The View From The Top

A successful social climber works her way into New York’s upper echelon, only to wonder what she’s doing there.

The View From The Top

When I was a successful business owner living a privileged life in midtown Manhattan, it never occurred to me that I could be happy with anything less. There was never a time, whether I was lunching on $40 salads at Bergdorf’s or getting a $600 haircut, that I thought, “I don’t need to be doing this.” There were no benefits or fundraisers too unimportant to miss; no designer exercise class too ridiculous or expensive to pass up. I believed making money made me happy. Until the day it no longer did.

Five years ago, I was the second half of a startup commercial real estate company. That company was also my marriage. My husband and I had met at work a few years earlier when I was a receptionist. He was a real estate broker. We branched out and started our own company in early 2002. In the good years, we made money; about $120,000 a month, and we enjoyed it.  In the years we didn’t make money we had to do twice the work just to break even. It was always hard work. Owning his own business had always been my husband’s dream, but he never stopped asking me if this life was what I wanted, as if it were all my choice. Did I really want the high risk and reward of owning a business in New York City? Did I really want to try to build a national company?

My answer was always, ‘Yes.’

I came to New York in 1994 to attend Columbia University, moving northeast from Kentucky, where I had grown up and attended public school. Columbia hadn’t been my first choice of colleges. I had wanted to go to either NYU to (study stage managing) or to the University of Chicago (to study anything), but Columbia was my parents’ choice. They, with the help of a bank or two, were paying, so they got to decide.

Columbia turned out to be the perfect school for me. I studied Arabic and learned to play squash. I ate bagels and walked all over this spectacular city.

No one else from my hometown had come to this school, but I wasn’t exactly on my own. My parents’ friends’ son, who we’ll call Tad, was also at Columbia. He was a year ahead of me. Tad looked me up when I arrived at Columbia and invited me to lunch at the off-campus residence where he was living with twenty or so other Columbia students. I didn’t know it was a fraternity house. There were no obvious Greek letters plastered above the front door, no tiki torches, no doughy young men in cargo shorts and flip-flops lounging about the entrance. At the townhouse men wore sport coats, sweater vests, and loafers. They rowed crew and drank Scotch and planned careers in finance. The women (it was a co-ed fraternity; the only one on campus) all seemed to be studying art history or literature. They dressed attentively and were ‘put together’ in three styles: Nantucket (jeans and striped sweaters), Sotheby’s (slacks and blouses) and Cipriani (black skirts and T’s).

Most of these students had graduated from East Coast or foreign boarding schools and had little in common with the general Columbia population. They had grown up sneaking into New York City nightclubs, spending long weekends at mansions in northern New Jersey, and shopping at Prada for wardrobe basics.

To be fair, not all the membership was privileged, but enough to set a tone for the place.  Aspirations and peer pressure moved everyone else in line. The culture in the townhouse was foreign to me and, in a sense, antiquated. The fraternity, like the secret societies of Yale or the eating clubs at Princeton, was a relic of the time when Old New York sent its sons to Columbia to receive, if not a modern education, a certain social ratification.  The membership stood by its social rituals. At cocktail parties, dinners and afternoon teas, I met the entire membership. I knew that at these events they were vetting me, weighing my candidacy. I can’t remember if I was nervous.  Later, I would learn that I was taken in as a kind of cultural wild card. In order to get members to vote me in, Tad talked up my Kentucky family “legacy.” My father’s wholesaling company was transformed on the fraternity debate floor into a large tobacco plantation that had been in the family since my great-great-granddaddy; my lack of Southern accent explained as a result of my rigorous education. None of this was true. Tad didn’t know me from Adam, and he had a flair for the theatrical. His strategy worked. One of the brothers who voted for me thought I was cute. He also thought I rode sidesaddle.

There was much irony in being packaged as a Southern belle. My parents don’t even consider themselves Southern (my mother comes from Oklahoma), but my parents were the reason I was at the townhouse in the first place. Family obligation–Tad’s parents were good family friends–was what kept me returning. When the fraternity asked me to join the membership, I obliged. I moved out of the cinderblock freshman dorm and into the townhouse immediately. I bought some new clothes and developed a taste for Champagne; I took my meals in the townhouse dining room and read in the building’s library. This wasn’t exactly torture. I probably would have done the same thing had I not felt the family obligation. After all, these were people who got what they wanted. And they wanted me.

