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I do not like the current arrangement with my new building superintendent. I like him – Sela is a cherubic eastern bloc'er with wide, square hands, each with a damp spot in the center from the many times he has spit into his palms to "get to work." I do not, however, like the web of confusion that often stands between my problems and his solutions.

When I call Sela because water flows where it should not, or because it refuses to stop flowing, or maybe because it flows exclusively in a temperature unsuitable for my purposes, I rarely get Sela. Instead, I get his lummox of a son, Niki, and Niki's even more lummoxy mute sidekick.

Niki must be in some kind of apprenticeship program to become a super and uses my apartment's tics and quirks as his hands-on training. He always enters my apartment clean, his mute trailing behind, and leaves a full 45 minutes later unkempt, sweaty, wild-eyed and defeated. "You need plastic thing," he will tell me, and then leave. His mute sidekick will shrug his shoulders with a half-smile, and also leave. And neither of them will ever return to put together The Thing That They Have Taken Apart. (This Thing might be a bathroom sink, toilet, radiator pipe, shower drain, or a combination of all four.) Who am I to argue with a man about a "plastic thing" when I know even less (possibly) about plastic things than Sela's lummox son and Sela's lummox son's toolbox-toting, shoulder-shrugging, multiple cell phone-possessing mute sidekick. (The irony of a mute with three clip-on cell phones has not been lost on me, incidentally.)

Unfortunately, this is a best case scenario. The arrival of Niki at least signals that something is being done (or nearly done) and some need is being attended to. Most importantly, it means that my call has gotten through to Sela, which is a rare treat. Typically, when I call Sela – as I did this morning to inquire about the absence of heat in my apartment since last Friday – someone with a thick Former Soviet Union accent will answer the phone. This person, of indeterminate gender – the voice is always husky and squat – will say things like, "Sela not here!"

I know it would make sense to ask a follow-up question but what's the point? There are a million things I could ask, such as, "Where is Sela?" or "When will Sela get home?" or "Is the mute around?" or "SELA GOOD HELP ME?" and none of them would be understood or responded to in any way that would get me closer to having a heated apartment.

So this morning, when I was told "Sela not here!" I thought about it for a second, and then just rattled off my street address, hoping the person on the other end would hear the jumble of English language and, even without fully comprehending its meaning, at least recognize it as a tenant's address, and then know why I needed to speak with Sela. (Unlike many Americans I've seen interacting with world travelers, I have decided that people who do not speak English are not dumb at all; just confused. And they are probably reasonably able to free-associate, in any language.)

Having submitted my address I felt nervous but hopeful. Here's what the person on the other end said, "You must please leave a message!" He/she said it like it was written on an English-language flash card, or learned from an episode of "America's Most Wanted." "PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE!" the voice repeated and then, as I was about to, he/she hung up the phone.

WE FIRST MET ON 11.23.2004

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