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A Superintendent Becomes a Lifeline for Senior Tenants

Jun 14, 2023


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More than half of the tenants in a prewar co-op in Chelsea are seniors. Rosalind Hernandez, the super, is especially close to one tenant who is 98.

By Gina Ryder and Photographs and additional reporting by Karen Dias

The reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes coverage of social inequality and economic justice.

Rosalind Hernandez didn’t recognize the phone number, but she picked up anyway. She always picks up.

It was a police officer, who explained that Antonio Ruas, 98, had fallen on the street in front of a kiosk where he was buying a lottery ticket. Mr. Ruas doesn’t have a cellphone; he still has a landline. In his wallet, he carries a piece of paper with the phone number of the superintendent of his co-op in Chelsea. That’s Ms. Hernandez.

The 55-year-old superintendent is the unofficial companion and caregiver to the retirees, widows and widowers who live in more than half of the 53 units of the prewar building, known as Chelsea Hall, steps from Google’s headquarters and Chelsea Market. It’s a common scenario in New York City, where supers like Ms. Hernandez take on a thousand jobs in one — laundromat operator, elevator repair person, boiler technician, exterminator and a one-person emergency team. But she’s so much more. She’s like family. She’s a lifeline.

“I’m practically alone until I die,” Mr. Ruas said in Portuguese from his bed at a rehabilitation center, speaking through an interpreter. He lost his lifelong partner of 60 years to Covid in 2020. “There’s nobody in the world who does what she does with a virtual stranger.” A former jewelry stone setter at Harry Winston, Mr. Ruas is from Brazil, and has lived in the building for more than 40 years. “If it weren’t for her, I’d be in the gutter,” he said.

Ms. Hernandez interjected, “What about what you do for me, Antonio?” Ms. Hernandez’s father left when she was 9 so she never met her paternal grandparents, and her maternal grandparents both died when her mother was young. “Antonio is like the grandfather I never had.”

Growing up in the Bronx with four brothers and two sisters, Ms. Hernandez thought she wanted to be a psychologist. She was a good cook, so she worked at a neighborhood ice cream counter as a teen and then went to school to become a pastry chef in her early 20s. To pay the bills, she became a nanny and a private chef for a family in TriBeCa, traveling with them to the Hamptons every summer. She liked the family, but she longed for more closeness. “I didn’t want to live that lifestyle because I found it’s so cold. It wasn’t warm. I never wanted to be that person. I wanted to be the person that helped out people.”

Becoming a pastry chef was, in part, about tapping into the warmth she desired to exchange at work and home. “It was something that, you know, put a smile on people’s faces. Who doesn’t like desserts?” she said. Later, she found her way to a job as a part-time office assistant at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Then in 2018, her best friend, Sergio Silveira, a superintendent, found out a new super was needed for Chelsea Hall. Mr. Silveira, 62, who has worked in the building across the street from Chelsea Hall for 23 years, said he always thought Ms. Hernandez would make a great super because she listens and brings comfort to people under stress.

He knows her well. They were once married.

The two met in 1996 at a mutual friend’s party at a West Village building where Mr. Silveira was the super. At their City Hall nuptials the next year, Ms. Hernandez wore a white dress she had borrowed from a friend who served as their witness. (Mr. Silveira still keeps the pictures from that day in a photo album.)

They were married for five years. Mr. Silveira is gay, and fell in love. He and his partner have been together for 22 years now.

Ms. Hernandez later married a man she met while working as a pastry chef. When their son Aren Mercado, was born, they made Mr. Silveira his godfather.

But the marriage didn’t last, and Mr. Silveira’s idea that she should be the super at Chelsea Hall was perfect timing. Ms. Hernandez, who was separating after 20-plus years, needed a financial safety net. The job paid very little, but it came with a free apartment, and the building is in the coveted New York City School District 2, with some of the highest performing schools in the city.

“Financially is really why I did it,” Ms. Hernandez said. “It makes sense to be able to be in a great neighborhood and give my kids a better education.”

Moving from the Morrisania section of the Bronx to Chelsea, Ms. Hernandez’s daughter and son, then in the seventh and ninth grades, attended schools in their new neighborhood.

The family brought a bit of Bronx with them. They made the three-bedroom basement apartment their own.

Mr. Mercado, her son who is now 20, graffitied the dining room chairs and his bedroom walls. Ms. Hernandez’s brother painted the hallway terra-cotta, reminiscent of homes along the beach of Ms. Hernandez’s native Puerto Rico. Leah Mercado, her daughter who is now 18, painted a canvas the family hung outside the bathroom. The canvas has the words, “In the end, we’ll all become stories,” a quote from author Margaret Atwood.

To support the household, Ms. Hernandez has found opportunities for her family in the neighborhood. She said she currently makes about $28,000 a year as the super at Chelsea Hall, and she supplements those wages with a part-time job at a nearby gallery where she makes $40 an hour doing everything from liaising with plumbers to advising which mop to buy. She helped Mr. Mercado find work as a dog walker and helped her sister-in-law land gigs as a housekeeper for tenants in the building.

