Authors: Stephen Solomita
Special thanks to Harriet Smith and Jack Finn who taught me about the tenant-landlord wars played out in New York over the last ten years
Thanks also to Jim Silvers
who taught me something about towers and taxes
And to Eddie Sedarbaum and Howie Cruse who showed me the sights in Jackson Heights
THIS BOOK IS FOR MY FATHER
This is a work of fiction. Despite the existence of a real Jackson Heights and the well-documented greed of New York slumlords. Example: there is no Jackson Arms in Jackson Heights and no apartment building at the corner of 37th Avenue and 75th Street. A word to the wiseguy.
AREK NAJOWSKI, CASUALLY ELEGANT
in a cashmere sweater and wool-flannel trousers, ran his short, square fingers through his blond hair, then stepped out onto the balcony of his Brooklyn Heights co-op, fully expecting the view, as it always did, to calm him. To ground him and return him to his goal.
He swept his eyes across the black, choppy waters of the East River, stopping to caress the monuments, Governors Island to the south and the Brooklyn Bridge to the north, which framed his view of southern Manhattan. It was cold for New York in October (though he felt entirely comfortable in his thin sweater), and a brisk wind had blown the smog out to sea, scrubbing the air between the skyscrapers the way his mother had scrubbed the corners of their first apartment in Flatbush.
Marek had come a long way from Flatbush, a long way from the heap. He could allow himself to gaze at the towers of lower Manhattan that defined his dream without feeling utterly insignificant. The developers had taken the land along the waterfront and transformed it, erecting black glass towers so high they dwarfed the older stone buildings, hiding many of them altogether.
But not the Woolworth Building. Unmistakable, with its pale-green facade, it looked, to Marek Najowski, like an old lady fresh from the beauty parlor. Or, better yet, from the plastic surgeon, her brazenly displayed jewelry calling attention to the face-lift, the breast-lift, the blue eyes shifted just slightly to green by tinted contacts (and, thus, perfectly matching the emeralds at her unlined throat).
“Hey, Mikey.” Marek Najowski always called himself by the nickname his mother had given him, in defiance of her old-world Polish husband. “Mikey, you ready yet?”
“Not yet, sir,” he promptly answered.
Like a weight lifter pumping curl after curl, he began to recite the list of waterfront towers: Wall Street Plaza; Liberty Plaza; New York Plaza; State Street Plaza; Battery Park Plaza. Each a separate building devoted to the practical needs of the financial world; each with a personal address dedicated to the power of money.
Marek, calmer now, shook his head in wonder. The Donald Trumps and Harry Macklowes, who’d gotten in on the ground floor of the fifteen-year building boom (which had wound down abruptly in 1989), had made billions. With the help of politicians willing to cut almost any deal to keep the big Wall Street houses from moving across the Hudson, they’d literally transformed the profile of lower Manhattan, especially on the west side of the island, where the World Financial Center, flanked by a community of 17,000 people, stood on a pile of landfill so new that some of the road maps printed in the early part of the decade showed only the Hudson River.
Marek Najowski had been a young man when it’d started, a college graduate working his old man’s plumbing supply business in Greenpoint, but he’d gone into real estate about the same time, buying up three- and four-family homes in Hackensack and Jersey City, then renovating and reselling, usually for a profit. In his own mind, he was every bit the intellectual equal of the Zeckendorfs and the Kalikows. Having anticipated the explosive development of the Jersey waterfront with a precision that shocked even him, he was convinced that if he’d begun with enough capital…
Well, he mused, no sense in dwelling on the past. He wasn’t dead yet, though middle age was adding to the strain of what he had to do. Sweeping the skyline one more time, he allowed the sharp blaze of fluorescent light to pierce the fabric of his dreams before he turned back to the interior of his apartment. He always found the quantum leap from the magnificence of Manhattan’s financial district to the reality of his two-bedroom apartment depressing, a reminder of how far he had to go before he managed to heave himself to the top of Manhattan Mountain. Not that he wouldn’t make it. Not that his $450,000 Brooklyn Heights coop (with, he firmly believed, the
view to be found below Central Park South) wouldn’t be enough to impress the other side of the deal he had to make tonight.
Marek glanced at the small brass clock on the mantel. A quarter after eight. Fifteen minutes until D Day. Marek had been waiting for this moment for twenty years, for the day when he’d clinch the big deal that would jump him from a small-time New York asshole into a bona fide player (though not in the league where the Kalikows played; not in this life). Of course, in his fantasies, the big deal had always been consummated in the immaculately groomed inner sanctum of one of the investment bankers who maintained offices throughout the financial district. But none of those silver-haired, silver-tongued demons would give him the time of day. And none would have the balls to cut the kind of deal he was determined to land.
