After boarding the Boeing 737, I take my window seat in first class and try not to be noticed. Pretending to fidget with the tray table, I hide behind my EarPods (Taylor Swift in a resounding beat, ‘…and even though you want to, please try to never grow up,’ goes on and on).
Now undisturbed in my shell, I check out the other passengers: a well-dressed man across the aisle in a cowboy hat drinking some kind of brown liquor on ice; sitting in the two seats in front of him is a middle-aged cashmere clad couple, both reading from i-Pads, the Wall Street Journal on the woman’s screen; and in front of me is an English flight attendant asking an older, wavy gray-haired gentleman for a pre-flight drink order.
Everyone in first class seems so accustomed to the status, making a point of ignoring the staggered line of coach-bound passengers, those struggling with their carry-ons, shuffling their way down the aisle to the rear. But as they pass, just like me, they check out the first class passengers, briefly curious about who they are, and how they can afford the seat. I can feel them checking me out, and I imagine them wondering about this twenty-something. Maybe they think I'm a tech genius, or a trust account baby; but the truth is I'm a stranger to first class, a visitor, someone who is surprised to be part of the privileged elite.
Melissa hadn’t told me her father was a real estate mogul in New York; and not just New York, but Manhattan, the Big Apple. Then she explained he had the Curzon name on a fifty-story office building on Broadway, with another forty stories of residential condos above, each condo costing more than triple the cost of my four-year undergrad, plus for measure the two-year econ masters at Wharton. Melissa also hadn’t told me about the shopping centers, malls, and who knows what else, owned and controlled by Curzon Industries. What she had told me, on those carefree days on the quad, hanging out at her apartment, studying together with our limbs entwined on my ratty couch, was she loved me. Who she was, who her father was, was a shocker. And it made sense not to tell me. How would she know I wasn’t dating her for who her family was, and not just for who she was? So she kept her family history to herself.
Then we were engaged the night our team took the NCAA, and we ate at Luigi’s after, with me down on one knee while the other diners applauded. It all came out later that night. 'By the way,' she’d said. 'Oh, THAT Curzon,' I’d said. My dad’s words came to mind when she did tell me. ‘Don’t marry for money, but don’t let it stop you.’
Well Dad, you can look down with Mom now and see me in first class. You can be proud. I’ve come a long way from the sheriff’s son in small town Ohio, the boy whose most exciting days were the pistol range with his father.
And I am proud, me in my first-class window seat, on a cloudless blue morning, spotting One World and all the rising towers of lower Manhattan laid bare before me, like they are beckoning an invitation just to me to claim the city as my own. And it’s true, I want to claim all of it; the endless high-rises, the bridges, the spires of Brooklyn Bridge to the south spanning the East River, and even the green-lawned rectangle of Central Park. Off to the west, the Statue of Liberty reaches up and holds a flame of future’s promise just for me. I promise myself I’ll never forget the first time seeing the city.
I feel the wheels come down, then watch the East River rush past below, white-caps on the water, and with a welcome shudder, the 737 touches down onto the runway at La Guardia.
Mr. Curzon’s office had told me a driver would have my name as I exited security, and a man in a black suit is there with “BURROUGHS” all printing out in big letters. We make our way on the BQ expressway into the city, and then the black car swings onto Fifth Avenue, pulls to the curb, and a doorman at the St. Regis swoops in to open the rear door for me. I enter the hotel and a golden land of opulence opens up, with golds, muted browns, and chandeliers. Louis the XIV in a white wig at Versailles pops into my head.
Drinks were set for The Astor at 7:00 p.m, and Mr. Curzon had told me we were meeting with a partner about Forty-Six Bleecker, a high rise in NOHO. At 6:45, I open the elevator, see myself in the elevator mirror, and go back to my room to change my tie. I change out to the yellow paisley to go with the gray pinstripe suit. Once back in the elevator, I see the yellow doesn’t work and go back for the maroon with blue stripes, then discard the maroon and decide to not wear a tie. After all, no tie’s the look for young execs, I hope.
Entering the bar, the maitre’d directs me to a dimly lit table in the rear, and Mr. Curzon and Melissa are already seated in a huddled conversation waiting for me. I can’t take my eyes off Melissa. She’s wearing a black shear dress with pearls, simple; that’s all she needs. The golden locks I like to kid her about as being too perfect are now on full display, tumbling down her bare shoulders. As I stroll over, Mr. Curzon stands up, a big man, and shakes my hand. Melissa remains seated with a bemused expression on her face, the one she gives me when she’s thinking I’m cute.