The townhouse was student-run, and in my second semester I was elected building manager. I had my work cut out for me. Pedigreed as it was, the building had been occupied by college students for one hundred years, and a century of undergraduate living that had clearly taken its toll. There were large areas where plaster molding was missing, broken windows, and a basement that needed two sump pumps. The pantry was stacked to the ceiling with mismatched dishes. The kitchen posed a fire hazard. Garbage was everywhere: on the roof, in the backyard, along the hallways. Undergrads who stored their belongings in the boiler room, promising to come back once they were settled into their new lives, never did. In my first week as manager I filled two dumpsters with trash.

The membership was unwilling to admit that the house was falling apart. Why should they care? To the greater Columbia community, our building was a paragon of high style. Not only were our members good-looking and well-presented, our parties always had the best beer, in bottles and on tap. Guests could roam the ballroom (yes, it was a bona fide ballroom) that opened onto balconies overlooking Riverside Drive and featured a state-of-the-art sound system. We also had the pool room, which offered both billiards and snooker. Most importantly, we let them trash the place every week.

As building manager, it bothered me that willful negligence was our trademark, but there was nothing I could do about it. My brothers and sisters seemed oblivious to the guests who spilled beer on the billiards table or threw bottles onto the sidewalk. They would approach me at parties and ask, “What’s wrong?” One repeatedly told me that I looked bored. I wasn’t; I was annoyed. I was charged with maintaining this structure, this monument to New York Society, but its legacies seemed not to care. When my housemates were nursing hangovers with late afternoon brunch and shopping at Barney’s, I spent the day supervising cleanup and repairs. I could have slacked off, too. But I didn’t.

I learned two things at the townhouse. One, that I loved the real estate business, especially building management. Two, that good tenants are hard to find. My tenants were a bunch of rich kids who had never learned how to clean up after themselves (or never had to). By graduation I knew I didn’t want to be these kids. I wanted to be their parents.

When Tom and I started our business we shared a primary assumption—that making lots of money is a good thing. We also assumed business ownership would be a good way to meet interesting people—that is, other people who make lots of money.

When I say people who make lots of money, I don’t necessarily mean the rich or the wealthy. Anyone can spend money. Not many people can earn money. And I mean real money. New York money. In New York, where the top half-of-one percent earn almost a third of the city’s personal income and pays even a larger percentage of the city’s income tax, we are all dependent on people who make an impressive amount of money.  It’s easy to hate these people, especially in a recession, but it’s important to note that being a high earner isn’t easy. Forget the rhetoric about “fat cat bankers” and “greedy landlords.” No one who is lazy or stupid can make a lot of money. (This is not to say that those who don’t make money are stupid or lazy.)  I have never met a high-earner who doesn’t work hard for their money. As Tom used to say, “No one sits down and shits a million dollars.”

Tom and I knew we wanted to spend time with the earners. Because of our backgrounds–neither of us was rich and both of us believed in self-improvement and industriousness—we knew business ownership was the way to get to them. Both of us had previous experience with business ownership. I grew up in a family business; Tom had bought and sold residential properties in college. We already knew that money can buy you wonderful things, but the business of making money is hardly glamorous. All businesspeople live headache-to-headache.  Deals fall through. Machines break. People don’t pay you.  You’re always one bad decision away from going under.

We started the business in our apartment. It grew quickly and moved into an office in midtown with two employees, then an office downtown with five employees. For Tom and me to crack the top half of 1%, we needed our business to make a million dollars a year. A million dollars might seem like a lot of money. In the world of NYC real estate it’s pretty small potatoes.  We hoped to eventually earn much, much more.

Once we started growing, we ran into problems. Some of these problems we had foreseen and some we didn’t. We had decided early on that I would work from home. This meant I didn’t get my broker’s license and therefore didn’t contribute directly to income. But having a married couple running the office together would put pressure on employees, who need space to vent. Keeping our employees happy was important. Keeping them paid was, too. Feeding the payroll beast was a stretch in the months when our clients weren’t paying us. There was a time when an employee we wanted to fire—needed to fire, really—disclosed that he had cancer. We did what we thought was the right thing—kept him on payroll until his spouse could find a job that offered health insurance. This nearly bankrupted us.

