Helpless in a Highrise

by

07/13/2002

1st Ave & E 77th St, New York, NY 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Several summers ago, my central air conditioning let loose. A fast drip became a flood.

My daughter discovered the problem during the eleven o’clock news, walking around in socks that became cold and wet. I called the doorman, requesting that the superintendent come immediately.

Often surly, Ely intimidates many residents in the building, who naturally resent him. We live in a white brick highrise on Seventy-seventh Street, which is okay, except that it abuts First Avenue rather than Park. Nonetheless my neighbors bear the sense of entitlement typical of Upper Eastside co-op owners.

I accept Ely’s moodiness. Unlike others who demean and demand, I’ve always treated him with respect. Although not exactly a friendship, our relationship works, something that theoretically should stand me in good stead.

Ely spoke into the lobby intercom and explained how to shut off valves that control the air conditioner’s water supply. “The dripping will stop in half an hour,” he said in a tone conveying that he was going back to bed.

I followed his instructions and also placed a small bowl under the leak. Unfortunately the air conditioner’s casing leaves no room for a bucket. I gathered old towels. Laying one over the swamp, I danced on it to sop up moisture.

“You look like you’re stomping grapes,” my daughter said.

Things like this never happen at the right time. Allissa was packing for college; my husband was out of town. And friends, whose Greenwich Village apartment was being renovated, were staying with us until their place was livable, a concept that is relative in Manhattan, land of the leaks.

The day Jane and Roy moved in with us, their ceiling sprung a leak making Niagara Falls look like a trickle. Their superintendent discovered that workmen repairing the roof had left a shaft wide open, welcoming the thunderstorm that followed.

“I don’t think this leak is slowing down,” I said fifteen minutes later. I emptied the bowl, noticing water seeping from a pipe no where near Ely’s assessment of the problem.

Taking a dry towel, Roy got on his hands and knees, searching for the source of the leak, since the valves had been closed for thirty minutes.

“Insist that Ely come up here,” Allissa said.

“I hate to bother him at this hour,” I said.

“But that’s his job,” she said. “That’s why he has an apartment in the building—to be here in emergencies.”

During Jay Leno’s monologue, I called the doorman again, explaining that the leak was still going strong. But Fernando is not a worrier. “Yust geeve it time, Missus,” he said, hanging up.

The parquet floor under the carpet was buckling, causing it to ripple. I nearly sprained my ankle dancing on a soggy towel. Another fifteen minutes passed; it was time to empty the bowl.

“I think we should take shifts throughout the night,” Allissa said. “Since I found the leak, my shift was first. I’m going to bed. Wake me at eight.” I picked up the intercom.

“Fernando,” I said. “It’s getting serious. Soon I’ll be ankle deep in water.”

“Yust go to sleep, Missus,” he said. “You can’t stay up all night watching dripping.” He promised that Ely would come to me first—in the morning.

Jay Leno introduced a Chinese chef, who waved a cleaver he called an Asian vegomatic. He nearly sliced Leno along with the vegetables. On a better night, I would have changed the channel; instead I obsessed over drops hitting water.

Jane recalled an aggravating leak in their bathroom. The wall behind the sink was wet for months from a pipe that wasn’t visible. “The superintendent had to take down the wall,” she said. “What a mess.”

“We had a similar situation,” I said. “Ely ripped out our bathroom ceiling six times before discovering plumbing problems upstairs.

“Can you imagine the secrets buried in the walls of these highrises?” Roy said. “They’d have to tear down whole buildings to straighten everything out.”

Water fanned eight feet from the wall. As Leno went off the air, Roy suggested trying Ely again.

“He resents being on call,” I said, looking out the window. Most of the apartments were dark in the walk-up buildings across Seventy-seventh Street. Traffic on First Avenue had thinned to a trickle. Jane and Roy took my advice and turned in.

“I’m sorry to bother you again, Fernando,” I said. “But the flood has now been upgraded to a tidal wave. If Ely doesn’t help, I can’t be responsible for what happens.”

“You want me calling Ely?” Fernando asked. “It’s berry late, Missus.”

“I’m not worried about my carpet any more,” I said. “What if plaster falling from the saturated ceiling below crushes people downstairs?”

At one thirty, Ely rang my doorbell. “They need two supers in this building,” he barked. “One for day and one for night.” His eyes were blood shot as he lumbered through the door, carrying a container with a hose. He shot compressed air through the leaking pipe. His diagnosis: blockage. Water from the twelve apartments above drains into a pipe running to the basement. But debris had clogged the pipe on my floor, which is why my living room was turning into lake front property.

Ely wanted to enter the adjacent room, where Allissa slept. I opened her door and he pointed his flash light, discovering that her carpet was wet. Compressed air hissed.

I sat on Allissa’s bed as he worked, so she would not be startled.

“What’s happening?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

Ely grunted and returned to the living room with a wrench.

“He’s trying plug the leak,” I said. “I’m afraid Ely is furious.”

“Well, if he’d cooperated at eleven, he wouldn’t be here now,” she said, pointing out that he’d had more sleep than me. “I hope you’re not tipping him.”

“I’ve already slipped him one hundred dollars and thanked him for coming.”

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