Archives for posts with tag: Naivete

Collusion Course

Is a “eureka moment” always a good thing? Is it always instantaneous? I had one that took several months to evolve and, when the light finally turned on, when the moment of clarity shown, when the flower finally bloomed, I felt like an idiot.

In 1983, only weeks into my career as a real estate lawyer in New Jersey, my boss (henceforth referred to as “F”) called me into his smoke-filled office and handed me a file.
“Go to the planning board hearing in Midland Park tonight,” he said, as though that meant anything to me.
“Ummmmm,” I said.
“Just be there at seven o’clock,” he continued, “and when they call the case, get up and introduce yourself, like, ‘I’m the Chen’s lawyer’ and y’know, take it from there.”
“Who are the Chens?” I asked.
“Our clients,” said F. “They bought a house a few months ago, and they applied to the planning board to open a restaurant there, that’s all. Should be a piece of cake. Just read the file.”
With that, F, who was always bustling, looked longingly at the lights blinking on his phone console and took a quick drag from his always-lit cigarette; I realized he wanted me to leave.

Working for F was an eye-opening experience. I’d spent my first year as a lawyer at a buttoned-down, conservative law firm in a neighboring town. There, I arrived early, researched banking regulations in the library, and stayed until the last partner went home in the evening. I was promised the opportunity to meet clients “within several years;” meanwhile, I worked exclusively with thick and tedious books, a pen and a pad of paper.
At the end of that year, I expressed an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and boredom to a friend who put me in touch with her uncle, who hired me without even an interview, to assist with his rough-and-tumble divorce practice. I immediately went from zero “client contact” to a soul-sucking abundance of client contact from which I began to believe the following: basically, everyone lies: the opposing party; the opposing lawyer; and, especially, your own client. Still single at the time, I couldn’t go on a date during my brief “family lawyer” phase, since I trusted no one.
Though my pay improved from my previous position, and boredom was no longer an issue, I perceived that being a “divorce lawyer” wouldn’t suit me. Excessive honesty on my part hurt several clients’ cases, and my boss also recognized my personality was unsuited to the task. He sought to hire a real SOB as his new associate, and offered my services to his brother, F, whose real estate closing practice was overwhelmingly busy. In our first meeting, F made clear his desire that I handle enough of his workload to free his afternoons for his true passion, golf.
My first few weeks as a “closing attorney” were delightful. I liked talking on the phone to generally happy clients, who were buying or selling their homes. Even cheerier were people refinancing their mortgages, since nothing makes a client happier than saving four or five hundred dollars a month. The work seemed clean, positive, and easy.
Several other aspects of real estate law were preferable, too. There were no court appearances, no crying clients and no need to keep a gun in the desk drawer, as F’s brother did. In addition, we didn’t keep track of time for billing purposes. Each transaction had a set fee and, as F often said: “If they don’t pay, they don’t close.”
Finally, real estate agents were overwhelmingly middle-aged women. They were usually pleasant to my mid-twenties self, even those who didn’t have a daughter at home they hoped to introduce to the “bright young lawyer in town.” F’s wisdom on real estate agents was, as follows: “Most lawyers treat them like dirt. Just return their calls and they’ll love you.” He was right.
Gifted at memorizing phone numbers of agents, mortgage lenders and the like, I also learned to negotiate on the fly. Most days, F went golfing by noon and I departed promptly at five. I felt HAPPY as a practicing lawyer for the first time, until….

