A little over two weeks ago I was suspended from my job as a handyman on the Upper West side. The building super, my immediate supervisor told me he was unsatisfied with my work performance, and sent me home. “You have to go to the union and come back with a representative. After that, if the management company chooses to keep you, that’s on them, but I don’t want you as my handyman anymore.” And that was that. I changed out of my uniform, left a homemade lunch to rot in the refrigerator, and went straight to the union to file a grievance.
I din’t see it coming, it was a complete surprise. I’ve been with this company some fifteen-plus years, and had never been in trouble before. I started out at the bottom, in the same building, as the night porter. I always think of Dirk Bogarde when I think of the title, but I didn’t have as interesting a time as he did doing my job. Mostly it was boring, backbreaking work, collecting the garbage at night from a 64 unit building, taking it all down to the basement, and then walking it up a flight of stairs through the service entrance to the sidewalk. Plus sweeping and mopping, polishing the brass and wood in the lobby and being there to open the door for tenants who found it to troublesome to carry a set of keys.
I worked my way up through attrition, first, a the day guy quit and someone moved up into his position, the most coveted, being the 8 to 4 Monday through Friday shift.I got the other guy’s shift. I was a doorman four days a week and a porter for one. As porter I had to assist the super and the handyman, and I learned how to do things like installing light fixtures and appliances. After a year the guy on the dayshift was fired, and the super offered me the job. Now I was the head doorman. I did it for seven years, and I got very good at it. There were no complaints. In the meantime, at the handyman’s urging, I started taking “Industry courses” at the union. I took the Air Pollution control course and the standpipe course, and took the licensing tests for the #6 boiler and standpipe and gravity tank certificate of fitness. I passed them both, and I was ready to apply for a handyman’s job should one become available.
Our handyman was on the verge of retiring, and became ill, and I started filling in for him more and more, sort of growing into the job. The super was fired, a new one came. He didn’t like our handyman, and suspended him. I filled in again. This guy really liked me, and we started talking about me taking over when the other guy retired. He changed my shift so I could work as a porter one day a week, and learn more. Then he was offered a job in a bigger, fancier building on the east side. He took it. He tried to take me with him too, but company policy put paid to that idea. A new super came, a guy twenty years my junior. Bu the’d been a handyman on the east side for five or so years, and he had what it took to become a super.
Of course, he didn’t get along with our handyman either, and campaigned for me to apply for the job when the other guy left.
I was perfectly happy filling in. I got to do all of the work without the responsibility that came with the job title. When the guy actually retired, I weighed the consequences long and hard. Would I be able to do the job? Or was I going to screw things up so bad there would be property damage, or worse, injuries to myself or others. I did the work, I applied for the job, and then eighteen months later this guy goes to another fancy building on the East Side. I actually ran the building for three months, till they found a replacement.
The new guy was very gung-ho, he was going to bring the building “up to snuff”, implying that his predecessor had left him some sort of mess. He told me how wonderful he was, even as a building porter he had been wonderful, the best porter, handyman, and now super in the company. He unabashedly refers to himself as “The Tank.’ It made me shudder, but I figured as long as I do my job to the best of my ability, I’ll be alright.
I didn’t plan on being a handyman, or a doorman, for that matter. My dream was to be a filmmaker. I’d loved movies all my life, and I wanted to work in film in some capacity or other. But when push came to shove, I think fear precluded me from finishing a basically free college education and following my dream. I took menial jobs, and ended up in the shoe business for many years. I somehow ended up at an orthopedic shoe store, where I learned to make orthotics and repair shoes. I realized I was pretty good with my hands, and a fast learner. I worked at that shoe store for thirteen years, until one day I said something snotty to the boss, who said it was time to part company. I was out of a job.
The shoe store was in a building run by the management company I work for now, and I had gotten to know the super quite well. I went to see him after I got fired, and he got me the night porter job.
I won’t go into how a fairly well educated, creative, and talented person would sell shoes and mop floors for a living, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but I will say this- fear had a lot to do with it.
When I took the industry courses at my union, I was asked to pick an elective, in case I couldn’t get the course I was signing up for, and I looked through the curriculum for a fitting course, when I saw “Creative writing, tell your own story.”
I’ve always written, I kept journals for many years, not very good ones, with many months and the occasional year between entries, but I do have a sort of record of my adult life. I’ve made attempts at some very bad poetry and even some mediocre fiction. But I never showed any of it to anyone nor did I even for one second think of myself as a writer. But I signed up for the course anyway.
