Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dare I Return? Part II - Brooklyn, A Cat and Mouse Game, and an Angel?

This is the second in a series of blog entries describing the incredible events that took place in the creation of my new office space. I'm not sure how long the series is going to be, but it will continue until it ends. While I was in the midst of this metamorphosis, it didn't seem like all fun and games, but as any hardships are in retrospect, they don't seem as hard, and usually there's something to laugh about. The process was transformative and educational and contributed to my growth as an individual. It made me a better businessman, and gave me the confidence that I can accomplish anything I put my head to. For that matter, anyone can! Our biggest defeater is ourselves, when the doubts set in. They are this nagging voice that crops up out of nowhere, but if you're not careful, can become a very strong character player in our lives. The challenge we have is to turn off the naysayer inside all of our heads.

Doubts!

It was only 2 1/2 weeks from the opening date of the new space, and things certainly were not going at the right pace. The walls were not finished, the IT wiring had not been started, we were still dealing with plumbing issues, we didn't know what type of doors we would use, and the list went on and on.... I was about to lose my head, but given the even-tempered person that I tend to be, I was doing my best to keep my cool, while exploding behind the scenes. The contractor would say whatever I wanted to hear, and then not do what was agreed upon. It seemed he and his business manager had mastered the art of con. Anyway, it was too far into the project to change contractors mid-ship, but still so far away from completion. But it wasn't too far to learn how to manage the contractor to get the results I wanted.

Meanwhile, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, and really thought at this point that maybe my colleagues were right. Doing something at this scale, to this extent, maybe was overzealous. No, it was crazy! I wasn't even sure the volume of my practice would support the cost of the new location. How could I ever think I could pull off constructing an entire office from scratch? Little did I realize 3 months prior, how many details went into one little (well, maybe not so little) space. Every single wall socket, light fixture, switch, doorknob, nail, screw, etc... (you get the picture -- every little detail) had to be accounted for. It was a lot to manage at once. I had my doubts, and I wondered, 'Did I make a mistake?' Man, how do I explain this one to my parents. Well, no time for that. When you're a small businessman trying to make it in this business environment and the insurance medical jungle, there is NO turning back. Survival itself becomes a prime motivator. When you have no other choice but to succeed, you find a way to do things. I put all doubts aside and just kept treading forward with faith in the final outcome, as I had already jumped off the edge of the cliff. No turning back! I was in freefall, and the only thing to buffer my fall was a well-executed, usable space.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

Well, when a contractor is not doing what they're supposed to, it's time to start dangling the money carrot slightly beyond their reach. The project kept coming to a halt with complaints that he was running out of money and that he needed such and such to continue. Well, my only choice was to pay less and give him bits at a time to motivate him to speed up the job. It became a game of cat and mouse. Things got pretty hairy at times. Payments were delayed until certain check lists had been fulfilled. There were tears, there were random threats. It was getting to be quite intense, but I knew below it all, the contractor wanted to please, because this was one of his first commercial projects. I had been honest and paid easily in the beginning, but had to change the tune when I realized what was happening. Nice guys get trampled by savvy contractors. But a contractor always wants to get paid, which means if criteria are created for that payment, they will fulfill them to get paid. It can become a face-off.

Unfortunately, he also enjoyed having me pick up the slack for their lack of competence and organization. One of the things I found out when I got back from Florida was that the counter-tops had not been selected. Small detail, but BIG problem. Fingers were pointed, but hey, it's the one who needs them the most that is motivated. That would be me. So the contractor came up with a place I would meet him at in Brooklyn the same day I had to run another errand there to find lighting fixtures.

Somewhere in Brooklyn

It was a hot summer day. A patient/friend had hooked me up with a buddy of his that has a lighting store in Brooklyn (far out there). I didn't realize at the time, but to get to the store from the subway, I had to go along the outskirts of East New York, not the best neighborhood to be in, and this was at 10am. There were beatnecks randomly hanging out on street corners, drunks asking for money. It did not feel safe. Damn, 10 blocks to go, I walked fast enough to move quickly, but not too fast to look like I was nervous. When I got to the store, the door was locked. "S&@t!" I thought it was closed. 'Oh, a buzzer.' The store had a security lock -- they had to buzz me in -- and I understand why. With random shootings happening there everyday, it was not a neighborhood to be taken lightly. The only stores I know that do that are the diamond dealers in midtown Manhattan. But a lighting store? Wow, the staff looked at me cross-eyed when I told them what subway stop I had walked from. I guess I should have called to get better directions. At least, the lighting was one of the easier problems to resolve.