Arriving thirty minutes early at the town hall “hearing room” to relax and read the Chen file, I sat in the front row of four wooden benches like pews in a church, except lacking bibles.
I learned F had represented Mr. and Mrs. Chen in the purchase of a small house several months earlier, for $120,000, which they intended to convert to a Chinese restaurant. F had charged them a legal fee of $3,500, 400% more than our usual residential closing fee at the time. A note on the file indicated, by way of explanation: “Commercial closing fee.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “F charges a ton extra when it’s not just a house.” Yet, I couldn’t figure out how this file differed from any other closing, at least up to where I found myself at that moment: at my first-ever planning board hearing. I felt a little queasy about my lack of preparation. Despite F’s assurance, how could it be that all I had to do was introduce myself, receive permission to open a restaurant on behalf of my clients, say “thank you,” and go home?
Right on time, seven individuals, six men and one woman, entered from a side door and sat behind a long table in front of the room. American and Midland Park flags stood on poles at both ends of their table. Cardboard nametags in front of each seat identified the board members. A stenographer followed them into the room and sat at a small desk between the table and a lectern. During the half hour I’d waited, several other lawyers or applicants had arrived and taken seats in the visitors’ benches, either silently, or whispering among themselves in hushed tones.
After intoning the pledge of allegiance and discussing several preliminary remarks about the previous month’s agenda, the chairman, sitting in the middle of the seven board members, scanned the room, and asked if anyone represented the Chen application.
“Yes, me,” I jumped up, dropping the file to the floor in my excitement.
“And you are?” said the chairman.
“Stuart Sanders, of the F law firm,” I said, as I retrieved the file and moved to the lectern in front of the board.
“Mr. F is not favoring us with his presence this evening?” he said.
Several of the board members and several people in the audience seemed to exchange knowing glances. I thought one man even snickered.
“Ummmm, no,” I said. “I’ve come to get approval to open the restaurant.”
More chuckles arose from around the room. I felt my face, already warm, become bright red.
“Well,” said the chairman. “Do you happen to have a magical explanation of where the parking spaces are supposed to go?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Mr. Chairman,” said the female member. “Clearly, Mr. F has chosen to dodge this meeting. He has not provided this board, or his associate, apparently, any basis to believe the property in question can support the eight parking spaces necessary for a restaurant under our ordinance.”
Another board member asked: “Should we allow the applicant one more month? Clearly, this young man is not prepared to address our concerns this evening.”
“I don’t think so,” said the chairman. “We were perfectly clear with Mr. F last month. I don’t understand how he let his clients buy this property with the expectation of opening a restaurant.
“Son,” he said, addressing me, “Do you think eight parking spaces can fit onto the footprint of this property?”
My mind was spinning. I didn’t know what sort of “footprint” he meant. All that came to mind was a footprint of a bear walking in snow. I had no idea how to respond. I shook my head.
“Motion to dismiss the application,” said one board member.
“Second,” said several simultaneously.
“All in favor of dismissal, raise your hand,” said the chairman.
Six board members raised their hands immediately. The one who had suggested a delay caught my eye, mouthed “sorry,” and raised his hand, too.

It ended so soon I hardly comprehended what had happened. With my file in one hand and my briefcase in another, I hurried out of the building and drove home.
I laid awake most of the night trying to figure out how I had failed. Should I have known from the file that there was an issue with parking? How could my first board hearing end in humiliation? Though I had no idea on what basis, I was certain F would be angry with me. Upon arrival at work, I gingerly approached his office .
As usual, he was hurriedly plowing through the previous afternoon’s phone messages so he could make his tee-time.
“How’d it go last night?” he asked, pausing with the phone in one hand and his cigarette in another.
“Terribly,” I said. “The application was dismissed. They said….” I started to explain, but he waved me off: “It’s not a problem,” he said.
“It’s not?” I said.
“I’ll talk to the Chen’s,” he said. “Don’t give it another worry.”

I went back to my own office relieved, but mystified. Why wasn’t F upset? Why didn’t he want to know what had happened? I dug into my own pile of phone messages, performed a closing and, gradually, managed to recover from the previous evening’s disaster.
The next day, when I went to lunch, I saw F in line at the sandwich shop across from our office, in an animated discussion with Alex Milano, a litigation attorney and golf buddy. When I entered to place my order, they glanced in my direction and I had the distinct impression they ceased talking because of me. I wondered if F had been telling him about the planning board. I nodded in greeting, and departed as soon as I received my food.
Several days later, I saw F usher an Asian couple into his office and shut the door. This was unusual, since he almost never shut his door.
“It’s probably the Chens,” I thought to myself. As soon as they left, I went down the hall and asked F: “Was that who I think?”
“Those were the Chens,” said F. “I told them how sorry I was.”
“What happens next?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” said F. “It’s not your problem.”
“It’s not?” I said.
He just shook his head and changed the subject: “You’ll do the Moran closing this afternoon. I’ll take care of the Worley’s tomorrow morning before golf.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was still anxious.