Mr. Curzon had met me a few times at university but that all changed once he found out about the engagement. That’s when the campaign began, some months now, about my joining Curzon Industries. I’d done some building analysis for him, capitalization rate appraisals, present values of income streams, that sort of thing, and he said he liked my work. When he invited me to this meeting; however, he said a curious thing. ‘I want to take a measure of you.”
We shake hands and Mr. Curzon towers over me. He is wearing a tie and he grimaces as he picks out that I’m not. He asks me about the flight up, how is the room, appreciate you being here, and so we exchange uncomfortable pleasantries, him speaking louder than he needs in a New York accent. We finish that up and I go around the table and kiss Melissa. She smells of slight jasmine, and holds my hand to her warm cheek. I take a seat.
The kitchen clatters, and a light jazz group plays in the hardly crowded bar room. Mr. Curzon clears his throat, and I know that means we are getting down to business. I read his tight smile as someone who hasn’t yet figured me out, hasn’t yet decided if I’m one of the good guys, and most of all hasn’t yet decided what kind of son-in-law I’ll be.
Slugging a gulp of his Manhattan, he sits back. “Jason, the Lovejoy couple should be here any minute, and before they are, I’d like you to know your role is simply to confirm the numbers on Forty-Six Bleecker.”
“Yes, Mr. Curzon.”
Melissa sips her Martini, appraising me. “Relax Jason,” she says, “We have these meetings all the time.”
Mr. Curzon shifts his eyes to the front the room. “Speaking of the devil. They’re here.” He then speaks low to both of us as they approach the table. “This will be interesting.”
The Lovejoys are a handsome couple and I guess their age as being well into the sixties, as my parents would be. Hank Lovejoy is very careful in helping his wife, Alese, to a seat, and it reminds me of how my father treated my mother. Always the gentleman.
The conversation rambles, and then Mr. Lovejoy says, “You called about the building losing money?”
Mr. Curzon perks up. “It’s the debt. It’s strangling us. The building can’t support the debt service. Plus we lost the drugstore on the ground level. There's a lotta dark space not paying rent.”
Mrs. Lovejoy interrupts. Her words bite into Mr. Curzon. “So you send another letter asking for a twenty-thousand cash call this time Calvin?”
He ignores her, his eyebrows rise; he concentrates on Mr. Lovejoy.
Mr. Lovejoy puts his hand on top of his wife’s on the table. “Alese, let me handle this please.” Her hands are elegant, with long fingers, graceful, like a pianist.
Mr. Curzon takes a deep breath and leans back with his stomach big and tight against his starched white dress-shirt. He makes a point to expose his gold cufflinks; his initials, ‘CJC’, are engraved on each one.
He declares, “I’ve fed the building almost two hundred thousand in six months. You owe half of that Hank, and you haven’t paid. That’s not our agreement. I was concerned. Now I’ve taken action.”
Mr. Lovejoy is a thin man with a kind smile, the sort of smile I imagine wins many friends, one of those people so self-effacing it’s disarming, the kind of person you instantly like. He responds to Mr. Curzon firmly. “We received your demand letter. We know what you want. When we went into this, you said you’d help out if we… couldn’t make a cash call.”
Mr. Curzon smirks, makes a quiet snicker, and takes in both the Lovejoys. “I don’t remember that. I pay half. You pay half. That’s what the partnership papers say.”
Mr. Lovejoy glances at his wife, hesitant, unsteady. “But we don’t—”
Mr. Curzon cuts him off and brings me into the conversation. “Jason, will the building cash flow if we get a drugstore?”
I nod to the Lovejoys. “If we can get a Drugstore, yes. There’s still another twenty-thousand square feet empty, but we’d be ok. I understand the building lost tenants when COVID hit in two-thousand twenty.”
Mr. Curzon follows up directly to me. “What’s the building worth leased up?”
“Fifty million,” if leased, but—"
“Exactly. Fifty million.” Mr Curzon slaps his open palm on the table. “And we owe thirty, so each of us has ten million equity. Is that right Jason, based on your analysis?”
“Yes. But it’s not leased up, so—” Melissa grabs my forearm and tightens her grip.
Mrs. Lovejoy nods to herself with understanding. “So what have you done Calvin?”
Mr. Curzon leans in. “I’ve—”
She interrupts him. “Don’t answer that. I know.” Mrs. Lovejoy looks calmly to her husband.
“What?” Mr. Lovejoy asks his wife.
“He’s stolen our building dear. The building transfers to him if we can’t make a cash call.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Curzon injects, like playing his last card. “It’s done.”