Despite these difficulties, Tom and I always thought the business was worth it. Being responsible for an organization was gratifying in itself. In addition, it gave us money to buy art and donate to charities. We could wear nice clothes and eat really good food. We got gossip from the heads of famous co-op boards and dressed our dog in Canine Styles. Even if we had business problems, we didn’t have them any worse than anyone else.  In New York, where being able to make money puts you in a different circle, there is a kind of camaraderie in misery. It sweetens the martinis and brightens the jewelry. After all, you’ve earned them.

One thing money can’t buy is patience. Most of the other business owners we met were much older and more successful. When we saw them outside work, they weren’t exactly easy to socialize with. Over dinner at Nanni’s on East 46th Street, they’d ask if we wanted to invest $50,000 in a new restaurant (no) or help them build a new golf course in the Hamptons (double no).

Of course we had other connections. Tom knew people from his high school living in the city. I was engaged with the performing arts community. (Since I did my work from home and Tom was busy at the office until the wee hours, I went to the theater a lot. I started writing dance criticism in order to develop my resume. Our plan was for me to get a graduate degree in something that would benefit the business. Writing dance criticism to help the business sounds ridiculous, but that’s what I thought I was doing.) None of these friends or associates were running a private business. My interview subjects were mostly leftist radicals who, seriously, thought everything should be free. They didn’t want to hear about my troubles with work. Tom and I started to feel isolated.

It was about four years into the business when—I’m not proud to admit this—I started to check out. More and more spa treatments, designer exercise classes, and lunches at Bergdorf’s in exchange for less and less involvement in the business.  I couldn’t handle the pressure. The hundred-hour weeks, being on call all the time, taking vacations that were really business-related research trips. In short, fitting work into every living, breathing moment of the day was the only way we were going to succeed. Success was still officially ‘what I wanted,’ but I needed a break from being our internal corporate booster. When Tom told me he wanted to join a country club, a place where he thought he could make better friends and contacts, I agreed. He needed the outlet. I needed the space.

The Hunt Club, as it is known, was the kind of place my husband couldn’t resist. Set on the Nassau County-Queens border and populated by cocktail-guzzling WASPs, it was a cedar-shingled resort nestled into a tidal inlet and, more specifically, everything he hadn’t been exposed to growing up in Texas. There was skeet shooting in the winter, grass tennis courts in the summer, and golf most of the year. Here, the membership took recreation seriously, playing several sports a day. There was no pool at the Hunt Club, and that meant no children. You could take your Southside cocktail on the terrace in the late afternoon and watch the sun set in peace. The fact that the country club was technically the nation’s oldest was gravy.

I hated the place. I hated it instantly and for reasons I couldn’t explain. But I should have kept my mouth shut and let Tom enjoy the club. He needed it; I didn’t. Tom was seduced by the grounds, the clubhouse, and the membership the same way I had been seduced by the cosmopolitanism of the townhouse at Columbia. I thought he was being naïve. Driving out of Midtown and through Queens, passing along the backside of JFK airport, my mood would darken. Tom would drill me on the members’ names. When we arrived an hour later I was resolved to be a bitch.

Socializing at the club was never going to be easy for me. I had little in common with the other women. They were either stay-at-home mothers who managed to organize major charity events in their spare time, or executives running the legal departments of Fortune 500 companies. I hated the way the men likely saw me—as a dilettante trading on my husband’s success. I mean, what did I do for god’s sakes compared to their wives?  I certainly didn’t do sports. We always arrived late because I never wanted to play golf, and Tom wouldn’t play without me. (This translated to: I wouldn’t let Tom play golf.) We had cocktails with the members in the late afternoon, but I couldn’t talk about golf handicaps or tennis scores. I didn’t want to talk about IRAs or growth indices, either. The club only presented me with things I didn’t want to do. Worse, the membership seemed to be predicated on the idea that the only justification for taking time off from work was strenuous recreation. So, when Tom and I would arrive, he would enter the common room thirsty for his Southside, looking forward to discussing business with other men his age while I would sneak out of the room and skulk off to find Valentine, the club’s maitre d’hotel.

