Trump in New York

When you’re out of the country and your heart sinks with each fresh news item from back home, the very best strategy to feel better is to think about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is America’s gift to travellers. You can start up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, at any time, just by saying, “So … Donald Trump, right? ” New Yorkers can be brusque and taciturn during their daily round, but on the subject of the Donald they gush forth like loosened Harlem fire hydrants on a hot August afternoon, and everyone in the neighbourhood gathers round to cool off and enjoy the spray. Three snapshots:

1. It’s impossible to avoid Donald Trump in New York. He’s everywhere, a frowny, jowly, pancake-headed piece of the skyline. He crops up even in the least Trumpy of places. In Central Park individuals can sponsor park benches and have small metal plaques affixed to their particular bench with their name and a few words of their choosing. Most plaques are tiny compressed gems of storytelling, cryptic line-sketches of lives. Any good city gives you the sense that the very air around you is dense with accumulated half-told strands of individual stories, that every life that has passed that way, no matter how bleak, broken or forgotten, has left some gossamer trace of its passing. New York is better at this than most cities. It feels as though everyone has a story, or several stories, and is always in the process of telling them. Maybe that’s what defines a great place: it gives its citizens the sense that they aren’t defined by grand narratives, by politics or economics or history, that they each have a tale of their own.

It was a warm sunny day and I was heading to the Met but I dawdled with pen and notebook, reading the flash fiction on the plaques, collecting some of my favourites: “Dear Lara, here I said I loved you, and here also we said goodbye”; “Ginger and Arthur, married 70 years, fell in love in this park over a sandwich”; “Something special happened right here, 14 November 2011”; “Well, Larry Grossman, are you happy now?”

I came to the next one: “Donald J. Trump and Melania Trump”. I stared at it for a while. There was something chillingly imperial about its starkness, as though Trump doesn’t feel that he needs a story – he has his name, and his name is enough. At least the plaque wasn’t gold. A man sat nearby, playing chess with himself. “No one ever sits on that one any more,” he said.

2. On the subway uptown from Christopher Street a rangy man with a guitar busked for spare change. He started up on something peppy from The Beatles, then stopped halfway and announced, “Folks, you don’t have to give me money. If you like my music, just don’t vote for Donald Trump. That’s my payment. It’s a free country, vote for whoever you like, so long as it’s not Donald.”

3. The Donald exerts a certain appalling magnetic pull. I surprised myself by wandering in off 5th Avenue, into the lobby of Trump Tower, and riding up and down the escalators like some kind of crazed hick. It shows the power of celebrity to make the meaningless seem significant: those were the escalators Trump descended to announce his presidential campaign, and at the time I laughed at Jon Stewart’s clip of him gliding down like a brazen Queen Victoria on the prow of a sinking ship, yet there I was, escalating between the mezzanine and the lobby like some star-struck dufus, wondering if I should take a picture.

It’s a place both weird and banal. The use of brass and reflective surfaces means it’s all a kind of fool’s-gold haze in there. It’s like being inside a mouth filled with unnecessary gold teeth. Every shop in the Trump Tower is named after Donald: Trump Café, Trump Grill, Trump Baby Boutique. I tried to find an open Wifi network in order to call home on the Donald’s dime, and I couldn’t help noticing that somewhere in the Trump Towers a disaffected employee is generating a Wifi network he has titled “donaldisajerkwad.”

Donald Trump won’t be president of America, I don’t think, although I’ve been wrong before, but it’s fun to think about him. He’s the pantomime villain who’ll be defeated in the end to reassure us that the good guys may not be as good as we’d like but they’re better than the bad guys, and good always triumphs. It’s a comforting thought when you’re about to fly home to a place where individual stories are being collapsed into an overarching grand narrative again, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find the good guys, or the happy ending.

The Times, 23 June 2016