01 oneismo Jesse Pesta RESTRICTED

A year in the life of a 'super' man

Updated 12:16 PM ET, Sat March 6, 2021

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist whose investigative reporting has appeared in major publications around the world. She is the author of the new book "The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down." The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

(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.

Abigail Pesta
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?
02 oneismo Jesse Pesta RESTRICTED
When the city closed down last March, Garcia knew he would have to keep going to work. He needed to support his family — his wife and two sons at home in Brooklyn, as well as his father, sister, and two nephews in Mexico. But he feared for his safety every time he walked into the building. "For me to come to work every morning, I feel so afraid something will happen to me," he told me, noting that the virus has been especially deadly for Latino people like him.
His first move was to pull out a clump of N95 masks he had once bought for construction work. Even though health experts at this point were saying masks weren't necessary, he thought it would be a good idea to wear one. After all, there was a highly contagious virus in the air. Why not wear a mask? Then he ordered a bunch of paper masks online from China. While awaiting the shipment, he said, "I started wearing one N95 mask a week. You're not really supposed to wear them more than once, but I only had eight of them, so I cleaned them off with alcohol and let them sit in the sun."
At work, he tried to limit his direct exposure to people as much as possible, for everyone's safety. "I told people, whatever's happening in your apartment, if it's not an emergency, I can't go in. Most people understood." He worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two sons. He established a routine to try to keep everyone safe at home, promptly shedding his clothes each day after work and tossing them into a black plastic bag, then taking a shower and putting on clean clothes befo