Almost Ships in the Night
by Steven Wolfe
In the early 90s, I had a client who had made a great deal of money. Unfortunately, he had spent almost all of it too. He asked me to represent him in dissolving a long time relationship with his business partner. The relationship between these two men had deteriorated greatly over the years. If the proposed separation came about, my client would immediately receive $600,000, money which he badly needed.
A meeting was arranged to see if the terms of the separation could be agreed upon. My client and I went to the office of his partner’s lawyer. We entered the conference room where the meeting was to be held, took off our overcoats and threw them on a chair. Then we sat down.
No sooner had the meeting begun when my client’s partner began to berate him. He accused him of being improvident and of having dissipated all of his money so that now he was on the verge of insolvency. He was judgmental and insulting. My client, a very proud man, stood up, announced that he did not have to take such abuse, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.
I intervened. “Steve,” I said, “you can’t leave.” “Don’t tell me what to do!” he replied. “This is the kind of abuse I have taken from this man for twenty years.” I persisted and quietly repeated, “Steve, you can’t leave.” This time he reacted even more angrily, scolding me that I should not tell him what to do and that he was finally going to end the relationship with his partner by starting litigation. Once again, very calmly, I said, “Steve, you are not listening to me. I said you can’t leave.” Finally, he heard, “OK, why can’t I leave?” “Because,” I replied, “you’re taking my coat!”
Everyone in the room burst out laughing. My client came back, put my coat back on the chair, and sat back down. My humorous take had defused the tension and had allowed my client to return to the bargaining table without losing face. The negotiations began. Within one hour, we successfully negotiated the transaction, and the $600,000 was sent by wire transfer to my client.
My client must have appreciated my technique to resolve a difficult situation and proceed with a successful negotiation, as the next morning, he appeared unannounced at my office with a gift. It was about halfway out of its packaging when I recognized the label of a bottle of Chateau Petrus, a highly valued and extremely pricey wine. Astonished by the generosity of his gift, I looked at him and without thinking, blurted out, “You’re crazy.” He only grinned. I was just beginning to realize how much he had appreciated my artfulness.
There is an interesting sequel to this story which makes the Sunnyside connection.
I kept this bottle of Petrus for more than ten years, wondering whether I would ever have an occasion sufficiently special to open it. As my 65th birthday approached, I decided that this would be the opportunity for which I had been waiting and that I would enjoy the wine on my birthday.
My wife and I had made arrangements to spend this birthday in Aspen, Colorado, where I would go skiing. I learned, however, that in Colorado, restaurants do not allow customers bringing in their own wine and that it might even be illegal to do so. Nevertheless, I managed to get a dispensation to bring the wine to the restaurant where I planned my birthday dinner. The restaurant owner merely asked me to bring it in during the afternoon, when few customers would be present and no one would see me carrying it in.
At about three o’clock on that afternoon, I wandered into the restaurant. It was empty except for two customers sitting at a table, one of whom asked me what I wanted. I told him about the arrangements to bring a bottle of wine for dinner that night. He told me his son worked there as a waiter and went off to find him. The son, in turn, summoned the chef.
I repeated the arrangements to the chef who agreed to keep the wine.
Seeing the bottle of Petrus, the customer commented that it was a very fine wine. I then told him the story of how I had acquired it. "What a wonderful story," he said laughing.
With that, I got up to leave. The customer, however, also stood up and introduced himself, a somewhat formal gesture I thought, given the fact that we were strangers and had done no more than engage in casual conversation. “My name is Alan Ehrlich” he said. I looked at him. “My name is Steven Wolfe.” We stared at each intently for a second, when I asked, “By any chance did you grow up in Queens County, New York City and attend Public School Number 150?” Astonished, he looked back at me, and in that instant we both realized we knew each other as close childhood friends. He threw his arms around me and we hugged. We had not seen each other in more than fifty years.
Joining him at his table, we reminisced. He said he often wondered what had happened to me over the years. We were now able to share memories. I recalled his mother very fondly - a southerner from Alabama who had always been very kind and hospitable to me. We spoke about other friends and teachers we had known. Our conversation went on for more than an hour when we both had to leave. We arranged to have dinner together two nights later, which we did.
After I left the restaurant, I pondered the fact that if Alan had not introduced himself to me, I would have walked out of the restaurant, leaving neither of us knowing how close we had come to a reunion, but instead, passing each other like two ships in the night. What actually happened was clearly the long arm of coincidence with an assist from my elementary school friend.
When we met again about ten years ago, we continued reminiscing. In particular, we talked about the softball game ("Schoolyard Punchball"), and jokingly accused one another about making the fatal error. This baseball game was important to us because we were in a class that never won anything in sports - here we were on the verge of becoming the 6th grade champions - and Alan and I muffed it!
Alan was retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida, when he passed away recently at age 79.
Alan Ehrlich, fourth in from left, Steven Wolfe, last over at right in back row
Steve Wolfe is a partner with the law firm Eaton and Van Winkle. His interests include amateur photography, philately, tennis, card playing, reading history especially about World War II and the Holocaust, and world travel which has taken him to four continents.