Dust to Dust

by

03/15/2020

Neighborhood: Middle Village, Sunset Park

I blame Basquiat. He’s where my whole Trump grave fixation started, unlikely as that sounds. It was right after the holidays—January 2, 2018, to be exact (It’s nice of iPhones to keep track of photo dates isn’t it?)—that Carolyn and I first went to Green-Wood Cemetery. Generally we were there to explore: ostentatious tombs, towering magnolias—you know the whole Emily Dickinson bit. But soon enough, we found ourselves looking for famous people, and Basquiat became our particular prey. 

Late in the day, with a dark chill descending, we found ourselves way in the back part of the graveyard with the gates shutting in half an hour. Our rough Internet map was proving useless. Bleak thoughts of an all-night lock-in had begun creeping in when we finally spotted the monument—small, modest, different from its row of matching slabs only because of the few coins and trinkets left on top. Not exactly Jim Morrison, but still . . . it kicked things off somehow.

Fast forward to March, 2018: Trump has been in DC for just over a year when I somehow come across this Esquire article from back in 2016, run just before the election. It’s by Nell Scovell and describes a cemetery “tour” she and a companion had taken to locate the Trump gravesite in Queens: as in Queens where we live; as in Middle Village, Queens, just three stops down the M from our house in Ridgewood; as in almost walking distance. I show Scovell’s piece to Carolyn, and, after digesting the first few lines, she looks up with a grin. The hunt was on.

So the next Sunday—a bright, brisk day—we find ourselves standing at the Metropolitan Avenue stop, looking back and forth at the two massive cemeteries on either side of the wide street, clueless where to start. We decide to cross over to the North Side. As always, I’ve scanned my research superficially and remembered even less. For her part, Scovell also describes having the same location problem, which she wisely solved by asking a groundskeeper: “He told me I was in the wrong place. He turned my map over to reveal a whole other area of the cemetery marked, South Side. Scovell, of course, doesn’t have the advantage of being a male, so she couldn’t have known hallowed Rule One of the game Blind Search: NEVER ASK! So, long and short, our (you’re free to read this pronoun as “my”) own adherence to that guiding principle resulted in two lovely Sundays strolling among the massive North Side cedars, viewing crypts and simple slabs alike—all somehow equally attractive—and breathing the air of immigration exuded by two centuries of entombment. 

Graveyards and Donald Trump, I’ve learned, have a long, intertwined history. In one of the odder moments of his weird presidency, early in 2017, he got land-use approval to move his family grave site from All Faiths Cemetery to the now-infamous Trump National Golf Club Bedminster. Specifically, everything (i.e., every “body”) was to be dug up and transferred to a newly constructed “mausoleum” in the middle of the course. While this desire was typically Trumpish—Olympian and tres bizarre at the same time—it turned out to have at least a ten-year backstory; he’d quietly gotten a forerunner scheme through New Jersey zoning scrutiny some ten years earlier. Back then, in 2007, he’d told the New York Post, “It’s [meaning death, presumably] never something you like to think about, but it makes sense. This is such beautiful land, and Bedminster is one of the richest places in the country.” 

The mausoleum scheme apparently moldered until five years later in 2012, when, according to David Farenthold of the Washington Post, Trump came up with a slight revision: “The Mausoleum was out,” Farenthold writes, “instead he had a plan to build a large cemetery with more than 1,000 graves, including one for him. The idea, apparently, was that Trump’s golf-club members would buy the other plots, seizing the chance at eternal membership.” 

This blockbuster, as you might imagine, got scotched in the face of protests from his neighbors in Bedminster, residents of, as Farenthold puts it, “a wealthy horse-country town 43 miles west of New York City who proved quite content with the status quo.”

It was right at the apex of this controversy that Carolyn and I finally wised up and steered a course for the South Side. This part of All Faiths proved different in a couple of ways: For one, at least at the entrance we slipped through (we’d somehow instinctively avoided contact with anyone resembling a cemetery employee), the tombs were more contemporary—though just as ostentatious in their way. And they presided over the remains of more recent immigrants. For instance, we were right away greeted by a lavish, fenced-off, gold-trimmed spread memorializing (and presumably containing the remains of) a Chinese family. The close presence of Trumps was suddenly looming dubious.

Nevertheless we persisted. By this point, we’d downloaded some decent maps, ones identifying not just street names and sections but, more importantly, ranges of grave numbers by row. From there, Googling “Trump gravesite” provided us everything we needed, including a picture of the actual monument, featuring when magnified, its specific number chiseled way down in the corner. All this information (along with some chatty additions and useful genealogy notes) had been conveniently provided by an All Faiths support society. It was all these aids that sent us strolling over to the east side and down Frederick Avenue (Wonder where that moniker came from?).