I finally did show some of my writing to my wife Danusia. One of the things that attracted me to her was her creative spirit and enthusiasm for life, things that I had lost track of somewhere in the middle of my first marriage. She encouraged me to take that course, and when that ended she encouraged me to continue, and I started taking a writing workshop at the JCC in Manhattan with Charles Salzberg I have been doing that for five years and have learned a few things.
The day before I got suspended, I spent most of that day on my knees laying down cheap self-stick tiles on unleveled concrete floors in the closets of an apartment. Every time I got up my back hurt so much it took five minuted for me to be able to walk straight. My knees hurt and a heel spur I have in my right foot was on fire. I wondered how much longer I could go on doing this before my body falls apart. I am 58 years old and not getting any younger. The tiles were not sticking properly and I told the building super about it. “Just heat them up with a heat gun” he said, with out even bothering to look. I was in too much pain and too tired to insist.
They say that sometimes god does for you what you can’t do for yourself, and maybe that’s what’s happende here. I was hoping to hang on for another four years to qualify for at least partial retirement benefits, but that may not come about.
My first reaction was anger. This fellow has decided that my best abilities are not “up to snuff.” Perhaps he’s right. Maybe I can do better. Or maybe I belong somewhere else.
My second reaction was fear. Luckily I am pretty frugal and don’t have a lot of debt, and I do have money in the bank. The rent is paid and there is food in the larder. But what happens next? Do I get my job back? And if I do, do I even want it? How do I ever trust this guy again, a guy who was so nice and so helpful and friendly till the day he decided he didn’t want me anymore?
I might be offered the opportunity to go back to the door. Less money, but easier to do and less responsibility I became a handyman because I know I am good with my hands, I am also very analytical and can pinpoint a problem pretty quickly, something I’ve done for “The Tank” a few times because he couldn’t figure it out. I felt I owed it to myself to step up to the plate and use the skills I had rather than complacently hide behind a desk.
So, here I am, sitting in Limbo, not doing anything. I get up at the same time every morning anyway, and I am bored and scared. A poll a few years ago found that the thing people want more than money is certainty, a reason psychics are so popular in this modern age of reason. But it is the one thing we as humans can not have, certainty.
I have done a hell of a lot of writing, though. I worked on editing some chapters of the book I’m writing with a professional editor, done some work on a query letter, and written ten blog posts in a week. I registered this blog a couple of years ago and done nothing with it. Maybe this is a wake up call, to really step up to the plate and do something I love and do it well, write. In the meantime, if you need some light fixtures hung or your toilet fixed, don’t hesitate to give me a call.
Great piece, Xavier, and maybe this is the impetus to get your book out there!
life goes on, feel for ya, use the anger to push yourself. I need a bunch of that, many a morning my mind wants me to give up on life. I love you brother
Thanks, my brother. I’ve gotten a great response from this piece, I’m thinking of sending it to the NY Times.
You’re gifted Xavier. Perhaps this is the opening that will provide what you need for your writing, or for whatever is next.
yes, Xavier, let this be the first step in a long long piece. Great work.
I love your writing. I love your honesty, your creativity, your swagger. Losing/leaving my job six months ago was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I love the freedom and I love not working for the man.
Hey, thanks Mary Beth, your comments mean a lot to me. I love your writing too, and you have been an inspiration to me. I don’t know about swagger, but I’ll take the comp…
This is a great piece Xavier. I loved reading it. I’m excited for what your future will bring. 🙂
Not sure whether to console you or congratulate you. I kind of want to see you stick it to your boss, but at the same time you are becoming that much more prolific as a writer (and thus contributing to my enjoyment). Keep writing! (Says she who rarely does)…
yep, sometimes god does for us what we can’t do for ourselves….and I feel pretty certain that’s what’s going on here!!!!!! And I’m excited for you!
I must admit this is the first time I have seen your writing and I think it’s awesome. As others have said, I would like to see you stick it to that douche but also like to see you follow your dream. Whatever decision you make will be the right one, I’m sure.
Hey, Dara, thanks for reading and the kind words!
This is a new beginning! (Not saying it’s easy.) Enjoyed reading this even though I was wishing some of it was fiction.
This is a great piece, Xavier! I’m sorry about your rotten boss, but he may have done us all a favor by freeing you up to write more. Keep writing.
Ive been in that limbo place and it doesnt feel good. Kind of in it now. Until you’re out it’s hard to believe but I think the Chinese got it right. In their language they use the same character/letter for crisis and opportunity. Hoping for something better make an appearance in your life