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Today’s New York Times (April 12), in an article titled, A Condo, High-Profile Residents and a $40,000 Bill,” reports that celebrity photographer, Ken Nahoum, and his partner with whom he owns penthouses in Soho, are being sued by the condominium for arrears of common charges and late fees.

Reading this article, I was struck by the expression,

In a cautionary tale of the gravitational pull that one owner can have on a building...

which seemed to be simply saying “dishonorably.”

This expression sounds pretty euphemistic to me, and I feel like I'm just “scratching itch by all fingers through the sole of a shoe," as a popular Japanese saying goes, in trying to understand the phrase. What is this phrase saying, exactly? Is it a "cool" expression? Can someone rephrase it in simpler English?

The complete sentence in question reads (italics mine):

But Mr. Nahoum has not been so roundly admired inside the confines of 95 Greene. In a cautionary tale of the gravitational pull that one owner can have on a building, Mr. Nahoum and his companion, Basia Milewicz, are being sued in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by the condominium, which says they owe $40,000 in common charges and late fees. Mr. Nahoum and Ms. Milewicz own roughly one-fifth of the building’s interest, so the arrears have forced the condo board to raise charges for everyone else, according to Jesse Newhouse, the board president.

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It's not a euphemism, and it has nothing to do with honor, at least not in the Japanese sense. It seems rather a tortured sentence, like the writer couldn't think of a better way to express the idea. I might have used an image involving, say, rowing: when there are five rowers and two of them ship oars, the other three have to work much harder just to maintain speed. Yeah, but that's tortured too. The fact is, I can't think of a shorter way to express that. I sympathize with the writer's predicament, but I'm glad it was his problem, not mine. –  Robusto Apr 14 '11 at 0:57
    
@Callithumpian / Robusto-san.It seems I made a primitive mistake. I took 'gravity' for dignity and authority as well-known photographer, so I thought the photographer’s reputation was pulled down by his ‌​being sued. The subject who is pulled down is not Ken Nahoum, but any other condominium owners. I'm embarrassed for  having made totally of-the-mark interpretation. Thank you for your teaching. –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 14 '11 at 4:36

2 Answers 2

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With a line like that, you almost don't need to mention the source. This kind of conflated phrasing is typical of The New York Time's local coverage. New Yorker magazine also indulges this kind of writing.

The cautionary tale is a familiar trope in literature. It refers to any story that illustrates the dangers lying in wait for the naive, the unaware, the carefree, or those who rely too much on the kindness of others, or the world at large. The average reader of the Times is a liberally-educated person who would quickly recognize this use of the phrase.

Gravitational pull is also a familiar term, but it seems exotic and distracting in this combination. The closer you get to a large mass, of course, the more powerful its influence; that's the idea. I can't get a mental picture of condominium owners maintaining some kind of group orbit, so the whole phrase doesn't work for me. Maybe the writer was thinking of "black hole." That metaphor suggests gravitational force that is powerful and overwhelming, but perhaps it's too strong for this story.

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The phrase Cautionary tale of the gravitational pull isn't a set phrase/idiom by any means, so we can break it down:

  • Cautionary tale - a story that is used as an example of what can happen if you take some particular action/follow a particular path/break a particular taboo/etc.

  • Gravitational pull - this is just using the standard properties of gravity, but doing so metaphorically. In this story, the failure of Mr. Nahoum/Ms. Milewicz to pay their common charges is pulling down everyone in their condo building.

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