The day itself was splendid—gentle breezes, hazy sixties temps (and Sixties vibes, for that matter), Ford and GM sedans pulled over onto the grass with small family groups standing nearby, even neighborhood kids riding bicycles. If anyone turned to look, we simply flashed One of Us smiles and sauntered on. The section we sought proved to be fairly deep in, so it took a while, and meanwhile the names on the tombs were growing more ominously Teutonic.

We could tell from the map we were getting warmer, entering territory that Scovell in her expedition had been denied by the nasty graveyard crew. As we got just one turn away from our target, we both noticed, seemingly lurking on the periphery of our vision, a figure dressed in black casually strolling just parallel to us on the next street over, perhaps 200 feet away. It was a man with a shaved head. And when we turned at the next intersection, as our map told us to, sure enough so did he, his path suddenly designed to intercept ours. As we grew closer I could see his black outfit was casual-seeming—sweat pants and a jersey—but tight-fitting enough to reveal a gym-sculpted physique. He also appeared taller than I’d originally thought.

We found ourselves tightly gripping each other’s hands and marching somewhat-less-than steadfastly toward whatever fate the Trump clan had in store for us. Talking didn’t quite seem this individual’s first instinct. Step by step we closed with him. And suddenly, he was by us, the ghost of a feral smile trailing in his wake. “Little people,” the cops’ term in Blade Runner for people with no power, silently echoed in my mind.

We carried on to the Trump family gravesite, which proved very, very close—really almost too accessible to warrant all the fuss—modestly situated on a nondescript corner, nothing fancy about it, no ornamentation to speak of, its neighbors equally blasé. No hint whatsoever of the gauche grandiosity of Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago’s bloated spread. We walked up and stared at the monument. On it were the male family names—Fred grand-pere, Fred pere, and Fred frere, along with those of the wives, Elizabeth and Mary, plus all their dates. Nothing else, only a pleasant day to be out strolling in a quiet cemetery looking at graves. The words dust to dust were all that came to me.

Fortunately, if for nothing else but the sake of the story, there is a bit more. On the way out of the cemetery, we were accosted by another cleanhead Man In Black, this one with a very large, leashed dog, also black. They waited just off the path, stationed where we couldn’t possibly avoid them, like they expected us, the huge beast panting, massive tongue lolling, clearly in a state of excited anticipation. When we got close enough, I saw that same slight smile cross the man’s face that I’d seen on the other one, and he suddenly let go of the mastiff, who bounded toward us, closing rapidly while we stood paralyzed, fixated by the whiteness of the teeth, the utter volume of the trailing saliva. Just before it reached us, there was the faint sound of a whistle, and the monster stopped in its tracks. In the movies, it always does, doesn’t it?

Where Trump’s scheme to replant his Queens ancestors in Jersey ends, no one can tell. He did come up with a substitute when the Bedminster neighbors got up in arms over a scaled-down, family AND friends (whomever this might include) version that had been approved by a local zoning board. In this plan, they all get hauled (as in ashes: sorry, couldn’t help myself) down to Mar-a-Lago instead. But that’s sort of disappeared too. In Jersey, he’s also been the victim of a prank art project wherein a fake graveyard, replete with scary music and glowing graves, suddenly appeared just down the road from the golf course, precipitating traffic problems and much jocundity at Trump’s expense. 

Oh yeah, and recently, the guys who’ve been running All Faiths Cemetery for decades, Daniel Austin, Senior and Junior,  got nailed by Trump’s favorite New York Attorney General, Letitia James. Turns out they’d been embezzling from the trust and the maintenance fund for decades. The board kicked them out on their butts. Might could be though, they’ve got a future in Florida—who knows with the power of the pardon?  

Basquiat? Well, I glanced at an Internet picture today, and he’s still packing them in over in Green-Wood.

***

Jeff Loeb is a writer who has lived in New York continuously since 2013 (and sporadically before that, dating to 1972). In prior lives, he enjoyed long careers as, in roughly this order, US Marine, bartender, construction worker, waiter, truck driver, furniture mover, college teacher, radio reporter, assistant city manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, and high-school teacher.

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§ One Response to “Dust to Dust”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    Jeff Loeb, thank you so much for immersing us in this wonder surreal tale, one which for better or worse revolves around NY’s own modern-day PT Barnum. Your terrific sense of humor captures so well the absurdity of everything connected with Trump and, frankly, cemeteries. I totally loved this and have been passing it around among friends. I look forward to more of your writing!

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