Oy, it’s back – the theme of Donald Trump as prototypical Queens lout.
I gather this from this Sunday’s NYT, a review by Joe Klein of a new book by Maggie Haberman, both of whom I admire greatly. But somehow the lumpen masses of Queens County are still being connected with the disturbed, amoral thug who has terrorized the U.S. and the world since 2016.
As it happens, I grew up on a busy street, about half a mile from the Trumps to the west and the Cuomos to the east. Many of my friends went to grade school with Freddie Trump, older brother of Donald, and say good things about him.
But in the big picture, nobody is typical of Queens, which ranged from ethnic western Queens to the remaining open spaces of eastern Queens. In the middle was Jamaica High, one of the best schools in the city. (Nasty little Donald was sent off to private schools, where, theoretically, money would buy protection if not character uplifting.)
Was central Queens to blame for the criminal tendencies of Donald J. Trump?
That premise annoys me because I could name dozens of friends and acquaintances who worked for success in more socially-acceptable ways.
I will name only a few – Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who grew up a block of so from the Trumps, who came through a hard childhood to become a major voice in feminism and journalism (Letty has a new book), and Steven Jay Gould, a grade or two younger than me, who became a major scientist.
Nowadays, I follow the very public activity of two other Jamaica grads -- Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee from Yale, representing an urban ward in Houston, and Jelani Cobb from Howard, a bad right fielder for Jamaica (he says) but a terrific journalist and professor.
I submit that the striving ethos of Queens produced those four above, and thousands more, beyond the larcenous Trumps.
From our little chunk of Queens in mid-to-late-‘50s: the professor and NASA scientist, two civic activists from Jamaica Estates, our Class President-for-Life who has been air-lifted into Alaska in the winter to serve as teacher and community volunteer, and several judges, including one long settled in Washington State.
I could tell you about my Black pal in the Jamaica chorus who had to lobby against being stereotyped into vocational classes, and now has a doctorate and a career in a government agency. (We sang the school song at his recent Significant Birthday celebration.)
I could tell you about the Cleftones, who sang under-the-streetlights doo-wop harmony for decades.
Then there was the Holocaust survivor who played soccer at Jamaica and became a doctor out west. We had five doctors on the Jamaica soccer team. One could also sing. One became a med-school dean. One has been working at a Queens hospital in the worst of the Covid pandemic.
And speaking of doctors, one of the wittiest and smartest kids in Jamaica Estates graduated from college and then realized she could have become a doctor – and she did, years later, and has had an admirable career.
Two guys in the same radio-journalism class with me turned out to be well-known political activists for decades.
And another teammate (a doctor) and his kid sister (an academic) lived next door to the Trumps for a while. She remembers how her ball would bounce into the Trump yard and Terrible Little Donald, 4 or 5, would pounce on it and say, “It’s in my yard. It belongs to me.” Kind of like classified government papers, you might say.
By the way, the drive to excellence was not just a Jamaica High phenomenon. At nearby Forest Hills High, the star jump-shooter, Stephen Dunn, played at Hofstra and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. At Van Buren High, which sprung up in our eastern neighborhoods, a future lawyer, Alan Taxerman (the late and lamented Big Al to readers of this site), was sure he was the smartest kid in the universe, until he noticed that Frank Wilczek actually was. (Wilczek later won the Nobel Prize in physics – see Van Buren’s hall of fame.)
And then there were Central-Queens people who went into business, education, government, law, library work. Was there something in the air or the water of Central Queens that led thousands of us to socially-acceptable lives?
Joe Klein – again, a long-admired colleague – mentions elders making snide references to other ethnic groups.
Were we all Archie Bunkers?
I ask this because my household was a meeting place of the Discussion Group, organized by two upwardly-bound subway motormen, one white, one Black, kept at 50-50 ratio, comprised, by definition, of Queens bootstrappers with ideals.
My brother Peter recalls being a little kid, sitting at the top of the stairs, listening to loud voices and loud opinions -- but then refreshments would be served and voices would soften, laughter would commence. It was a lesson for the next generation. You could care – and you could get along.
What was the motivation for we rustics out there in Queens? Were we different from kids in “The City” A friend of mine was running with a fast little group from Manhattan, and I tagged along, impressed by how they knew the music clubs and museums and parks of Manhattan. (One of our new friends, a very nice girl named Gloria, actually lived on Park Avenue, facing the new Lever Building, and went to the very elite and public Bronx Science. I often wonder what became of her.)
As I look back, going into The City (by subway) reminds me of the John Travolta character in “Saturday Night Fever,” when he visits his dancing partner, who has moved up in the world. She shames him into losing a brutish edge to his Bay Ridge behavior. But that, remember, was just a movie.
We in Central Queens were pushed by post-war ideals and ambitions, many of our teachers setting examples of inclusivity. (By the way: New York City could not run Jamaica High in the 21st Century, so the city closed it down, history and potential be damned. See Jelani Cobb’s article: https://www.georgevecsey.com/home/the-new-yorker-analyzes-the-end-of-jamaica-high)
I tend to avoid all books about Trump. Just the journalism and the copious glimpses of Trump on the tube plus half a dozen meetings with Trump in less horrible times are quite enough for me.
I love the reporting by Maggie Haberman, and the many insightful works of Joe Klein. But being caught up in a Trumpian caricature makes my Central-Queens skin crawl.