Almost everyone, especially apartment house dwellers, in and around New York City knows that mentioning “The Super” refers to a very important individual. He is an employee of the apartment house owner, lives on the premises, and is in charge of all custodial services and other matters. This includes janitorial service, plumbing repair in individual apartments, collecting rents each month, making sure each apartment has heat during the winter, and, perhaps most important of all, taking out the garbage. If the apartment house is large enough to have many tenants, there can be staff members to handle the work under the direction of the Super. It is very obvious to most apartment house dwellers that keeping on the good side of the Super and giving him a cash gift at Christmas time assures prompt service whenever any matter requires expert attention.
Our family got along very well with our Super. In fact, we were on a first name basis with him. We called him Doug, and he referred to my father as Sam.
One day, two FBI agents came by to question Doug about my father. Supers knew much about their tenants and also networked with other Supers in the neighborhood so that information about tenants in other buildings was shared many times. The agents said that my father was suspected of smuggling diamonds into the country, especially through Asia.
During the session of intensive interrogation by the FBI, Doug interrupted the agents, exclaiming, “I just can’t believe this about Sam. He’s a good man who respects the law.” One of the agents then opened a folder and showed a photograph to Doug, saying, “Well, here is what he looks like.”
Doug looked at the photographed and immediately replied, “That’s not Sam. It’s Ivan Zimmer. He lives two houses down the block. Nobody likes him, and you can check up on him with Dino Belucci, the Super in that building.”
Ivan had obviously stolen my father’s identity for his passport. The agents went on their way, possibly to talk with Dino about Ivan and his activities. A short time later, no one saw Ivan in the neighborhood any longer.
The Super, being friendly and supportive with us, told my father all about this episode. When my father shared the information with us, we were somewhat confused because he had never left the United States for any reason after emigrating here from Germany some 35 years earlier and never acted suspiciously or secretly. We were also frightened because we had no experience with the FBI or any knowledge about their procedures.
Our “brush with the law” took place around 1938. My father died in 1963. Here is it is the year 2010. I suspect that somewhere in the archives of the FBI is a folder containing some yellowing pages referring to my innocent father as a suspected diamond smuggler. So it goes sometimes with crime and corruption in America!
Mortimer D. Schwartz is Professor Emeritus at the UC Davis School of Law.