Well, lighting fixtures solved, I was ready to have my contractor pick me up to go to the stone cutters where we would choose the countertops, but guess what? He can't. He calls me all apologetic. He can't pick me up, but he'll meet me there. He gives me vague directions, and says to just go there and speak to Elijah. If I had known I would be playing tourist in Brooklyn for the day, I would have brought a map. Good thing I had the foresight to ask the staff at the lighting store another way to a subway stop, which actually took me directly to the stone cutters. I camped out at a nearby coffeeshop to figure out a plan. Everyday had a plan -- a list of things to do, places to go, errands to run. A project like this is a 9 - 5 job!


An Angel Intervenes

So a 30 minute treck to the subway, another 5 stops, and I was within walking distance. At this point, the traveler spirit in me had kicked in, and I was in for the adventure. It was a get down on your knees and get dirty type of day. I had lived in NYC for 8 years, but had never been to these parts of Brooklyn. Granted, there's nothing touristy about eastern Brooklyn, but it was an adventure nonetheless. Besides, I was supposed to meet my architect to give him a payment, and I much rather be doing this. I called to cancel on him, because at this point, a deadline was more important. Brooklyn is bigger than it looks on the maps.

Around a big field, down a deserted street that seemed to mostly be lined with construction-related businesses, I found the stone company I was looking for. I just walked in, into a tiny lobby. A bearded man with a yamaka who was busy working with other clients asked me matter-of-factly and with a slight Israeli accent, "What are here for?" I guess they weren't used to people just walking in off the street. He directed me down a corridor to the back door. The door led to a gigantic warehouse, where there were rows upon rows of BIG stone slabs of all different types, colors, dimensions, patterns, etc... There were over-sized clips hanging from a ceiling device that could navigate the entire floor area picking up a slab and moving it to another position or truck for cutting and processing. I watched as they moved what looked like an 8ft by 14 ft slab onto a truck. It must have weighed a ton. Giant slabs, over-sized machines, a towering 40 ft ceiling, made my 6 feet feel short. The whole scene was very IMPRESSIVE.

I had an idea what color(s) I was looking for, so I set off walking down the aisles, seeing everything they had. A young gentleman -- I'll call him Elijah -- asked me if I needed any help. I obviously did not look like I belonged there. He showed me around, and explained to me the different types of stone, their strengths, and cost. It wasn't long before he got distracted by a high-priority client, an Eastern European couple shopping for slabs for their home remodeling. They were well-dressed -- that type of dress that exudes money. I, on the other hand, certainly didn't.

By now I had forgotten about my contractor, who had bailed on me. I was once again alone with no support, trying to figure out how I was going to solve the counter problem. It wasn't really coming together for me.

When Elijah was done with the well-to-do couple, he came back to me, and started asking why I was looking to buy stone. I explained to him that I was a doctor, building a new office for myself in Midtown Manhattan, and that I wanted to have durable surfaces for the front desk as well as the treatment rooms. In his slight foreign accent, he couldn't believe that I was a doctor at my age, and I guess felt some sympathy for what I was going through. He told me, "Look, if you buy from us, it's going to be very expensive for you, but I can give you a name of someone who buys from us wholesale and can do the job for you for much cheaper. But, you can't let my boss know I'm doing this." "Are you serious?" I looked at him incredulously, but with a smirk of inner joy. I had been through one of the most heart-wrenching weeks of the project. Nothing had been working right, and to have someone just offering to help me out, felt like I was being offered water in the middle of the desert. He went as far as calling his friend, putting him on the phone with me, and directing me on how to get there. It was his Palestinian connection. In retrospect, I don't know if I was dealing with mafia, but hey, they got the job done. I walked around the warehouse a bit more, figured out which stones I wanted, and made note to tell the stone cutters what I wanted. It seemed like the tide had turned, and there was a moment of light in what had been a very stressful week. I headed yet to another remote area of Brooklyn.

On my way there, I couldn't help but remember one of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. When you find yourself in a series of circumstances that seem fortuitous and not completely in your control, but seemingly along the right track, even though not the one you expected, you must be on the right path. It's as if the path is directed for you by a series of events that are leading towards a resolution of the problem. The day had started with a simple trip to one part of Brooklyn, and ended up in this meandering adventure around the burrough, with one event dictating the next. Only when things are born through journeys like this can one really appreciate the final result.
Off to the Brooklyn shipyards....

To be continued...

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