When Genc Rrahmani was growing up in Kosovo, he would fantasize about his future life in New York City. “I was thinking that the U.S. has a lot of money,” Genc said recently. “That I would work hard and start a business, and have a beautiful future with a beautiful family.”
Genc arrived in Manhattan two years ago, and things began falling into place. His older brother, Genti, was a super and he helped him find a job as a doorman in Greenwich Village.
In February, Genc’s dream of starting a business was realized when the Rrahmani brothers opened G’s Cafe, a coffee shop on the Upper East Side.
The timing wasn’t great. Six weeks after its grand opening, G’s Cafe closed because of the pandemic. As for his day job, instead of holding the door and hailing cabs, Genc was suddenly dodging infection while masked and gloved, wiping down countertops, sorting the garbage, and managing a deluge of Amazon packages.
This was not the job he’d signed up for; this was not the life he’d dreamed about. But soon, he would figure out a way to rise above his situation. Other building workers, deemed “essential” since March, would heed the call, too.
As the city quarantines, door attendants, supers, porters and handymen have quietly kept thousands of buildings full of penned-in New Yorkers humming. From white-glove Fifth Avenue high-rises to middle-income coops in Queens to sprawling public housing complexes, large residential buildings seem to need them more than ever. So they continue to work, on the front lines of their miniature vertical cities.
Some building staff have been surprised and even dismayed by their new “essential” status, while others are dealing with their additional responsibilities, despite the lurking threat of layoffs and disease. Then there are those, like Genc, who are going above and beyond, tapping hidden talents, skills and interests to help their fellow New Yorkers cope.
Take Donald Tampubolon, the resident manager of 1280 Fifth Avenue, and also a former martial arts champion.
Mr. Tampubolon’s building is just north of Mount Sinai Hospital, with clear views of the white tents in Central Park and the refrigerated mobile morgues that lined the street at the height of the crisis. Many doctors live there, and at the start of the pandemic, one tested positive for Covid-19 after his mask broke. In response, the building instituted a lockdown (no more guests; no delivery guys past reception), long before there was a citywide quarantine.
When a neighbor two doors down from Mr. Tampubolon (like many supers, he lives in the building) also tested positive, Mr. Tampubolon sent his wife and two young children to Long Island. In recent weeks, a fellow super at a nearby building died of the virus.
The stress is enough to make most New Yorkers crawl under their bed covers the first free minute they get. But Mr. Tampubolon is using his down time to crawl on the floor and growl like a tiger, instead. The exercise, streamed through a laptop and mimicked by those watching him, is part of his free, biweekly martial arts class for fellow supers and their children.
“I want to be able to give something to the world, and I can’t give money,” said Mr. Tampubolon, who is from Indonesia and was a seven-time national martial arts champion there. The classes had six families when he started them in March, but now nearly 20 families are participating.
“I feel so tired sometimes, Mr. Tampubolon said. “But then I say to myself: ‘You got this. It won’t be all rain. There will be a rainbow at the end. So just keep going.’”
According to SEIU 32BJ, the labor union that represents most residential building employees in the city, as of May 12, over 230 of its 35,000-member residential division had tested positive; 39 are confirmed to have died of Covid-19.
Numbers like this are what drove John Faldetta, the resident manager of a building on East 54th Street in Manhattan, to lean on his background as an inventor.
Mr. Faldetta raised his children at St. James Tower, where he has worked for more than 30 years, and takes pride in overseeing the building’s gardens and koi ponds. But over Easter, an employee died, possibly of Covid-19. Around that time, Mr. Faldetta decided to design and implement some creatively stringent safety changes.
A tinkerer with two patents to his name, including a safety device that prevents falling ice from hitting pedestrians, Mr. Faldetta created what he calls a “fogging station” to sanitize everyone entering the building. It consists of a tent, placed at the building’s entrance, with a floor switch inside. When activated, the switch, which is similar to a pedal of an old-fashioned sewing machine, connects to a machine that emits a cloudlike spray made up of 70 percent alcohol and 30 percent water. He recently added a portable version.
Mr. Faldetta has also outfitted his staff with painter’s coveralls, goggles and masks. When their shift ends, employees step into the fogging station and douse themselves, before removing their gear.
Many of his workers are spending the night at the building (in an apartment donated by a tenant) to cut down on commutes. With that goal in mind, Mr. Faldetta changed his staff’s schedule from a five-day week to a seven-day one (with overtime paid on the sixth and seventh days) so that they could have a full seven days off, with pay, the next week. The building is also covering the staff’s food.
None of this comes cheap. Mr. Faldetta, who has a building-supplied credit card, is spending up to $6,000 every two weeks. “But the board of directors understand that this is an emergency,” he said. “If your boiler breaks down, it is an emergency repair. You have to treat it the same way.”
Even the New York City Housing Authority, which is notorious for its financial challenges, has spent nearly $100 million for new cleaning contracts across its 2,500 buildings, said Gregory Russ, the chairman of the authority.
Not every building has such resources to offer. While there have been 6,000 layoffs among office tower staffers since the city issued its stay-at-home order in March, there have been just 30 layoffs in residential buildings over the same period, according to SEIU. And yet there is plenty of fear about the future.
“People’s lives have been turned sideways,” said Ed Ermler, who works at a building management company and who is the board president of Roosevelt Terrace Cooperative, which has more than 400 families and occupies over a full city block in Jackson Heights, Queens. “A lot of the Manhattan buildings will go on, but outer-borough buildings, where residents work in menial jobs, in restaurants or in retail, and are now out of work, those buildings will struggle.” (So far, Roosevelt Terrace has been fine, Mr. Ermler said.)
Some building workers would actually prefer layoffs. “If they said to me, ‘Listen, we can lay you off and you can collect and still get benefits,’ I would do it in a second,” said Joseph Gramble, a single father of two teenagers who works as a doorman and porter at 1225 Park Avenue.
“I’ll be taking out the garbage or mopping the floor, and a tenant will come out of their apartment, not wearing any PPE, and bump into me,” Mr. Gramble said. “You hear so many ‘thank yous’ for essential workers, but you never hear about our risk. We are out there, in the midst of Manhattan, dealing with deliveries, dog walkers, packages, garbage — you name it.”
But what can frighten, understandably, some door attendants, has inspired others to action.
Genc and Genti Rrahmani for instance, reopened G’s Cafe in recent weeks, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have begun a new ritual. They fill food carts with hundreds of coffees and pastries from their shop and wheel them to nearby emergency personnel, handing them out for free. The effort is made possible in part by donations from the Metropolitan Building Managers of New York, a group of supers and resident managers.
On a recent day, they were bringing breakfast to nurses and doctors at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital, Along with the food, they also delivered a shopping bag filled with new toys for the young patients.
“It isn’t about money,” Genc said. “I do it for myself, for my own heart. Because we know how it is to be an essential worker — and these people are working for all of us. Not just me or just you, but everyone.”