Reading at Trump Tower

by

05/09/2021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Jeff Bergman and the group

Part I. Project Runway

She sauntered by at noon, shopping bags swinging from both arms, striding toward the infamous golden escalators. She was attractive with a flowing mane and long gait. Mostly, I noticed the grey raincoat she was wearing; it was a bright, summer day outside. Then she got swallowed up in the atrium’s faceless mob oohing at all things gilded. My eyes returned to our reading, something from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, as I remember. Our group was circled around the reader, listening intently. I planted myself back in the text, and that was that. I thought.

At some point, I heard a rhythmic clicking—slightly off-beat: click-CLACK, click-CLACK. It came from our right, the same direction where the woman had gone. I glanced over. Nothing but a sea of fat bellies, Bermuda shorts, and I-Heart t-shirts. So I forced myself back to the reading, but then the clacking got louder. Suddenly, there she was again: the mystery woman, casually strolling our way, attracting rubberneck gawkers left and right. The raincoat was gone—stuffed in her tote bag, I guessed. Now she seemed more in-season, sporting a long-sleeved, olive t-shirt.

Everybody was gazing by then: tourists, uniformed flunkies, even the uncool klatches of suits waiting for the elevators to the high holy floors. All ears pricked up at the awkward click-clack. The woman’s steps seemed slightly wobbly. I saw then she’d changed shoes, switching from flats to enormously tall lifts—shiny-gold nine-inchers. Right up there with Melania Maleficent herself. 

Melania doppelganger

She teetered past, making her way toward the black-helmeted guards at the revolving doors. I followed her progress shamelessly. A topple and crash seemed very possible. I saw she had letters scrawled on the back of her shirt—possibly painted—all in bold white. “BE HUMAN AND CARE,” they read. By now, all nearby heads had turned. I wrestled the phone from my pocket and reeled off six or seven shots. Then, in a blink, she was gone, out through the garish doors, into the flood of people on 5th Avenue. 

Had she actually been there? I glanced around. All the liveried employees—floor cleaners, guards, elevator operators—were grinning shamelessly; the Trump acolytes, had turned away to look pointedly elsewhere. They knew no good could come of their gawking. Hidden eyes peered through secret camera to capture any infidelities. Off to my right I saw Jeff Bergman, our own fearless protest leader, smiling and poking at his phone screen. He’d grabbed photos of her too. In front of him, Kris continued reading to the members of our small group, unaware of the brazen woman’s silent march. 

It was those clacking heels that revealed the awkward runway gait of an amateur. Like me, Jeff had heard them. And suddenly I got it. The woman was a Melania doppelganger, lighting for those few brief seconds a bright candle in the sordid, declasse glitter and marble of Trump Tower lobby. It was just a few scant days since the other Melania, the “real” one, had tastelessly displayed herself walking across yet another runway—the type planes land on—to visit 55 separated children in a Texas detention center, all the while sporting her own curdled message: “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” What we’d just seen, right here in the belly of the beast, was a tall, stiff, middle finger being brandished at the place itself. The idea of the place, in fact. It’s kind of why we were all there.

Part II. Lies of the Land

Trump, as cheap a chiseler as any developer who ever fleeced the city, didn’t want his grand lobby open to the unwashed. New Yorkers know the development game is rigged. But this time “The Donald’s” wheedling caught up with him when he slapped together his Tower. Naturally, he broke every agreement in constructing his edifice: reneging on his pledge to preserve the limestone art deco bas reliefs and deco grillwork of the grand Bonwit Teller Department store that he tore down; hiring undocumented non-union immigrants as laborers; stiffing sub-contractors; and using mob concrete in some slimy quid quo pro. For all that, though, he wasn’t quite able to shuck the city code enforcers when it came to the use of space. 

As always with him, it was about money and vanity. He craved something big and black and tall, and he wanted it at 56th and 5th, as expensive a slice of commercial property as there was. And he wanted to exceed building height limitations and other rules in staking out his claim. 

For adding on twenty extra stories over the height, Trump agreed to a “public-space” giveback of the type one often sees in the city—basically public space that mainly benefits plutocrats. You see these deals all over Manhattan: pristine, nicely-planted walkways in front of skyscrapers, public art, and concrete benches for the footsore. What Trump did with his space is carve out a tacky, self-aggrandizing indoor mausoleum—the Trump Tower Lobby—vaulting up into empty air and generously featuring filtered views of real clouds. 