Approximately a month later, during a relatively quiet afternoon, while F was out, a middle-aged man appeared at our office and asked our receptionist, Cheryl, if I were available. Before she even finished gesturing in my direction, the man handed me a pile of papers and bounded back out the door. I looked down at a “Summons and Complaint.” On behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Chen, Alex Milano had filed a lawsuit against me for malpractice.
I trembled. I blanched. I felt a terrible combination of rage and humiliation.
“Are you okay,” asked Cheryl.
“Not really,” I said. I sat down glumly at my desk.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and evening, I was miserable. I had never been sued before. I had no idea what lay ahead. I couldn’t imagine how I was responsible for what happened. And why had F told me “not to worry?”
The next morning, I showed the documents to F. Again, he said: “Don’t worry.” He added: “I’ll handle it.”
“It says I committed malpractice,” I said. “Was I supposed to know about the parking spaces?”
“There was a mistake, but you had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Don’t even think about it again. Here, do you have time to return these calls? I gotta go.”
He handed me a sheaf of messages. It wasn’t easy, but over the next several weeks, the lawsuit receded from my mind. Yet, my attitude had changed; I couldn’t identify it yet, but something was amiss.

The next time I saw F with Alex Milano at lunch, they seemed happy like two men who’d won a small lottery. Indeed, I’d learned from F’s secretary that our firm’s insurance company had settled with the Chens by paying them back their entire purchase price, plus damages. A third of that, nearly $50,000, would have gone to Alex and the balance to the Chens who still owned the house, even though they couldn’t operate a restaurant.
Gradually, I realized how “the law” had worked in this instance: Alex Milano would have paid a “referral fee” of one-third of his fee to whoever referred him the clients. Thus, in addition to the $3,500 closing fee, F received $16,000 from Alex. I never learned whether F had bungled the transaction intentionally, or merely hatched this solution to salvage the situation, after he realized the Chens’ purchase should have been conditioned on the existence of sufficient parking spaces.
Yet, the experience was not worthless. Besides humiliation, I received several valuable lessons for the remainder of my twenty-five year career, namely:

1. If you specialize in residential real estate, don’t take a commercial client;
2. If you are not familiar with a file, don’t accept someone else’s client without asking a lot of questions;
3. Be wary of dealing with anyone who says “Don’t worry about it,” particularly F, forevermore; and
4. If all else fails, be mindful of human nature, and be certain the malpractice insurance is paid up-to-date.