He looked up at the clock again. Eight twenty-five. Time for his game face. He walked quickly into the bedroom and stood in front of the full-length mirror, carefully checking his appearance. At six foot two, trim and athletic (“Body
mind,” his old man had explained), his build denied his forty years. His blond, wiry hair was as thick as a boy’s and lighter than his father’s. Even his face, with its heavy bones and small, even features, was smooth and untroubled. Only a few lines (crow’s feet? laugh lines? he couldn’t remember the proper term) from the corners of narrow, Slavic eyes that glowed a fierce, brilliant green. Without benefit, he noted, of contacts.
“Play it like one of the boys, Mikey,” he told his reflection. “Be the man who’s coming to make the big deal of the day. The big deal of your goddamned life.”
The bell rang precisely at eight thirty, followed by the sharp crack of a brass knocker against solid oak, and Marek Najowski, adding a bounce to his walk and a smile to his lips, went to greet his guest.
But, despite his earlier request, he found three men instead of the one he’d been expecting. No surprise, though, considering the caliber of the man with whom he was dealing. The short, thick, walleyed man, with the habit of shifting his unblinking stare from eye to eye, had been born Martin Ryan, but was known universally as Martin Blanks, a name derived from an incident that had taken place when he had been eight years old. In a rage after a fatherly beating, he’d waited for his dad to go to sleep, then taken the family .38 from its hiding place and pulled the trigger three times.
Unfortunately, the unloaded gun had made a series of impotent clicks just loud enough to awaken Martin’s dad. Which, of course, drew another beating, this one bad enough to require surgery and the attention of the police who had passed Martin over to the Bureau of Child Welfare and, eventually, a series of foster homes and group institutions. What with being raped, raping, and dodging rape, it had been ten years before Martin had been able to go back home and put a bullet in his father’s head. He had been eighteen at the time, just old enough to qualify for an adult prison, Clinton, where he was strong enough, finally, to avoid rape by confronting prospective rapists. And to stop committing rape. And even, sometimes, to prevent rape by taking young “chickens” under his wing.
Thus, the ten years he spent behind the walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility passed without major incident and he emerged from prison with enough connections to assemble a gang of ex-cons and become a major player in the blossoming cocaine trade on the old sod—Hell’s Kitchen (the politicians liked to call it Clinton, an irony that did not elude Martin Blanks) which included everything west of Times Square, from 34th to 57th streets.
Marek Najowski nodded to the impassive Martin Blanks and stepped back to allow him and his cohorts to enter. “I thought you were coming alone,” he admonished.
“I lied,” Martin Blanks answered. Without being commanded, his men fanned out to look through the apartment. To look for anything that might endanger Martin Blanks, whose paranoia, honed in the city’s juvenile system, was legendary.
“Look, Marty, I kind of expected you’d bring company. It only makes sense.
“But some things in life you have to be alone for. Some things don’t work with more than two people. Am I right, or what? So do me a favor, once you satisfy yourself, send them home and we could talk in private. Please.”
Martin Blanks said nothing, patiently waiting for his men to finish. He took in his host’s cashmere sweater, the wool-flannel trousers, the Bally loafers, even the two thin gold chains, one with a crucifix, hanging outside the sweater. Blanks had been turned on to Najowski by a neighborhood lawyer named O’Brien. O’Brien was a child of Hell’s Kitchen. He’d gotten an education, but hadn’t run away to Westchester or Connecticut. He’d stayed to defend and advise his boyhood chums, one of whom had been Marty Blanks.
“Nothin’.” Stevey Powell, followed by his baby brother, Mikey, both ex-heavyweights, emerged from the kitchen to await further instructions.
“Go back to the house,” Martin Blanks ordered curtly. “You know which one I’m talkin’ about. I’ll be back when I’m back.”
“Should we take the car?”
“Yeah. Mr. Najowski wouldn’t mind drivin’ me home. Ain’t that right?”
Marek Najowski, his grin jumping into place as if Martin Blanks had flipped a switch, nodded eagerly. Every instinct told him not to confront his guest. To let Martin Blanks enjoy his cocky attitude. “No problem. I was hoping we could go for a little drive, myself. Something I wanna show you in Queens.” He waited patiently until they were alone, then offered Blanks a snifter of brandy.