Home Away from Home

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From the lobby of an average-looking residential building near Union Square, Musa Balidemaj is living the American dream. But when he left the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro in 1986 at the age of 20, he just hoped for a better life.

“I had never dreamed of coming to New York, but a lot of friends from my town had said it’s good and that I should come,” he said. “When I first arrived it was so different and my English was not great. It took two years to get a job because I was here illegally at first. It was really tough.”

A native of Montenegro, Musa Balidemaj initially worked to send money to his mother and brothers back home. Photo by Karl Crutchfield

A native of Montenegro, Musa Balidemaj initially worked to send money to his mother and brothers back home. Photo by Karl Crutchfield

Balidemaj, 43, has gradually carved out a life for himself, much of it revolving around 145 E. 15th St. He worked as a super at the 17-story, 250-apartment building for eight years before serving as a doorman for the past decade. Balidemaj initially sent money back to support his mother and brothers in Montenegro. But when the country became ensnared in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, he managed to bring his mom to New York while his brothers left for Germany and Holland.

Although the married father of three, who lives on Pelham Parkway in The Bronx, has worked tirelessly at the site for nearly 20 years, he has enjoyed his pursuit of happiness.

“I love it, what I do, just for the people,” Balidemaj said. “It’s like being at home—at another place. It’s where I spend most of my time. It’s a mix of people—young, old, students, retired, working—and I get on very well with all of them.”

Attorney Joan Deraneaum, 59, has lived in the building for 22 years with her husband and son, 21. The family is such good friends with Balidemaj that he attended the swearing-in ceremony when Deraneaum’s husband became a judge several years ago.

“He’s like a friend and part of the family. He’s watched my son grow up,” she said. “He’s very friendly and takes care of all the tenants, looking after everybody. He has the right attitude and really cares about us.”

Balidemaj said that all he tries to do is make sure his tenants leave the lobby with a smile on their faces.

“I joke around,” he said. “They sometimes don’t look happy so I try to make it a happy end to their day, easier for everybody. I’m just happy to be there.”

Despite the pleasure he takes in his work, Balidemaj is hoping to give his two 13-year-old twin daughters, and his 4-year-old son the choices he never had when he arrived in the United States.

“I’m trying to help my kids do something with their lives,” he said. “I am trying to push them to do something more than I do. Not that it’s a bad job, but they have better opportunities to go further. They have the chance to finish school and get a great job.”

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