Throughout his career Jake was best known as an expert in
present value. He understood the value of future liabilities better than anyone. But as he got older, he became less enthusiastic
about making projections decades into the future. There was
something depressing about looking over a horizon to a time
you’ll never know yourself. When it came time to be put out to
pasture, he chose claims, turning his expertise upside down and
He tried to research the Elephant Hotel online but soon
realized he needed original sources. He found himself camped
out at the New York Public Library’s microfilm room, poring
over old copies of the Times and other local rags.
The Elephant Hotel had a short but colorful history. A cousin to Lucy the Elephant. A novelty hotel where guests could stay
in the elephant’s belly or head or behind. A museum within the
elephant’s left lung. The Howdah on the elephant’s back, with a
view for 50 miles. Later, after various financial difficulties, the
elephant would become a freak show brothel. The concept was
cursed with financial problems, so it was hard to say it was a
valuable business. But it had cost $200,000 to build in 1880s
money and clearly would have appreciated through the years.
In present value, the Elephant Hotel would probably be one of
the most famous structures in New York if it still stood.
The day after meeting with the Ample Hills executives,
Jake took the Q train to Coney Island. It was a long ride, so he
had time to do some calculations. He’d originally priced the
Elephant Hotel Claim at $250,000 at the time of the fire, with
a 5 percent interest rate, which led to an $87 million (before
taxes) in present value when you included both 120 years’
worth of interest and similar inflation. In revising his estimate,
he removed inflationary adjustments, as he’d promised the executives he would do. But that still left him at $75 million. And
the value of the Elephant today would be an order of magnitude
higher, had it still existed. The Elephant was a unique tourist
attraction that could generate significant revenue, and even
though Coney Island was decrepit, there had been various $90
million real estate deals on adjacent properties. A development
conglomerate was now talking about building Bellagio-style
properties in Coney—call it the Vegasification of Coney Island.
And then there was the fact that the Elephant Hotel would, in
present times, have been the oldest attraction at Coney Island.
The train pulled into the Coney Island subway station—the
end of the line. He didn’t have far to go. The station exits onto
Surf Avenue, diagonal from the Nathan’s Famous where they
host the hot-dog eating competition. It was only a block from
there to the former site of the Elephant Hotel, and the lot was
still a decrepit corner after 120 years. But it was in the middle
of the whole Coney Island experience, a few hundred yards
from the Wonder Wheel and the boardwalk. Jake wondered if
he’d underpriced the claim. Had it endured, the Elephant Hotel
would have been more Coney Island than the famed Wonder
Wheel. In this alternate present, maybe the end of the cult clas-
sic “Warriors” plays out under the Elephant instead of under the
boardwalk. As he walked down toward the beach, he decided to
hold to his number. He couldn’t give Molly Page the full present
value of the Elephant as if it existed today, but he also couldn’t
lower his number any further and call it sound. His employer
was getting a good deal given its obligations and the realities of
As he stood on the corner contemplating all this, Molly Page
materialized out of the Coney Island funk.
She wore pink leggings and a fairly terrible dress. Still shop-
ping at Target.
“What a surprise. Are you staying near here?”
“There’s a miserable hotel down the street. But I wanted to
be close to here.”
“Well, I never come here. Just today. So this is quite the
“What are you going to do with my claim?”
“I’m going to do my best.”
She seemed satisfied. She believed in him for some reason.
“Are you really a time traveler?”
She smiled: Knowing. Not knowing.
“I only learned that phrase the other day.”
“You seem like you’re from another era. Or maybe from
“Is that a compliment?”
“Of course. So how did it happen? The night you … came
“Is there somewhere we can go to talk?”
“Would you like to go get a hot dog?”
“I suppose. You know they started selling those things
around here right before we built the Elephant.”
“Right. They’ve only gotten better since then.” Jake offered
the crook of his elbow and Molly Page took it. He led her back
toward Nathan’s Famous, where he found himself ordering for
her. He had to show her how to use the ketchup and mustard.
As they sat down at a picnic table outside she examined the
bright yellow garnish with great skepticism.
“Why do you put this on it?”
“It’s good. Try it.”
He hefted his hot dog and showed her how it was done.
She still wasn’t quite buying it but finally took a small bite. He
watched her chew.
She swallowed before responding.
“Not bad. Maybe I should have tried them back in 1896.”
“They have a contest here. People eat a bunch of these as fast
as they can.”
She didn’t seem impressed so he changed the subject.
“So … tell me about your last night at the Elephant Hotel.”
She took the opportunity for a big bite, seeking a delay in