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Joe Thomas Goes Beyond Call of Duty to Help Citizens of His Domain : Old-Fashioned N.Y. ‘Super’ Is Jack of All Trades and an Ace in the Hole

Associated Press

He’s “the super,” sometimes more like a mayor of a small town, an observant shrink, a cat rescuer, mouse undertaker, burglar chaser. He’s an arbiter, detective, middleman and ultimately the guy whose fault it is when anything goes wrong. The buck stops there. Sometimes literally.

The species is most annoyed to be called a janitor.

Its natural habitat is New York City, where complaining about one’s super is just about second to complaints about the weather, but migrations have been noted as high-rises proliferate across the country. Their reputations vary as widely as stockbrokers’ and sink as low as used-car salesmen’s huckstering a misaligned bionic wonder.

Comes in Many Forms

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There’s the drunken lout scenario, true enough in some cases. There’s the crowd who speak Yugoslav, Greek, Moroccan and perchance Esperanto, but “no English, please.” There’s the guy whose hand assumes the palm-up position before lips purse into the “hello” position.

There are those who, while required to live in the building by law, moonlight elsewhere during working hours. Sightings of such supers are as rare as those of flamingos on the Bering Strait.

But there are supers who are ordinary folks, guys just doing a rather complex job. Joe Thomas is one such super, a family man with three daughters, a New Yorker whose first job was pedaling 400 pounds of potatoes across the isle of Manhattan from a West Side Italian vegetable stand to a fancy East Side restaurant.

He’s a man who believes strongly in doing things the old-fashioned way.

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He also really goes beyond the call of duty to help the citizens of his domain.

Overseeing Second Building

In some ways, he’s a boy wonder. Now 31, he’s already overseeing his second building, the current one a 22-story high-rise near Lincoln Center that houses about 1,000 persons in 375 apartments.

He has been there five years, knows all residents at least by sight, and admits that there are a few who won’t speak to him. He just continues to say hello to them. About 60% of the apartments are cooperatives, the remainder rentals.

He supervises a staff of 10 doormen, porters and handymen. In 1987, he was named “Super of the Year” by the large real estate firm that employs about 150 supers for its buildings. He received a savings bond and a plaque. Being the kind of the man he is, he went out and bought a second plaque.

It said “Staff of the Year.”

The staff liked that.

Not that things are always smooth.

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“Sometimes I think I’m running a kindergarten,” says Joe. “Everybody is mad at everybody.”

Thomas grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, where his father, who always worked two jobs to make ends meet, split when Joe was 10. Joe married at 18, a girl named Ellen whom he had met when he was 11.

Trained by Father-in-Law

His wife’s father was, and still is, a super, and Joe got his training from him.

“He broke me in with no mercy. He had me painting in 35-degree weather when the paint was like molasses. He had me clearing drain lines when I didn’t know all the sewage would come down on me after I broke through. But I learned how to do a lot of things.”

He got his first building at 21, very young, and he chased quite a few burglars from the back of the terraces, much to his wife’s distress.

“I’d get a report and go charging into the apartment. Luckily, always too late. One night, when the cops were called, I saw them go after a prowler with their guns drawn and I thought, ‘What am I doing charging in unarmed?’ ”

He doesn’t do that any more.

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Has Bad Moment

His most awful moment, he says, was when he was asked to go into an apartment of a man who hadn’t shown up for work that day.

“I just had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I turned the key in the lock. I can’t tell you why. I just knew it was going to be bad. Sure enough, the place had been ransacked, but there was no sign of the missing gentlemen. As we were about to leave, we saw a pile of blankets.

“I pulled them back and there he was. Beaten to death.”

He has found three bodies in all, the others were old folks who lived and died alone.

Occupational hazards vary.

Joe went to a woman’s apartment to fix the air-conditioner. She double-locked the door and asked him to remove his shoes, which are in fact, boots, troublesome to unlace. He said no. The air-conditioner was working fine.

“Oh thank you,” she said. “Let me give you something.” No need, said Joe.

Runs From Problem

Whereupon, she grabbed him at the door and planted a big kiss on his neck. He raced straight to his own apartment--lunch at home is one of the perks of the job. He avoids family problems and anything else that’s not against the law.

“I’m essentially a middle-man, and I’m in the middle of everything already. I believe in live and let live.”

Joe is discreet about the foibles of his over-extended family. But sitting in his office one gets clues.

He’s negotiating a roach-problem settlement on the telephone with management.

“But you know her,” he says. “She’ll have us in court in two days if something isn’t covered right.”

His biggest gripe is when he or his staff go way above the call of duty and the resident acts as though they were private servants.

Would Prefer ‘Thanks’

“I once froze my ears off getting a taxi for someone, and she gave the driver a $5 bill for stopping. She gave me a quarter. I would have preferred that she had just said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

His other gripe is when he tries to take his family out for dinner and 10 people stop him before he can get five feet away from the building. There is a book at the front desk for complaints.

Joe theoretically works from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This is not to say that Joe is a recluse after 4:30. He has rescued a snarling and angry pet cat that tumbled into the building courtyard. He has played the part of a cat burglar at 3 a.m. when someone locked himself out.

“They lived on the 17th floor and I know the people on the 16th floor weren’t home. So I took a ladder up to their terrace, climbed it and jumped the last two feet and caught onto the window. I climbed in and then let the people in.”

Lesser supers would have said: “Call the locksmith.”

A very elderly woman needed help when there was a foul-up in the schedule of her round-the-clock nurses. Joe picked her up when she fell; his wife undressed her and put her to bed, and Joe’s sister came over to spend the night with her.

‘Pain in the Job’

“The biggest pain in the job is getting contractors to work the old-fashioned way,” he says. “To be here when they say they’re going to be here.”

A lot of Thomas’ work is overseeing the contracts that go anywhere from $100,000 to $600,000 worth of work in a given year.

He has had his share of kickback offers.

“I don’t do business that way,” he says. “Supers that take kickbacks have homes in the Hamptons.”

He likes to keep his family as private as possible, and most residents, he says, don’t even know his wife on sight.

“They’re not on the payroll.”

Chance to Baby-Sit

His eldest daughter, 12-year-old Michelle, picks up some pocket change by baby-sitting cats, dogs and kids.

“That’s a normal thing for a girl of that age to do, so it’s all right by me,” says Joe.

The family also includes daughters Karen, 10, and Kelly, 9, as well as “Rags,” an adorable mutt.


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