No Free Lunch

“There ain’t no free lunches in this country. And don’t go spending your whole life commiserating that you got raw deals. You’ve got to say, ‘I think that if I keep working at this and want it bad enough I can have it.'”  -Lee Iacocca

A long time ago when I was still wet behind the ears (and maybe I could admit to being just the least bit full of myself), a reverend sat me down and told me a story. As I remember it now 30-plus years later, it went something like this:

There was once a king who wanted more than anything else to be wise. Not only did he want to be wise, but he wanted to be the wisest person in the world. But being a king he had so many other things to do, so he asked his most trusted advisor to get all the wisdom of the world together in one place for him, so he could take it all in.

So while the king was off gallivanting around the world doing kingly stuff, his trusted advisor studied the wisdom of the world.

Every now and then the king would check in on the advisor. “Still working on it,” was all he would say.

Finally after more than ten years of study, the advisor told the king he had something to show him. He took the king into a library and showed him all the books he had accumulated and read. Row upon row of bookshelves were filled with books large and small. “Here it is, in this library, all the wisdom in the world,” he said with much satisfaction.

The king was absolutely dismayed. “No, no, no, this is not what I had in mind at all,” he told his advisor. It must be much more compact, much more distilled, more condensed. “I don’t have time to read all these books,” the king said indignantly. “I’m an extremely busy man! You must take all the time you need to cull it, condense it even more, purify it, cut it down to its essence,” he told his most trusted advisor.

The advisor was disappointed, but resolved to redouble his efforts and get all the wisdom of the world refined into a much tinier version. He worked on it many more years, and finally, triumphantly, he came to the king. “I’ve got it, here it is in my hand, all the wisdom of the world in one book!” he said happily.

The king was unimpressed. He was so busy he didn’t have time to read a book. “Take more time and condense it down even further,” he told the trusted advisor.

So the King’s advisor spend many more years re-reading all the books and talking to all the wise people he knew, digesting and thinking about all the wisdom in the world. After a long time, one day it finally hit him.

“I’ve got it,” he finally shouted. He ran to the king. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it! He said. “All the wisdom of the world, and I’ve got it boiled down to one sentence.”

“Let me have it,” said the king.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said the trusted advisor.

“Freedom is just Chaos, with better lighting.” -Alan Dean Foster

The real meaning of the reverend’s little story, that a person or society cannot ever really get – or give – something for nothing, wasn’t lost on me, even if I was still a bit wet-eared.

Even if something appears to be free, there is always a cost, hidden or otherwise, to the person accepting the freebie or to society as a whole even though that cost may be distributed among many.

This is not to say that there are not times when a cost should be distributed among many – we can all think of appropriate situations where you and I should help bear the cost of something in the name of equalization or balance or helping less fortunate members of our society. But that’s a subject for another time and place.

No matter how you might feel about all the wisdom of the world being condensed into that one sentence, there is some truth there for supers to think about.

“Because you are in control of your life. Don’t ever forget that. You are what you are because of the conscious and subconscious choices you have made.” -Barbara Hall

People often are astounded or outraged (or both) that a super and his family get to live in a nice apartment in a nice building in a nice neighborhood in the greatest city in the world which they could otherwise not afford, and for which they (the onlookers) have to pay dearly, all for free.

But is it really free? Of course it isn’t, as all who’ve been walking in super shoes already know. There’s no such thing as free lunch? How about, there’s no such thing as free rent?

It’s really true. We pay for it many times over, and sometimes the price is too high to pay. We know supers who’ve moved on to ‘greener pastures’ even though it meant paying rent again, all in the pursuit of peace of mind, a sense of contentment, the knowledge that their off-time will not be rudely interrupted by a resident with an overgrown sense of entitlement, awfully bad timing and an overly demanding demeanor.

Being a super, and being really good at it, calls for a great balancing act that is beyond some people’s comprehension or ability to pull it off.

“We can be sure that the greatest hope for maintaining equilibrium in the face of any situation rests within ourselves.” -Francis J. Braceland

It calls for patience and balance, but it also calls for a great ability to decipher a resident’s demands and distill them into what is truly needed right now and what can wait, and standing up to those who throw their little tantrums to get what they want and putting your foot down to say “Enough already!” yet not be thrown under the bus when you actually do make a negative decision affecting one of your residents.

You want to be on good terms as much as possible with those in power both within your building but also with the management and with your employees. It calls for a diplomatic power that goes beyond the skill of many politicians, a finesse of manner not only toward the person or family with which you’re dealing as well as your own emotions, often in times of great personal stress and family upheaval.

But you also don’t want to be seen as treating those who may not have as much power as others within your building with less patience and time spent on their problems as with those who have the power. Finding a balance can be time-consuming in itself, not only in treating your residents properly, but in your personal life as well.

It often isn’t enough, the salary, the free rent, the other perks. Some cannot seem to balance their personal involvement in their residents’ lives with their own personal needs for down time and privacy and rest, and burnout is an ongoing work hazard. Some supers never feel truly free.

“The only man who is really free is the one who can turn down an invitation to dinner without giving an excuse.” -Jules Renard

Teaching people how to deal with stress and burnout in a situation where your life is so intertwined with those of your residents, who depend on you sometimes way too much for too many little things they nearly always take for granted – it’s pretty much impossible. Each super  really needs to dig within himself or herself to find the wherewithal to do the right thing.

Balance, poise, finesse, steadiness, patience, wisdom, understanding and perception, self-awareness and sensitivity, dignity and self-confidence. All these and much more are needed to be a good super, infinitely more is needed to be a great super.

Is it any wonder that so many fall short, some quit, some get thrown under the bus, some become angry, frustrated and brimming with heated irritation and annoyance with everyone from their residents to vendors, salesmen and contractors coming in and out of their building?

We all have choices to make in life. We can choose to do this work, or choose to do something else. “I’ve done this all my life and don’t know anything else,” is no excuse. We can all find another field if we can’t hack it in this one. And if you find that it’s too much for you and you do not have what it takes to learn what you need to be a better super, it’s probably your best course of action.

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” -Andy Warhol

No, “free rent” is in essence a complete misnomer. A bad name for what seems on the surface to be a good thing. Just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no free rent, to state the painfully obvious.

But it can be quite rewarding to be of daily assistance to those people who’ve come into your life in this serendipitous existence we lead as supers. And finding the best balance can make it a worthwhile vocation for life, ‘free’ rent or not.