As New York City started closing in mid-March, Mr. Gentile quickly lost his job. He was a lawyer for a personal injury law firm which spent most of his time in courthouses, which were all closed on March 18. There was little work for him outside the courtroom.
Law firm associates told him they hoped to re-hire him when the economy bounced back, he said. But jobless and rent almost due, Gentile spent late March worrying about using his savings for his bills, including what he and his fiancée had reserved for their wedding in November.
“It relieved a huge amount of stress that I had with the unemployment system in the state,” he said, adding that he called the New York State Department of Labor about 240 times in two days in March to finally connect with a person to file benefits.
For decades, Mr. Salerno has been a larger-than-life figure in his part of Williamsburg, across the Brooklyn-Queens Freeway from the posh skyscrapers near the East River. During the day, he runs the Salerno Auto Body Shop and the gas station, which his father opened in 1959.
In the 1980s, Mr. Salerno began buying vacant land across Brooklyn to store damaged cars in accidents before they were repaired. In the late 1990s, he began converting 18 of the lots into apartment buildings.
The repair shop and station are both open, although gasoline sales are down about half from last month, he said. He would rather not work on people’s cars during the pandemic, but wanted to be there for his customers.
“Do I really want to do a simple oil change and brake job? Salerno said on the phone in the car garage on Thursday. “No, but I have a lot of doctors and nurses who need to maintain their cars. “