JOHN THE SUPER
©2009 by David Wainland
The darkness of the labyrinth was overwhelming. Grey light of a cloud-covered day barely penetrated the small dirty windows. Instead of relief, the windows that were barely level with the concrete sidewalks, poured fear onto the cement floor. There was no easing in the dull radiance of an obscured sun. Only shadows of things that might be.
Mysterious corridors rambled off in every direction with no apparent purpose. I felt the walls closing in on me and I grasped the pearl handled, chrome pistol tightly in a sweat cover fist.
This was not my first trip into the bowels of the building, but for all of the fear I felt, it would certainly be my last. Two adversaries, also armed with guns, lurked somewhere ahead of me and the only proof I had that they passed this way were the clouds of coal dust that wafted through the mildewed halls. One wrong turn and they would be upon me.
Outmanned and outgunned I forced my unwilling legs forward, certain doom lurking behind every cobweb in the dark.
I sensed more than heard movement behind me and I turned slowly with my back to the only door in view.
Out of the ashes, a giant figure emerged, black as night, waves of ash playing across his face, shovel raised high. I froze, leaden of leg, powerless to run, knowing my chrome pistol was of no use.
"You kids, playing guns in the cellar again? I told you this ain't no place for you. You get your butts out of here before I tells your parents."
The spell broke and I headed for the doorway and the steps up, followed by a hysterically laughing, Michael and Ira, cap guns blazing away, leaving the sulfurous aroma of black cap powder to mingle with the smell of putrefied garbage, black coal and stale air.
John's resounding belly laugh followed us and I could only imagine the matching toothy smile that would be emanating from his friendly broad face.
"He scared the piss out of you, didn't he David? I'll bet you wet your pants," said Ira.
Safe on the rain slicked street level I felt my confidence returning.
"I didn't see you guys standing still, he scared you as much as me."
"Yeah, well, I'm gonna get my dad. He'll beat the hell out of John. No super is gonna chaise me."
Michael was always threatening to call his dad, but he never did. His old man would have clipped him one for being there. Adults did not stand up for kids, not even to a colored superintendent. Besides, John was a good guy. Everybody in the building liked him, so they allowed him to get away with a lot of stuff. In addition, the tenants were not willing to sacrifice a good super for the honor of some spoiled kids. Good superintendents were hard to come by especially during the war years and for a couple of years after. There was a shortage of men and everybody was willing to make exceptions.
This mass of muscle, bone and fat shoveled coal into the furnace, carried barrels of ash to the curb, repaired door locks, changed bulbs, swept hallways, fixed toilets, raised and lowered dumbwaiters and carried garbage to the street. In the winters he stoked more coal, shoveled snow, poured ash on the ice and helped the tenants un-bury their cars.
I do not know what John was paid, but I am sure it was not enough. He slept in a single room next to the furnace and was available twenty-four seven. If it was cold, we banged on the pipes and radiators at all times of day and night. He strung cloth lines and hung sneak TV antennas so those of us that could afford the luxury would be able to watch.
Of all the things he did, my favorite was for the kids on the hot summer days in the Bronx. When the temperature climbed to unbearable, fans positioned behind blocks of ice no longer worked and people slept on fire escapes, out came John. He would arm himself with the biggest Stillson wrench I have ever seen. In the bright heat of a humid hazy sky, he would release the valve on the neighborhood fire hydrant and we played from dusk until dawn.
Half-naked children ran through the foaming torrent while grownups dipped their bare feet into a refreshing gutter river. Women in folding chairs lining the sidewalks leaned forward to dampen handkerchiefs and laughed as the charm of a Bronx summer lingered in the air.
When the city workers came to close it down John would disappear and reemerge minutes after they left, wrench on shoulder and a smile on his face. The rapids would flow and the world was pure once again.
He stood to the side, unacknowledged and unappreciated, but you could tell that this big man enjoyed every moment.
In a different time he might have been a hero. In those days he was simply, "John the Super."