The first one to arrive was Marco. He came alone and we had no idea that others would follow. We being the tenants of my building; Marco was our new super.
He was not warmly welcomed. Our landlords had tried to make our old super Jerry the fall guy for all of the mismanagement we had endured--mismanagement is an understatement: negligence is closer. Severe negligence. Negligence that eventually resulted in the death of my neighbor Gene, an older man from Texas who had lived alone on the 5th floor.
I'd like to think that event had woken them up to their responsibilities, but it is much more likely that they simply noticed the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Could get more rent now if they cleaned the place up a bit. And Jerry was getting old. Bring in someone younger and stronger to take care of the place for them. "My dad's not happy with the way Jerry's been running things," they said through their daughter who had suddenly appeared on the premises and was occupying the apartment below mine. They tossed Jerry out of his home of twenty years without so much as a thank you.
Jerry had been very dear to many of us and our loyalty to him, and our dislike of the landlords, was fierce. We knew whose fault everything had been and it wasn't Jerry's. He just didn't have the protection that we had in our rent-stabilized leases. We took up a small collection for him and he moved in with a relative around the corner.
So, when Marco appeared and began renovating Jerry's apartment many of us refused to speak to him. It wasn't really hard to do because he hardly spoke any English anyway and none of the us spoke Albanian. I don't think I'd ever met an Albanian before I met Marco; the only one I'd ever heard of was John Belushi.
Marco was middle-aged, round and bald and mostly always smiling. "He gives me the creeps." I told another woman in the building. "Me too," she said. It didn't matter how much he smiled; he got icy stares from me.
During his first few weeks of service, he kept coming to my apartment in an attempt to fix a leak that many other tenants below me had complained about over the years. Now the tenant below me was the landlord's daughter, so now they wanted to fix it. I was not inclined to be cooperative.
"One minute, one minute, "Marco said and pulled out his cell phone and dialed. He apparently thought I didn't understand what he was saying and was going to put me on with someone who did. He handed the phone to me.
"HI, I'm the super's daughter, " a woman said to me in perfect English, only the slightest trace of an accent. This did not make sense to me and I was as cold to her as I was to Marco as she again explained what her father wanted.
"It's been leaking for the 15 years that I've lived here, another 15 shouldn't do any harm," I said and gave Marco back his phone and shut the door. That was the end of that.
He'd come in the early fall. One day in mid-December I came home from work to find Marco and two of the prettiest little girls I'd ever seen putting up a Christmas tree in the lobby. This was indeed a strange sight. It was not the kind of lobby anyone had ever thought about putting a Christmas tree up in before. And it was not much of a tree: an artificial job that was missing several large branches. Lights had been strung up across the ceiling to light it and were held up with ugly duct tape. Still, the little girls were amazing: the older one was about 10 and absolutely beautiful, the younger about 6. They were both blonde and fair and angelic-looking, delicately hanging bulbs on the old tree as if doing it just right would determine whether or not Santa Claus would come. The older girl smiled at me. I couldn't help but to smile back.
The next thing I noticed was that every day or so the lobby would fill up with the most wonderful smell. Someone was baking and it smelled like bread. Homemade bread. My stomach would growl and my mouth water as I got my mail and headed into the elevator.
It turned out that Marco had a wife. It was a long time before I learned her name (Tone) but I would see her every day cleaning the building. She is a big woman with a loud voice and the persona of a gypsy. Her dark hair , always pulled back into a tight ponytail, hung below her waist, even when back. One of her front teeth is gold. The girls, I learned were his granddaughters and there was another woman, who I wasn't clear about. She was obviously the girls' mother, but she didn't speak English at all, so couldn't have been the daughter I'd spoken to on the phone. And there was a son, a big guy, early 20s. I nick-named him Stanley Kowalski.
The building suddenly got very clean. Tone scrubbed the floors and washed the windows daily. The garbage was sorted outside instead of piling up for days and days on end. No one could deny that was an improvement.
I soon learned that the girls' mother was the daughter-in-law, Flora. She and the girls were living there with Marco and Tone and the other son in the one-bedroom apartment given to the super instead of a salary. Her husband lived in the Bronx, but this neighborhood is a desirable school district and of course here she would have support from Tone. She soon started working at the laundromat across the street. I would see the girls come and go from school and soon the older girl's English was excellent and she was able to translate for her mother and grandparents. I also saw the whole family engaged in the practice of collecting cans and bottles to sell. In New York, there is a deposit on cans and bottles, maybe ten cents a can that can be redeemed. No one ever does though. They did. They took all of the recycling and also picked up trash off the street to redeem for cash. That got to me. I was definitely softening toward this hardworking family, but I still couldn't bring myself to engage them.
Then one day, Tone came out of her apartment as I was getting my mail. The heavenly smell wafted into my face and I said to her, "Do you bake bread?"
"Bread, yes," she said. "No store bread, no good for me."
"It smells so good," I said.
She looked at me for a minute and then went back into her apartment. I was waiting for the elevator when she came back, a warm loaf of round bread in her hand.
"Here," she said and handed it to me, kind-of shrugging.
"No, you don't have to do that..." I started.
"Take, take," she said.
"Well, thank you. Thank you very much." I knew accepting the offering was giving in, but I was ready to by then.
I took the bread upstairs. I got out the butter. It melted onto the warm golden crust. I ate almost half the loaf without stopping. It was without a doubt the best bread I've ever eaten.
The next day I happened to bake a cake--a rare occurrence. It wasn't that great, but I decided that I should reciprocate the gesture and I wrapped up a large chunk of it and took it downstairs. Tone objected but I gave her the cake and came back home. Soon there was a knock on the door. I opened it to Marco. He handed me another loaf of bread. "From wife," he said. I took the offering and thanked him. He walked away smiling and I couldn't help but think this probably wasn't the first time his wife's cooking had won someone over.
Some of the tenants still don't trust the Albanians, as most of us seem to refer to them. It's mainly because they suspect ties to the landlord beyond what is obvious. But the bread exchange was the beginning of a relationship with Tone that would prove crucial to me for the next few years. Because I was about to have a baby. And Tone knew everything about babies. And I knew absolutely nothing.