MAURA
During my first year at Dickinson College, I spent most non-studying and non-soccer-playing time with a collection of socially naive males. We named ourselves Kappa Wu which was intended to mock the Greek system we all despised with every disdainful and intellectually superior ounce of our bodies. Yet, decades later, I can see it also expressed some envy.
The core of Kappa Wu consisted of about twelve members who had virtually no contact with the opposite sex outside of classrooms. For a variety of reasons, we were inexperienced and awkward, and found it easier to hang out together than to reach out socially.
This is not to say I had no female friends. I had one. The closest thing our soccer team had to a groupie was a sophomore named Liz. She staked out our preseason practices and commenced dating our best player before the season had even begun. When they broke up, Liz dated several other players, one-at-a-time. Somehow, she managed to remain on friendly terms with all of them. She never reached as far down the roster as me, of course, the shy freshman goalie, but she did once bring her roommate, Maura, to a game.
Maura recognized me from Music 101 and, during warm-ups, in front of my teammates asked if I would help her study. Self-conscious to the extreme, I feared being razzed by the guys with insensitive male insinuations. But Maura apparently appeared too weird to them to attract and hold their attention, so I was spared.
In its two hundred year history, Maura was probably Dickinson’s first student from New Mexico. She was a thin brunette of medium height, and if one could get an unobstructed look at her, she would probably have been considered attractive. However, in a milieu that favored conventional styles, Maura was an outlier. She usually wore beat-up overalls and a changing selection of oversized, bright-colored plastic glasses that dominated her face. She frequently wore a scuffed cowboy hat and boots, too, basically the western grunge version of Diane Keaton.
Maura’s sideline approach to me could have represented a landmark in my social history; a girl had publicly expressed interest in spending time with me. But I also felt a whiff of “otherness,” which left me with no expectation we would ever be more than friends. After just one or two encounters, it was clear I would be like the big brother in all matters of classical music, and Maura would be the big sister in every other way.
It turned out that Maura was nineteen going on thirty. She had traveled all over the west. She’d ridden motorcycles and horses and real bucking broncos (outside, not in a bar). Unlike Liz, she was not the least attracted by the soccer team; “college boys are so immature,” she declared. Even the local law students, some of whom approached twenty-five, were beneath her level of interest. “I like real men,” said Maura to me, her local, musically advanced little brother (if the music was written before 1900).
Music 101 was a survey course of Renaissance and Baroque music; having studied music history and theory in high school, as well as having had a lifetime of exposure to classical music, I found the course simple. To Maura, as to many who thought “Baroque” meant something had to be fixed, Music 101 was a quagmire. Discerning the difference between major and minor keys was difficult for her. Recognizing stylistic differences between a sixteenth century Italian and a seventeenth century German composer was nearly impossible.
“It’s Bach,” I would say. “Listen to the polyphony, the fugal elements.”
“What does fugal mean again?” Maura would ask.
And so it went. Still, in spite of such challenges, I enjoyed spending time with Maura. She was interesting and obviously different from all my other friends. Sometimes, we shared a meal at the cafeteria or took a walk together. Using a skill that placed me in the forefront of technology in 1975, I typed several of her papers. “Would you mind if I did some editing, while I’m at it?” I asked.
“Okay with me,” she responded.
I did not feel Maura took advantage of me. Her requests were infrequent, and I had plenty of time, particularly after the soccer season ended. In the spring, she sat beside me in Music 102 and we walked together to the local ice cream shop several times. I don’t recall ever discussing anything consequential, so I was surprised when Maura told me, at the end of the year, she would be transferring back to New Mexico. It had never occurred to me I was one of her only friends and she must have been lonely, so far from home and so far from the mainstream, stylistically.
How blind I was. How oblivious. Of course she was transferring home! In a whole year of discussions, I never learned why she had chosen to come across the country to attend college in Pennsylvania. I should have asked. I should have tried to understand her situation, or tried to help. I should have invited her home for Thanksgiving. I learned later she had stayed in the dorm, herself, over the holiday.

