his warren and sits smoking a cigarette and hacking phlegm in a folding chair beside the garbage cans in the courtyard. Jimmy tells me he's been in that basement since 1945?since the Chinese takeout nearby was a bar?and refuses to leave. "He thinks he runs the building," Jimmy says. "He thinks he's king."
Jimmy recalls a Christmas season when the thermostat broke and he spent weeks down there turning the boiler on and off by hand, never leaving the basement, sleeping on a cot. He's devoted to the building that way. A solitary old guy proud of his dedication. I get the impression it's all he's got.
I force my way out Jimmy's door, carrying a wedge of some kind of Greek New Year's bread. That evening I pass it around among friends, making sure everybody gets a little piece. I'm going to find out when Jimmy's birthday is and invite him down for a drink. I've got my superstitions too.
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