Valentine was a tidy, diminutive man in his mid-sixties. He basically ran the club and had been there for decades. He opened the patio in the summer and pulled the skeet clays in the winter. He welcomed members on their way in, took their coats, remembered their favorite drinks.

Everyone loved Valentine, and I could understand why. He made them feel at home, and he gave each of them what they wanted. But there was one thing I didn’t understand—Valentine had a thing for veal. There wasn’t a single dinner Tom and I attended that didn’t feature veal as the main dish.  This I didn’t get. First, why serve any dish that frequently? Second, veal is distasteful in ways that go beyond the palate. If you’re my age you remember the Humane Farming Association anti-veal campaign ads that ran in teen magazines during the early 90s. Veal was something I had crossed off my list of consumables a long time ago. I wasn’t about to eat it to be polite.

Since I was resolved to be a bitch, and I couldn’t cause a scene with the other members for my husband’s sake, I took things out on Valentine. Before every dinner I would corner Valentine and ask, “Are we having veal tonight?”  “Yes, Mrs. A.”  “Can you please arrange something else, perhaps a vegetable plate, for me?”  “Absolutely, Mrs. A.”  Now, this should have been easy. After all, Valentine remembered all the other members’ special requests. And yes, he obliged. He was nice about it— professionally nice—in a way that suggested he made sure to spit on my cold asparagus before he plated it.

I hated the club mostly for the veal. Valentine’s veal. I’d sit there, waiting, and think to myself, ‘Who eats veal anymore?’ Only to realize I was sitting in a roomful of people happily engaged with platefuls of veal. None of the other wives had a problem with veal. None of the other wives sat at the table, urging “No, no, you go ahead,” while waiting to have their special veggie plate brought to them. This wasn’t great for Tom. Here was his chance to fit into the club, and I was blowing it, being high maintenance. He never came out and said, “Why don’t you just eat your veal like everyone else,” and I like to think that deep down he conceded I had a point. Veal, like foie gras, is a controversial food.  But he blushed a little each time we entered the dining room.

We got into arguments about the veal, which led to arguments about my attitude, which led to tense drives home from the club late at night. In the past we had talked about other people, other institutions and companies as things we could improve, systems that could be tweaked. I didn’t know it yet, but “fixing” the club was off-limits. It seemed I was the one who needed to be adjusted. “Take a more active role at the club,” Tom suggested. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to break Valentine. He was the one who didn’t make sense. I explained to Tom that there was something about Valentine and the veal, the feigned obsequiousness, the odd accent (he affected Italian ancestry but I suspected Balkan or Turkish). It occurred to me that Valentine was probably Vlad, and Vlad had spent years watching reruns of American soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas, idolizing an American elite that was exceedingly sporty, liked big hair, and ate fancy food. Fancy food like veal.

Tom thought I was crazy.

It was on a typical night at the club that I realized Tom and I were really no good for each other anymore. Correction: I realized Tom could find a more suitable partner. We were having drinks before dinner. Tom was talking to a woman: tall, mid-thirties, energetic. They were talking about golf—how many hours to practice, which irons to use in the traps, their handicap goals, etc. As I watched Tom and this woman, cocktails in hand, ready to head into the dining room for some tasty veal, I thought to myself, “This woman would be better for Tom than I am.” Tom was in his element. It was I who didn’t belong.

That’s it. That’s all it took.

Our divorce took less than six months. I never went to the club again. Tom got the business; I got the dog. I moved into a derelict apartment on the Upper West Side. Every night I had bad dreams about the staircase collapsing.

After a year I came to understand that, since I had come to New York, I had been doing what other people expected of or wanted for me.  Joining the townhouse had been my parents’ idea; the business had been Tom’s. All the times I had said ‘yes’ I really meant ‘no.’ Money was nice, but I didn’t want to do the work to make it anymore. I wanted to figure out what I wanted for me.

Mostly what I wanted was unstructured time. I started writing more and earning less. I moved out of the city in spite of all the warnings I got that I wouldn’t be able to meet anyone in the hinterland. Turns out there are men living outside the city, and some of them are very nice indeed. I had a first date at a reservoir a few months ago. We just went to the reservoir and sat. It was nice.

Do I miss my high-profile life? No. If I could go back and do it all again, would I? Yes. Making lots of money was the best way for me to learn that I want to live with less. And that, as they say, is priceless.