The Life of a Live-in Super in Bedford-Stuyvesant

By the time he left rehab in 2005, his parents’ house, where he had been living, had been sold, and all of his possessions, including his beloved collection of rock ’n’ roll records, had been thrown out. So he went back to the doctor, who agreed to rent him a studio for $750 a month.

A few years later, when Mr. Obey was laid off from a part-time UPS job, he and the doctor drew up a new lease agreement: He could live rent-free in exchange for working as the super of the nine-unit building.

He now lives on the second-floor, in a studio apartment with high ceilings and two large wood-framed windows, an ornate fireplace mantel, parquet floors and a big wardrobe built into one of the walls. One recent day, his fishing poles were propped up against a wall — he was planning to go out on a fishing boat from Sheepshead Bay on the weekend with his daughter and granddaughter.


The apartment is Mr. Obey’s home and workshop, where he keeps the tools of his trade.

Alex Welsh for The New York Times

“This whole room is my workshop,” Mr. Obey said of his home, which he shares with two betta fish — one lives on the mantel and the other on the coffee table — and the tools of his trade. A quick scan of the room revealed mouse poison, glue traps, garbage bags and pine cleaner.

At the moment, Mr. Obey is taking care of four other buildings in the neighborhood, including the large house across the street, as well as cutting grass, landscaping, sweeping steps and taking out trash for several nearby properties. He also makes a small income from referring renters to local brokers’ listings.

Cobbling together an income sometimes leaves considerable gaps. His gas and electricity have been shut off for months at a time when work around the neighborhood slowed down. But Mr. Obey has taken such shutdowns in stride, likening the situation to camping, and using an extension cord from the hall to listen to the radio.

He grew up around the corner, in a house on Decatur Street, and was a track star in high school — the fastest in Brooklyn in the 880 relay in 1968, he said. But it was in high school that he also got into drugs, which continued to plague his life on and off until he checked himself into rehab in 2002.

Name: Tony Obey

Age: 64Occupation: Superintendent of a large Bedford-Stuyvesant house converted into apartments. “It’s an antique building,” Mr. Obey said. “This is like a treasure. I’m serious.”Rent: $0; $750 before he became the super.How he feels about his studio: “I like it. It’s just comfortable, safe.”Where he grew up: In a nearby Bed-Stuy townhouse, where he lived most of his adult life. (After he and his daughter’s mother broke up, he moved back in with his parents, who helped him raise the child.)Why he doesn’t live there now: The house was sold while he was at the Susan Smith McKinney Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for a two-year drug rehabilitation program.Bed-Stuy in the 1970s and 80s vs. today: “It’s straightened up now. More coffee shops. I’m happy with the change. Now it’s a much more mixed crowd.”What it’s like being a super: “Every day is a challenge. People wake you up in the middle of the night, call you all the time. The ones that don’t respect you are hardest, but I put it behind me. I don’t let anything stress me out.”

During the intervening decades, he did many other things: worked in the mailroom of a public relations firm; went to college at night for a few years, studying architecture and drafting; and raised a daughter with the help of his parents, after he and the girl’s mother split up.

“I stayed out of trouble and kept my jobs. I was always a working addict,” he said. “It was so cheap then, it was bad. If you were strong enough to pull out, you were lucky. I had a lot of friends who passed away. Drugs got a lot of people in the neighborhood.”

He feels best when he stays active and motivated, so he gets up at 5 a.m. — “that’s a recovery thing for me” — and fills his days with work. At the Bainbridge house, his regular tasks include fixing leaks, painting, sweeping, mopping and polishing the copious woodwork. He occasionally takes care of one tenant’s cats.

“Trust — that’s the main thing in this business,” Mr. Obey said, adding that building trust with new tenants can be difficult. “Some people trust you, some don’t; some won’t even talk to you.”

But he enjoys a warm relationship with many of the building’s residents. One tenant, who learned of Mr. Obey’s love of rock ’n’ roll, sometimes invites him in to listen to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Which is why the news that the owner is planning to sell the building, delivered earlier this year, hit him particularly hard. “I was shocked,” said Mr. Obey, who has been told that he will have to move out when the property changes hands.

Ideally, he said, he would move into the property he manages across the street, but he has yet to broach the subject with the owner. He hopes to stay in the area, but isn’t fussy about the space.

“I don’t have any requirements,” Mr. Obey said. “If I have to move to the basement, that’s fine. As long as I’ve got my TV and my tape player.”

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