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A year in the life of a 'super' man

   March 7, 2021 9:36 PM
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by Abigail Pesta

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(CNN)The stretch of Grand Avenue where Onesimo Garcia works in Brooklyn is not exactly grand. It's a desolate warehouse street, in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where cars roar overhead. There's a monolithic self-storage place on one end of the block and a trio of empty warehouses on the other, waiting to be demolished. It's a street where film crews like to stage scenes of drug deals going down. It has that look — all grit and graffiti. But there's also a tiny garden, growing in a square of dirt carved out of the sidewalk, where sunflowers and roses bloom in the summer.

That's all Garcia. He's the superintendent — the "super" — of a crumbling warehouse that dates back to the early 20th century, when it was a garment factory. Today, the place is an apartment building, housing painters, musicians and performance artists, all in industrial lofts. Garcia has been working here for decades. When he first arrived in the 1980s, the building housed a sweatshop, packed with hundreds of immigrants stitching together clothing for retailers. Back then, he told me, he worked in the shipping department, boxing up the clothes. Over the years, he has dealt with all kinds of drama in the building. There were the tenants who set fires on the floor of their apartment to stay warm, the woman who built a warren of tiny rooms in her loft and scrawled poetry across the walls, the guy who let his dog use the roof as a toilet. "People are crazy," he said to me, shaking his head. But none of it could have prepared him for the way his life would change because of the coronavirus. As the virus quietly seeped into New York City early last year, Garcia was doing his job as usual, handling people's trash and packages, fixing the ever-broken elevator, entering apartments to help tenants deal with faulty water heaters and clogged sinks. During this time, misinformation swirled around the virus. President Donald Trump said it would simply disappear. The Surgeon General said the flu was a bigger concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it wasn't necessary to wear masks for protection. In March, the truth slammed into focus: The virus was rapidly spreading across New York, destined to kill tens of thousands. Suddenly, nonessential businesses had to close their doors. People needed to start working from home. Hospitals faced the fact that they could run out of lifesaving equipment. New York was on its way to becoming the epicenter of the pandemic. And with that, the city that never sleeps experienced one of the most extraordinary moments in its history: It was told to shut down. But not everyone had the luxury of staying home. An army of essential but unappreciated workers had to continue doing their jobs so that the city could function amid the unprecedented crisis. Bus drivers, delivery people, sanitation workers, grocery clerks, hospital janitors, doormen. They risked their lives so others could stay safe, as did essential workers across the country. Garcia, among them. His is the story of America, and the increasingly dire plight of our workers who keep it running. It's time to listen. As Congress fights with itself over the minimum wage and how to help families in need, it's time to ask ourselves: What does America owe its essential workers? What do we owe the people who have risked their lives to keep the country alive amid this deadly crisis? And where will they be — mentally, physically, financially — when the pandemic is over?

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