When the place first opened, he crammed all manner of pricey retail establishments into the lobby (another fudge of the rules). For a while, this cramped, cheesy mall brought in serious rental income, but Trump’s overarching greed caught up with him when his clients found themselves losing money. Apparently, the public wasn’t buying it—literally—and the retail tenants let their leases lapse. In the end, with the exception of a mezzanine Starbucks, Trump had to meet the mortgage by filling the place up any way he could. 

“Any way he could” turned into an all-Trump theme park: a restaurant, the “fabulous” Trump Grille; “Ivanka,” a pricey gift and clothing store curated by Herself and stocked with eponymous designs; the inviting (though somewhat shady) Trump Bar; a Trump Ice Cream Counter that never seems open; a Trump Golf Shop with all merchandise grandly embossed; two Trump Shoppes—both peddling official Trump “gear”; and, deep down below, the Trump Restrooms: free to use, not trimmed in Trump gilt, but providing much-needed respite in a city not known for its pissoirs.

Part III. “Lets’ Read”

Then, of course, Trump got elected President, and the hall of mirrors turned from grotesque to terrifying. Fifty-sixth Street was closed, traffic replaced by police guard posts; security from multiple agencies strode the lobby, packing M-4s or shoulder-holstered gats; checkpoints sprang up periodically on surrounding blocks; and, of course, 5th Avenue was aswarm with loud, raucous protesters.

Michael Elias and his grandson

Enter Jeff Bergman, founder, designer, and proprietor of the ad hoc group “Learn As Protest.” The week of the election, Jeff took to strolling over to this chaos from his office on 57th – not to shout or jeer, but instead to pursue an activity not associated with the Black Tower: Reading. 

Jeff’s protest chops go back, twenty-five years back, to high school and college. He has publicly opposed raw greed and the ill use of human beings by their self-entitled “betters” (everyone from politicians to developers to child molesters). He favors a neat coat-and-tie look, doesn’t outshout people (unless provoked), and uses the centuries-old seat of civilization itself—literacy—as his medium. Back in November of 2016, word of his Trump Tower protest spread and quickly blossomed, especially within the art community. His know-how and aplomb turned the sacred lobby itself into a protest site.

Jeff and company read daily through December 2016, with all kinds of participants. By the time I got tipped off, it was January. The hubbub had died down some and the press had thinned out. Melania and Barron were still around, but they kept out of sight. Inauguration Day provided the only real fireworks that first winter, when the normally deserted bar got engorged with cheering jackals in suits.

By inauguration, Jeff had cut back the public reading to once a week. The group gathered every Friday noon at the lobby benches (once ordered removed by Trump himself to keep riff-raff from congregating, only to have his scheme nixed by the City). Sometimes there were up to twenty-five of us; other weeks, it was just Jeff and me. Our readers ranged from teenagers to octogenarians, scholars to businesspeople, millionaires to nil-ionaires. Our rules were simple: Anything written was fair game—political philosophy, scalding opinion pieces, literature, history. We read it all: politics from Orwell to Lessig to Butler; literature from Twain, Atwood, and Morrison; poetry from Brooks to Yeats to Ginsberg; snippets from protestors past—Douglass, Dylan and Guthrie. The list expanded every week for four years.

We—the scores of us who read—shared a belief that the country had taken a terribly wrong turn and needed to be righted by peaceful means. Other protest groups joined us at times, some by plan, others who just happened in. When officials occasionally questioned our right to be there, Jeff quietly explained the City’s public-use rules to them. If we got challenged by the Tower’s more belligerent visitors, we invited them to read with us, anything of their choice. A couple actually did.

Police guard

There were counter-protesters too. A group of high-school cheerleaders showed up to do a screechy, yay-yay Trump number, pompons a-swirl, but the guards kicked them out for being loud and carrying signs—both no-no’s. A Kellyanne Conway look alike popped in once to advertise for a DJT Nobel Prize; she got put on the pavement after trying to scamper away from the authorities. Our only real public tiff came when an acrid, gnomish scoffer (I tagged him Quasimodo) tried horning in to shout over us. They took Quasi away too; it might have been Trump’s tower, but it wasn’t his police force.  

When the pandemic hit, Jeff set up a Zoom network and the readings went on. The final session happened—remotely, of course—on Halloween Eve. Perfect in a way, just in time for the national exorcism. Last time I got up to the Trump Tower, things had definitely changed. It was September: BLM had happened and Trump’s sour presidency was on the rocks. 

If he actually wanted to shoot someone out front now, I thought, he’d have to do it standing on a block-long yellow sign painted on the Avenue.

***

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 (WBAI – D.C. Bureau), assistant city manager, cable television company manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, academic writer, and high-school teacher

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