At three cultural institutions at New York University, where writers and intellectuals gather, inspiration comes in the form of a 26-year-old custodian.
On paper, Daniel Fernandez’s job is simple to the point of mundane: he cleans and moves furniture for events under the auspices of Collins Building Services, Inc. Specifically, he helps maintain the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo. Yet in just two years, he has demonstrated a wider ideal of community and hospitality.
“First thing I do at seven in the morning is set up the second floor for services in the Bronfman Center,” he said. He proceeds floor-by-floor, “cleaning and setting up and organizing everything.” He does the same at Lillian Vernon (a five-story building) and Casa Italiana (four stories), all before lunch. After lunch he does it again, backwards.
“I love it,” he said. “My days go fast.”
Co-workers say he goes far beyond his job description, however. His arrival, “created a culture shift immediately,” said David Rittberg, the Bronfman Center’s director. “He is simply the most committed worker we have. The quality of the state of the building is key.” The energy Fernandez brings “trickles down to me, the rest of the staff, students, funders and philanthropists who care about this building.”
The Greenwich Village buildings are some of the loveliest in New York. Lillian Vernon is a townhouse built in 1836, remodeled by Stanford White. Luminaries like Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Lethem are current writers-in-residence. The busy Bronfman Center has Tiffany windows and intricate teak carvings. The 19th-century Casa Italiana holds lectures, art exhibits and concerts. In all three, rooms may need set-up and clean-up several times a day.
An avid Yankees fan who lives in The Bronx with his fiancée and her young son, Fernandez has always kept a busy schedule. He has worked since he was 15 years old, first with his father at the World Trade Center, then in other custodial jobs.
“Every summer and on vacation I worked hard and I never stopped,” he said.
His mom, a school bus aide, taught him to be polite and respect others, a trait much remarked upon by co-workers.
“He is a virtuous sort of person,” said Adam Soldofsky, the administrative secretary at Lillian Vernon. “He takes a lot of pride in doing his job well. What he seems to value with this job are interactions.”
“I like showing them I care by asking questions,” Fernandez said. “I love to ask questions. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.”
He also likes to solve problems. At the Bronfman Center, it is the director’s job to foster staff harmony, but it was Fernandez, according to Rittberg, who pulled off one of the best team-building exercises ever.
“On his own time he built a flower box and he brought soil,” Rittberg said. “We all got together and did [flower] planting and it was all a ‘Danny thing’. It was his actions that led to an amazing team-building experience.”
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