Still, living in Chelsea is expensive. “If you find me at Westside Market, it’s because I’m shopping for somebody else. The prices where I used to live are way better than what you get here. It’s horrendous,” Ms. Hernandez said.

Every two weeks, one of her nieces, Madeline Hernandez, will pick up onions, peppers, and plantains for her in the Bronx.

Madeline, 38, who Ms. Hernandez calls “Mil Mil,” hung out as her cousins, the Mercado siblings, used some of the groceries to whip up spaghetti and meatballs on a Friday night in early August.

Ms. Hernandez’s cellphone rang and she answered. She always answers. This time she recognized the number.

“Hi, Janet,” she answered. “I’ll be right up.”

“Mil Mil, I’m going to need your help,” Ms. Hernandez said.

Janet Oliver, 75, who lives alone, had fallen. Within seconds, Ms. Hernandez and her niece tended to Ms. Oliver, retired deputy commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City. Mr. Mercado followed to see how he could help. Ms. Hernandez shielded him from the scene, but asked him to bring up gloves, a trash bag, paper towels and cleaning supplies so she could clean up blood from the floor.

As emergency medical workers placed Ms. Oliver on a gurney, Ms. Hernandez’s eyes began to well up. “I had just come back from seeing Antonio. I came back and fixed the elevator. And I was already exhausted. I just wanted to crash. And this happened,” she said later, explaining her tears.

The next day, Ms. Oliver returned home, unsure of why she fell and without full memory of the incident. But she remembered calling Ms. Hernandez with confidence she would be there for her. “Women make the best supers because of the extra attention they give to the health and well-being of the tenants,” she said.

Ms. Hernandez tries to cope with the intensity of caring for so many of her tenants by taking care of her own health. By 6 a.m. most mornings, she is at New York Sports Club on the corner of her block, drowning out the day’s worries over salsa music in her AirPods while she lifts weights and does cardio on the rowing machine.

Lately, she’s also processing the end of an almost five-year relationship with a boiler technician. Beyoncé’s “Listen” is on repeat during her workout. It continues to play as she uses her planner to document her daily tasks, like what time cabinets will be delivered, and writes gratitude lists with her children at the top. “It’s time for me to live my dreams, it’s time to find my inner voice. And it’s time for me to be who I am. And if you don’t like it, it’s OK,” Ms. Hernandez said, reflecting on the lyrics.

Antonio Ruas, the 98-year-old tenant, does his best to cheer Ms. Hernandez up. As a widower, he needs cheering up, too, drawing him even closer to the super. Ms. Hernandez learned to speak some Portuguese during her marriage to Mr. Silveira. She said she speaks “Portuñol,” a combination of Portuguese and Spanish, with Mr. Ruas who knows Spanish from speaking it with former co-workers. Mr. Ruas often asks Ms. Hernandez to interpret words in English for him.

On most days, just as Ms. Hernandez is wrapping up her workout, Mr. Ruas calls her to come over for coffee. For the first few years of getting to know each other, he was sure to put on a shirt with a collar and long pants. He believes in being fully dressed for guests. Now that Ms. Hernandez is family, he is comfortable wearing a T-shirt and shorts around her.

“Have you eaten?” Mr. Ruas always asks.

If she hasn’t, he will lay out a spread of coffee, corn cakes, cereal with raisins, yogurt and a banana for her.

Hours later, they also eat an early dinner together at around 5:30 p.m., often Brazilian black beans with jasmine rice cooked with carrots and a bay leaf. Sometimes Leah, Ms. Hernandez’s daughter, joins them and out comes Mr. Ruas’s collared shirt and long pants.

The Chelsea Hall apartment that he first rented for $190 a month in 1972 does not have the same view as his apartment in his homeland, Brazil. There, he has an apartment on the 12th floor of a building in Rio de Janeiro.

At his age, Mr. Ruas cannot travel alone, so Ms. Hernandez accompanied him during two-week stays in Brazil in March 2022 and March of this year. He and Ms. Hernandez spent many hours there, exchanging life stories on his balcony with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Spending that much time with him one-on-one strengthened their bond even more. When she got the call that he had fallen at that kiosk, she bolted out the door and ran two blocks, though she had a boot on her left foot. With the police officer still on the line, she told the officer not to leave without her. “My fear was that he was dying. That nobody would be there to hear last breath or his last word,” she said.

She held hands with Mr. Ruas in the ambulance. He had broken his pelvis, and Mr. Ruas said doctors believe he had a mild stroke.

Mr. Ruas, who could not walk, stayed in the hospital for weeks, and in early August, he was transferred to a rehabilitation center for physical therapy. Ms. Hernandez visited him almost every day to comb his hair, brush his teeth and reassure him that he wouldn’t die at the rehab center and that he would regain mobility.

Speaking through the interpreter from his bed at the rehab center, Mr. Ruas talked about how grateful he is to have Ms. Hernandez in his life. “She has her family too, you understand? But she has been giving me all her attention,” he said.

He is walking again, and he has made a decision to permanently leave the apartment where he has lived for more than four decades.

Ms. Hernandez plans to accompany him in October to Brazil, which they both know will be his final resting place. She wept at the thought.

“I’m going to miss him,” she said.