I thought I had seen the last of Maura when the school year ended. So I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter inviting me to visit her in Albuquerque.
“That’s nice,” said my mother. “You never mentioned having a girlfriend.”
Doubtless blushing, I said: “She’s really just someone I know.”
Initially, I declared I wouldn’t go. But I had a terrible summer job and the idea of leaving it a week early was appealing. My mother encouraged me to visit my older brother in Los Angeles, and stop to see Maura for several days on the way back. The idea gelled. There is cachet, after all, in saying: “I’m visiting a girl in Albuquerque,” and I definitely needed some cachet.
During the weeks leading up to the visit, Maura and I exchanged several letters. They were chattier and more familiar than our spoken exchanges. She was apparently not the last to find me wittier and more expressive in writing than in person. “I just broke up with a rodeo rider,” she wrote. “He moved back in with his wife and kid.”
“I’ll do what I can to cheer you up,” I wrote back, jauntily.
“It’ll be nice to have a friendly shoulder to lean on,” she wrote.
“Anything you need,” I wrote back, feeling like a knight in shining armor.
The following week, she wrote: “You’ve become such a special friend to me. I can’t wait to see you and give you a squeeze.”
“I’ll do some extra push-ups,” I wrote back, like a dork. “Don’t want to disappoint.”
Having managed to complete high school and the first year of college without dating anyone, I did not envision myself as Maura’s “boyfriend.” I would not have known exactly what that entailed, if I tried. Yet, I was beginning to think of her as more than just an acquaintance. I chose a pretty scarf as a gift for her instead of the Liberty Bell replica, or something similar, that I might have chosen a few weeks earlier.
By the time I walked off the plane I had butterflies in my stomach. Though I couldn’t recall ever touching Maura, even on the fingertips, I’d had weeks to picture a first hug, the promised squeeze, and who knows what else? It was hot in Albuquerque in August, I deduced. Perhaps, I hoped, she will be wearing a tee-shirt and shorts like everyone else, not those hideous overalls. On the cusp of my twentieth birthday, I wondered if this visit would mark my evolution from awkward teen to young adult in some important way.
Maura indeed looked terrific approaching me in the small terminal, just as I’d imagined. Not only was she dressed in trim khakis and a pink blouse, she was even wearing contacts. I felt an unfamiliar surge of adrenaline and my heart pounded. My habitual inhibitions barely kept me from running the last fifty feet, like in a movie, to claim my hug. Good thing. Maura greeted me with a smile, but that was all. She motioned to a nearby man in a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, boots and a moustache.
“That’s Jack,” she said, fawning. “We got back together last night. My mom and brother are home; they can’t wait to meet you.”
Jack looked about forty to me, though he may have only been twenty-seven. I had the sense of meeting the Marlboro Man in the flesh. His crushing handshake nearly ended my goaltending career. We squeezed into the front of his pick-up truck, Jack, Maura essentially on his lap and me against the passenger door, more superfluous than an appendix.
At home, after introducing me to her mother and eleven-year-old brother, Billy, Maura looked ill-at-ease. “I feel awful about this,” she said, “but would you really mind if Jack and I go out. Billy would love to play some basketball with you.”
She did not look like she felt awful at all, just excited to be free. It seemed my entry to young adulthood was still on hold, while I experienced the familiar lifestyle of an eleven-year-old. Billy and I shot baskets in the driveway until my hands were calloused, then watched sports on television. In the evening, Maura’s mom made chili and took me on a drive around the University of New Mexico.
I think Maura returned home that night, but I’m not certain, since I didn’t see her at breakfast the next morning. Her mom took me and Billy up to the top of a mountain where the view was spectacular, and I recall a tram-ride down. That evening, she took us out for a steak dinner. I had the impression that she found me, a literature major from Philadelphia, who did not even own a pair of jeans, to be as exotic as Maura was at Dickinson.
The next day, Billy was busy with friends, so Maura’s mother drove me to Santa Fe. On the way, I saw canyons and buttes and washes, and spectacular cloud formations. It was like living inside a Remington painting. I recall enjoying the day immensely; there was certainly an element of relief to spend the day sightseeing with a kind, middle-aged tour guide instead of trying to comprehend my diminished standing with Maura.
That evening, while I was playing basketball with Billy, I overheard snatches of a phone conversation inside the adjacent kitchen:
“He is your guest…. Maura…. This isn’t right. Today was fine, but…. Listen to me…. Yes, you should. Okay, ‘bye.”
Maura’s mom opened the front door, and said to me:
“Maura and Jack will be by in a few minutes. They’re going to take you to the movies with them.”
“Can I go, too?” asked Billy. “Can I?”
She looked at me.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I felt loyal to Billy.
When the pick-up arrived we all squeezed into the front seat, and proceeded to the local theater to see “Murder by Death.” My companion, essentially, was Billy, while Maura and Jack canoodled in the dark. Afterwards, they dropped Billy and me off at home before heading out to a bar. It was a relief to be returned to the airport by Maura’s mother the next day. I thanked her for her hospitality and asked her to say “good-bye” to Maura for me.
On reflection, I don’t miss the awkwardness of that period of life at all. But I am nostalgic for one thing that was achievable then and is now extremely difficult: in the days before Facebook, it was possible to say good-bye, and never hear from a person again.