Leopoldo (Leo) Reyes is a multitalented handyman. When he joined the Westbeth staff, tenants already knew him. For some years, he had been doing jobs here for a contractor. Eventually, in 2011, he came on board at Westbeth full time. In 2012, Leo was one of the people celebrated for their services to the tenants and the building in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He is married and has two children, Leopoldo and Leslie, both of whom, Leo proudly says, have gone on to higher education and have plans for careers in the legal and medical professions, respectively.
Terry Stoller spoke with Leopoldo Reyes in November 2016 about his youth in the Dominican Republic, his first marriage and the tragedy that ensued after the couple came to the US, his second marriage in the US and his two children, his work for the contractor KRS—which included theatre jobs—and his joining the staff of Westbeth.
You’re from the Dominican Republic. Why did you come here?
I come here for more opportunity. In my country, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity. I was a carpenter in my country—carpenter, plumbing, electrician. When I come here, the door open for me. I work for KRS, an Italian company. The company come here about 1988. When I was 4 years old, I go in the shop and see my uncle work, carpenter and welding. I help. When I was 12 years old, I was a carpenter already.
When I was 18, I was working for a resort company in the Dominican Republic making tables, making chairs, preparation of rooms, ceramics, electrician. I found somebody there who make a green card for me to come to New York. I found an American lady, and the lady see me work.
Yes, I make the chair.
What’s your name?
I got some jobs I want you to do on my house.
I go to the house in Santo Domingo. The lady see me working and say,
I’ll give you keys. I want you to watch my house.
Later the lady say, I want to see your father. I want to see where you were born. When you go there, you see cows, you see the river. She say, I like everything here. I want to come here one day. Later she talk to my father, I like your son. And she say to me, When I come back from New York, you and me marry.
I was surprised. I was 18. The lady come back in six months. She say, OK, today is Wednesday. Saturday, you and me get married. I got married. I was happy.
The first time I come in this country, I stay six months in Florida. In Florida, sometimes you have a difficulty to find a job. I do a carpenter job. They pay only $12, $13 an hour, not good money. This was 1988. I speak to somebody working in New York for an Italian company.
Twelve dollars an hour.
Come to New York.
I come to New York. The wife come to see me three times. But she is not too happy. She lived in New York a long time, but she no like it anymore. The last time she come, I say, OK, I’ll work two or three months more and go back. Two sisters and one brother and my wife go back to Florida in a car. When they’re in Orlando, they have a car accident. She didn’t have a seat belt, and she died—in 1989. She was about 40. A beautiful lady.
Did you marry again later?
I see somebody Dominican in New York. I’m married and got two children. I working very hard for maintenance, two children in private school. My son, Leopoldo, go to Catholic school, Cardinal Hayes High School on Grand Concourse. He’s graduating from college in December, and in January, he’s starting John Jay for his master’s. My son is becoming a lawyer. My daughter, Leslie, go to St. Rose of Lima School. She is now studying medicine. It’s expensive to give a good education. And now it’s a hard time for me to pay for college. It’s a lot of money.
Do you still have family in the Dominican Republic?
Yes, I’ve got my mother, my sister. My mother come here, but doesn’t want to come here anymore. My mother say, here, stay in one apartment and sometimes come out. In the Dominican Republic, my mother live in the open. Say hi to everybody. Do everything.
After you came to New York, you got a job with KRS, a contracting company. You first worked at Westbeth through KRS. When did you get hired by Westbeth?
I work for the contractor in 1988 and start working full time for the building in 2011, as a handyman. I do everything, floors, welding, plumbing, carpentry.
What kind of work did you do for KRS?
KRS send me to do jobs here at Westbeth sometimes. I work different places. KRS send me anywhere they have a job for carpentry, welding. I work a lot of times for the theatre—St. James, Martin Beck, Walter Kerr, Eugene O’Neill, the Virginia. I know Rocco and Jennifer, the vice president of operations.
Yes, Rocco is my friend. Rocco buy one apartment on the west side. I put in a floor.
So you have a connection to the arts besides Westbeth.
Yes, I work for the theatre, a lot of things for the theatre. Carpentry—I put on molding, work on the roof. I make a deck for the table for the dressing room, a chair, sometimes ceramics for the bathroom, the basement, different kinds of jobs.
You left KRS and got hired by Westbeth. How did that happen?
When I work here from KRS, the super Angelo all the time say, Leo, I want you to come work here as a handyman. Please, come here. At this time, I got a good job with KRS, but when the son was in charge, I go to speak with Matthew in the office.
OK, that’s cool. Bring your résumé.
I bring my résumé, and in one week I start here. He know me. He know what I do: work on the scaffold, make brick, block, pointing, everything.
You seem to be the head plumber here.
I’m working on everything now—plumbing, carpenter, electrician, ceramic, any job. You call me for the floor? I come and take up the floor and put on everything new. I’m electrician—sometimes I put in a new fuse, new pipes, new plumbing. If you have a leak, I go behind the wall, put in new pipes, new drain. It depends on the job. Sometimes if there’s a hole, I go put in a brick. Welding. I’m good at welding. I make a fence. I make a door.
You learned all these skills from your uncle?
I’ve got nine uncles—one carpenter, one mechanic, one welding, one guy makes decorations on wood.
You worked for KRS for many years, and you’ve worked for Westbeth coming on six years. Are you happy here?
Yes. I’m happy here. Before with KRS, sometimes I work outside making stucco, working in apartment—I work here today, next day, I work downtown, next day somewhere else. Now, I know I go in, every day the same place. I don’t make money like before. Before, I work a lot of overtime in construction. Here, it’s better for me. More relaxed, now more time. Look, I have a uniform. Before, I had to buy clothes. I like the communication with the people here. People speak to you in the hall, say, Leo, hi, hi. Sometimes we have Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas party. Sometimes make a barbecue, everybody together.
You were working here when Hurricane Sandy happened, and you were honored as a Sandy volunteer.
That was a big experience. I help the people—seventeen days here straight, I didn’t go home. When we stay here for Sandy, I was waiting for the water coming. I got a room in the basement, all my tools, everything. And I go in the basement for something, and Victor called me, Leo, go to the ninth floor and close the window for the lady. Some water and wind coming in. And then Victor called me, Leo, come in the basement for something. I go to the basement to my room, and see the water come into the basement, and “What!” and later, “Boom!” an explosion in the basement—the electric box. I stay here seventeen days, help the people, go to apartments to see if everybody is OK, bring the water, bring the food, bring electric heating when we have electricity. People want something from outside. People ask, Leo, can you buy something for me? I go to the store. And we take water out of the basement with the pumps. Seventeen days, no stop. Twenty-four hours.
What do you see for your future?
I’ll stay here until I retire. I like it here. I got a lot of communication here. Me and Victor, working together, that’s nice. Me and Victor tight. Shelly and Matthew are nice to me. And Todd, the super, too. If the super send me to do something, he knows I go do it. Lunchtime, if there’s something for doing, I go do it. If there’s a leak, I go do it, and take my lunch later. It’s important for me that you’re happy in the house.
Anything else you want to say?
If you want me for something and you don’t see me, call the front desk. I’m here for you. I’m here to help the people.
Photo courtesy of Leopoldo Reyes.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind the Scenes, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council