Mr. Lovejoy, his lower lip trembling, speaks quickly. The smile is gone; fear replaces it. “But it’s ten million. That’s everything we… How can—”
Mr. Curzon makes a subtle grin. “There’s nothing I can do. My attorneys are advising me to do it this way, so…”
Mrs. Lovejoy’s jaw clenches, and again she directs herself to Mr. Curzon. “In that case, I guess you won’t mind if we don’t stay for dinner, Calvin?”
“I suppose not, Alese.” Mr. Curzon laughs as if he’d just heard an inside joke.
After the Lovejoy’s leave, Mr. Curzon says to both me and Melissa, “Once you two kids are married, half the building is yours. Call it my ten ‘mil’ wedding gift. Congratulations.”
Melissa smiles at me, holds my cheek with her right hand, and looks into my eyes. “Welcome to paradise, Jason.” Her hand is cold.
Mr. Curzon rises from the table. “Enough business; let’s go have a good time. I’ve got a car waiting. We celebrate with dinner at Eleven Madison.” He then turns to me. “But two things Jason. One. I’ll need you at my office at 8 a.m. Two. We have a meeting with Walgreens to tie up the drugstore. Your equity is about to go way up. I can’t have my daughter married to some pauper can I?” Mr. Curzon winks at Melissa.
It doesn’t take much to figure out the strategy. Bring in a weak partner, get the building in trouble by over-leveraging with too much debt, create a cash call the partner can’t make, then cut the partner out and take the whole building. Like a black widow, move from partner to partner, building to building, doubling your equity value on each one.
As we exit the St Regis, a black car is waiting. The driver opens the rear door and Mr. Curzon makes his way briskly across the wide sidewalk. Melissa and I follow.
Once Mr. Curzon is halfway to the car, from just on our periphery, Mr. Lovejoy comes out of an alcove and approaches. He walks determined, steadfast, directly at Mr. Curzon. He isn’t smiling.
Mr. Curzon notices him. “Hank? It’s over buddy. Just go home and lick your wounds. It’s just business. You should—.”
Mr. Lovejoy abruptly comes to a halt in front of Mr. Curzon and I notice his right arm swaying back and forth oddly, like a pendulum with a weight on the end. And then his arm swings hard and extends straight at Mr. Curzon, and I see there is a weight. In his hand, I recognize a P32 caliber pistol, black, semi-automatic, now pointed directly at Mr. Curzon’s head. Mr. Curzon rivets on the gun, and both men stand in a fixed frame, a stare-down, neither speaking.
I don’t know why, but I step between the two men, face Mr. Lovejoy, and put both my hands up, palms forward. Mr. Lovejoy, confused at first, refocuses, and then trains the pistol on me. With his reach, the gun is right in front of me. He pulls the hammer back with his thumb, and I hear the clicking sound. Looking down the black hole of the barrel, the cocked hammer, and past his arm, his eyes are steady, unblinking, resolved. My stomach falls into a hole, a bitter taste rises in my throat; I know he’s going to pull the trigger.
At that moment he blinks, his eyes change, and I’ve seen the look. It’s the same as when my father died, when he pleaded with me, begged me, to please explain. When did the world change, and when did a handshake no longer count? When was it decided it was ok to lead with a lie, and when was it ok to not know or care about the difference? I can’t explain; but as if my father is guiding me, I slowly reach out, rest my hand on the gun, just rest it there, and pause.
Neither of us moves, but then, like a shadow, a passing murmur, a whisper, Mr. Lovejoy gives up on something; he relaxes ever so much, and just lets go of the pistol. I hold the gun and carefully let the hammer down.
Mrs. Lovejoy runs up by my side. “thank you. He took the gun from my handbag.”
The doorman to the St Regis calls over from the entry to the hotel. “Everything all right here?”
“We’re good!” I call back. “Are we good, Mr. Curzon?”
“Screw it. Let’s go,” he says, and motions to Melissa to get in the car.
Mrs. Lovejoy leads her husband away down Fifth Avenue. The vibrant man with the smile, now aged, takes his wife’s arm to help him.
Melissa turns to me. “Are you coming?”
“No. You go,” I say.
Her father glances back as he crouches to get in the rear of the black car. “Melissa?”
She hesitates, then moves quickly, following her father into the back seat. The driver slams the door shut, dashes to the driver door, and the black car speeds off.
The 737 takes off the next morning, early flight, 7:15 a.m. to Columbus out of La Guardia. We bank to the west and lower Manhattan comes into view; the buildings are cold and indifferent, rising through fog rolling in from the ocean.
My seat is near the restroom in coach and I can’t see the Statue of Liberty, but know it’s in view on the other side of the plane. A mother, at the window across the aisle, with her teenager in the middle seat, looks out the window and says, “I think it says something about huddled masses and yearning to be free.”
Putting my seat back, I turn up my EarPods. Taylor Swift.